Monthly Archives: August 2011

On Al-Jazeera’s ‘Kashmir: The Forgotten Conflict’ & surrounding debate

Yesterday, I got briefly involved in a debate on Twitter over a recent Kashmir feature published by Al-Jazeera. Now that I’ve read over the feature in detail, here are a few thoughts.

1) I have never been to Kashmir, and can only rely on external sources. Of all the text I’ve read regarding the Kashmir situation, Basharat Peer’s book ‘Curfewed Night’ remains my chief source; more than anything, I instinctively trust the way Peer writes. To me, he seeks not to offer an opinion or a solution but to present the facts as objectively as possible within an acknowledged context of his own experiences growing up in Kashmir. My opinion of this book has grown more and more as I’ve read other journalism about Kashmir that struggles to strike such a fine balance.

2) The content is not particularly well-written. Polarising & controversial opinion often gains merit through high quality writing, such as essays on Kashmir written by Arundhati Roy, but here, in my opinion, this is not the case. A narrative piece on village checkpoints struggles to provide meaningful details that put you in the setting and in the minds of the subjects. An opinion piece on the policy narratives of India and Pakistan begins with a self-aggrandising spiel, in which the writer notes his own success as a journalist, then goes on to awkwardly cobble together various sources to paint a flimsy picture of Kashmir as South Asia’s Palestine. As a whole, Al-Jazeera’s feature feels similarly cobbled together, a hastily arranged set of articles that are not particularly cohesive either together or as individual pieces.

3) The coverage presents a very clear anti-occupation viewpoint. Almost every piece includes editorialising language designed to convey the negative effects of the Indian security forces, as seen by Al-Jazeera, on the state of Kashmir. The frequency with which this kind of language is used is certainly frustrating and distracting as it detracts greatly from the journalistic integrity of the organisation and of the pieces themselves. References to the impact of the forces would be very reasonable information to provide in any article on Kashmir, and there is certainly a wealth of negative information to be found via a wide variety of sources regarding that impact; however, it is the frequency of those references, which are in nearly every paragraph of text and nearly every photo caption, which give me pause.

4) Nitin Pai (@acorn on Twitter), a very senior and respected commentator on Indian foreign policy (and many other India-related issues), yesterday lambasted Al-Jazeera’s Kashmir feature as ‘anti-Indian’. In spite of the feature’s obvious failings, this is a purely subjective viewpoint. While I think the anti-occupation sentiment comes very close to spilling over into anti-Indian rhetoric, that particular tipping point is not reached. This discrepancy may have more to do with mine and Mr. Pai’s interpretations of what constitutes ‘anti-Indian’ speech, which is an accusation I have had levelled at my own writing on several occasions, but my definition requires a more severe opposition to the Indian state and in a broader capacity than is written on Al-Jazeera’s Kashmir pages.

5) At the time I had not read (as I have now) over Al-Jazeera’s Kashmir coverage in detail, but I took issue with Mr. Pai over his opposition to the feature as propaganda originating from outside India. Here’s a timeline of selected tweets:

It’s easy to sneak blatant propaganda into news coverage in India, because calling them out will bring out of free speech loving friends
acorn August 11, 2011 at 19:09

I’m an unabashed advocate of free speech. But externally driven propaganda is about the amoral world of international relations.
acorn August 11, 2011 at 19:10

There’s no right to free speech in international relations. There is only power. And media power is being employer against India.
acorn August 11, 2011 at 19:12

So those who defend foreigners engaging in propaganda in India from abroad are naive & misguided.
acorn August 11, 2011 at 19:13

Challenging narrative dominance is a foreign policy issue.
acorn August 11, 2011 at 19:14

@acorn Goodness, what is happening here? They are publishing content on the (v. sensitive) Kashmir situation from… @Vidyut
BarnabyHaszardM August 11, 2011 at 19:15

@acorn …an Islamic viewpoint that is also critical of India. I do not see how one can dismiss it as propaganda. @Vidyut
BarnabyHaszardM August 11, 2011 at 19:17

@acorn I question yr judgment primarily as a foreign observer who frequently writes opinion pieces about India. @Vidyut
BarnabyHaszardM August 11, 2011 at 19:18

@BarnabyHaszardM I do not dismiss it. I oppose it.
acorn August 11, 2011 at 19:20

@acorn OK, can’t argue with that – but I took issue with yr ‘naive and misguided’ comment, & found it to be dismissive. http://bit.ly/qgItT5
BarnabyHaszardM August 11, 2011 at 19:22

[View the story on Storify]

Mr. Pai’s major bone of contention appears to be that this Kashmir feature was published by a new organisation owned and operated by a foreign state – Qatar – meaning that its anti-occupation content takes it out of the realm of free speech and into that of propaganda and international relations. Personally, I still consider Al-Jazeera to be primarily a news organisation (with an impressive track record regarding objectivity) and not merely a mouthpiece for its owners. This appears to be the point at which mine and Pai’s opinions diverge.

I fear that judging those who defend Al-Jazeera on the basis of free speech as ‘naive and misguided’ is a slippery ideological slope to start going down, and I say this from my perspective as an India-focused foreign observer. I have written numerous pieces for The NRI that are in one way or another critical of India or Indians, and been attacked as often as I have been supported. A very common sentiment among critics of my work has been that as an outsider, I am unqualified to make any critical statements of the country – a sentiment I obviously disagree with.

I imagine Mr. Pai disagrees with that sentiment too, based on his support of other foreign observers of India such as Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) and Jonathan Shainin (@jonathanshainin). However, I wished to point out my own reservations regarding his statements on Twitter yesterday. I acknowledge our clear differences of interpretation and opinion (respectively over what constitutes anti-Indian sentiment and the nature of Al-Jazeera as a news organisation), but wish to make it clear that I think this is a free speech issue above all else – and that those who defend my own opinion pieces for The NRI could very well also be judged as ‘naive and misguided’ by Mr. Pai’s criteria.

In summary, Al-Jazeera’s Kashmir feature may be shoddy journalism marred by blunt and inarticulate content – but I do not believe it is propaganda any more than content in The Hindu or The Times of India. The feature should be avoided, primarily on the grounds that it offers weakly written content of little fresh value to the Kashmir debate, but Al-Jazeera had every right to publish it.

Correction: I had at first used the phrase ‘occupying forces’ in number 3), believing this to be correct terminology. This has been amended to the more accurate ‘security forces’.

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Wake Up, John Donne

It was like those Middle Ages paintings of God & Heaven, clouds parting and light bursting forth – but the all-powerful bearded giant had been erased, leaving an enormous hole in which the sun could dance freely.

I was on my way home. The leaving-India saga had finally closed, in spite of more deathly bombs on the night of my departure. I would soon be reunited with my mother, and subsequently the rest of my family, for the first time in two and a half years.

Sat next to me on the red-eye from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur was Ashwin, a kind and extremely well-spoken purveyor of fine precious metals. (He took over the family business instead of following his dreams and becoming a pharmacist.) I don’t know if any of his clients in Zaveri Bazaar were hit by the terrorists, but I imagine he was pondering the impact of the attacks on his business. Or, perhaps he was looking forward to the 40 Years On high school reunion he was due to attend in Malaysia. Maybe he was simply asleep. In any case, I noticed the view before he did.

Nothing’s ever taken my breath away; neither did the stupendous sight out my window. It did, however, move me nearly to tears. That was partly a result of the moment being the culmination of a month of uncertainty over my future, not to mention a desperate final week in Varkala that sapped my last feelings of belonging in its insular, arrogant atmosphere. Still, it wouldn’t have mattered which emotions were coursing beneath my external mask. It was stunning enough to push me first through disbelief and then into a sort of cathartic ecstacy. I cannot adequately describe it, but nevertheless I will try:

The sun brilliant, full, yellow, rising. Magnificent columns of cloud streaked red, orange, pink & purple, the first plain rays of the morning hitting each droplet of moisture and becoming art. Bands of clear sky, the wild blue yonder thinned to white at its lowest point and left deep and calm at its highest, hanging like a mute witness in borderless layers above the sun. A spellbinding wonder in each direction. A sight to still any racing mind, to silence the music in your head and open mental doors that are usually closed.

Ashwin was looking past me now, out into an atmosphere where the magic hour had surpassed itself. We watched in silence as the sun’s fierceness grew and diminished behind thin streaks of water & ice. The Earth’s surface, to which we would return in just half an hour, was absent and forgotten.

I breathed in and out slowly to clear the lump in my throat and allow myself to just take in the view. I was sure it was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen.

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