Former BBC journalist Andrew Whitehead covered Kashmir conflict extensively during troubled 90’s. On his recent visit to Srinagar, Saima Rashid talks to him about changes he observed on ground
Kashmir Life (KL): You have reported Kashmir extensively. How do you see post Burhan Wani situation in Kashmir?
Andrew Whitehead (AW): On the surface, if you walk around Srinagar it looks good. Business is coming up. Money is coming around. But if you look beneath the surface, young Kashmiris are very angry. I met an elderly Kashmiri women on my first day here who is not separatist minded and who has been here before 1947; she said something quite interesting to me “In 90’s young Kashmiris were angry but scared and now they are angry and fearless”. I don’t know if it is a general sentiment but I feel there is something in that; the way the tactics of stone-pelting has changed to break the military cordon. I just checked into a Kashmiri journalist who was saying “once upon a time when there was a gunfire people would run away from it, but now whenever there is gunfire, people run towards it. I call it a huge change. This part makes me quite uncomfortable because people are risking their lives and I feel anxious about that. It also suggests the hardening of attitude and part of me thinks if there is ever going to be resolution, it will involve compromise on both sides.
KL: As a historian and a journalist how do you see Kashmir narrative evolving over the last two decades?
AW: It has not particularly changed. I think in terms of slogans of Azadi what you hear has the meaning of that change over the last two decades. When I first came here, even Mirwaiz was very clear that Kashmir issue is a political issue; it had a religious aspect to it. And I would once describe Hizbul Mujahedeen as a religious nationalist organization; its principal target was nationalism; making Kashmir a nation. And now you hear comments of leaders of Hizbul Mujahedeen saying that nationalism isn’t compatible with Islam. So that suggests the religious dimension in Kashmir issue, looms larger for some Kashmiris. There are some positive changes as well like the expansion of local media; there was nothing like that in early 90s. There is now more fine art here; a little bit of cinema; something like rebirth of Kashmiri language as a form of cultural expression. In the 90s it was universally believed in India that Kashmir was an integral part of India. But today some people like Arundati Roy, Swaminathan Ayer, Prem Shankar Jha question, “Hang on a minute, it’s just not that simple. Why are we ruling a part of the country which shows no interest in being ruled by us”? That’s a change, though a small one.
KL: Stories from Kashmir often remain untold by the international media. Has Kashmir conflict lost its appeal for international media?
AW: I was myself wondering why doesn’t world take attention of what is happening here in Kashmir. So I did a little bit of asking. And I found a number of reasons. One is that there is a lot of competition in the degree of conflict like in terms of body count. So among Syria, Iraq and Kashmir who qualifies for the front page in terms of loss of human lives? And the second thing is with the editors. If the journalist asks his boss to let him cover any important story in Kashmir, he is asked what has changed there. Because India has clearly said that it is a security issue but I think it’s not just a security issue but a political issue too. I heard the speech of Narendra Modi on the inauguration of Jawhar tunnel and I couldn’t feel he had anything to offer to the valley. Kashmir is a small part and Modi wants to keep the insurgency under control. If you will ask me if India can live like this, I will say they can. A bit of criticism internationally won’t ruin their image anyway. Kashmir issue has not lost its appeal for international media but it is not usually on the front page but inside the pages which goes unnoticed.
KL: What is the role of terminology in shaping the conflict?
AW: I don’t work with BBC as of now but I know they have been always clear about the terminology. They call Kashmir as Indian Kashmir not Indian occupied Kashmir. They don’t talk about Pakistan occupied Kashmir or Azad Kashmir. We don’t simply label militants as terrorists nor do we label dead militants as martyrs. So we try to use a language which is descriptive but neutral because as soon as the international broadcaster uses a language which gives the impression of taking sides, it loses its reliability. However Delhi based media works in a particular cultural context so it varies, the word terrorist is spread around quite a lot, but that doesn’t mean the terrorism doesn’t exist. I think NDTV is doing a decent job broadly; they do give Kashmir a space. They try to be a bit impartial.
KL: Seeing the endless killings in valley, what do you think is needed; to textualise the conflict or to contextualize it?
AW: If you want to understand how to resolve a conflict, you should know how it all started and to understand how it started you need to go beyond a simple narrative to understand the complexity. And on the other hand you won’t solve the conflict on waving a piece of paper around and say this is what the resolution was in 1947 and 1948. No matter how much is there a moral right; the time marches on? You can’t go 70 years back. But yes, people should be having an idea of what happened back then.
KL: You have authored a book on Kashmir. What is it about and how do you see it fitting in the present scenario?
AW: Yes. It’s “A mission in Kashmir”. The book is a work of history. I made a radio documentary twenty years back for BBC, which was a series of radio programmes, about the livid experiences of partition. It was about what people on the ground went through. I met some elderly Kashmiris particularly in Baramulla and also in Srinagar who told me their stories about the 1947 and that made me think that actually what happened here was a bit more complex and nuanced than all the accounts. I spoke to about 40 people who lived through the event in late 1940’s here, not only local Kashmiris, but Indian soldiers, couple of missionaries too. And in Peshawar I was contacted to a veteran of the tribal Lashkar and some Pakistanis as well who had been here at that time. And then the book emerged from that as a means to look again at the events of 1947 and 1948.
KL: With BJP in power in New Delhi, do you see any meaningful dialogue on Kashmir in near future?
AW: I don’t see anything happening in the near future. But sometimes things can happen quite suddenly only if there is a political will and what I don’t see here is the political will.
KL: The current phase of conflict is different from what it used to be in 90’s, when you worked with BBC. What has prompted the change?
AW: I first came to Kashmir in 1993. Srinagar feels a city much lesser in occupation than it was in 90’s. Back in 90’s there used to be an informal curfew every night. And that is different from the city I have lived for past weekend. The visible military presence in Srinagar has lessened and there is some space for civilized society now. There is some space for Kashmiri media too which was not there before. Kashmiri business has emerged. You didn’t have anything like Goodfellas; Chaijaai, or Books and Bricks, or the Café Arabica. There is quite lot of building work here in Srinagar. And what I think is that young Kashmiris are angrier than they were in 90’s. And when it comes to militancy, Lashkar and Jaish has come up with the new style like fidayeen attacks. I am surprised by the way in which Burhan Wani was and is commemorated, it is something new and it feels to me that social media is one of its causes. He was someone people or youth could relate to. Unfortunately, the youth has lost their trust, not only in politicians but the separatists too.