US press is misinforming readers about Kashmir - Hindustan Times
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US press is misinforming readers about Kashmir

Oct 02, 2022 08:09 PM IST

Some of the international coverage India receives is because of what western media perceives as a hard turn to the Right. It is fair to be critical and to hold Indian leaders to account. But when such agenda employs dishonest reportage, the damage it does is to the cause of democracy and freedom — and press credibility

When I told my children that I was planning a hiking trip to the mountains of Kashmir at the foothills of the Himalayas, they thought I had lost my mind. They shared article after article from The New York Times and The Washington Post describing a dire situation there. These told of killings of Hindus, clampdowns on the Muslim population, Internet shutdowns, massive demonstrations against the government, and a general state of resentment and disillusionment. The Post just ran a depressing photo-essay and the Times claimed that life in the tourist-dependent region had come to a near halt, people were living in a state of misery and fear, and that houseboats were sinking because “hard-pressed owners are unable to pay for fresh caulk”.

The Kashmir I saw had an economy that was blooming, infrastructure better than in most parts of India, people who were so warm and friendly that they welcomed me into their homes and shared meals, and children of both sexes from nomadic tribes in mountainous areas receiving primary education. (AFP)
The Kashmir I saw had an economy that was blooming, infrastructure better than in most parts of India, people who were so warm and friendly that they welcomed me into their homes and shared meals, and children of both sexes from nomadic tribes in mountainous areas receiving primary education. (AFP)

After spending a week in Jammu and Kashmir in towns and remote villages and speaking to a cross-section of Kashmiris, I have come to the conclusion that these publications are simply spreading misinformation.

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The Kashmir I saw had an economy that was blooming, infrastructure better than in most parts of India, people who were so warm and friendly that they welcomed me into their homes and shared meals, and children of both sexes from nomadic tribes in mountainous areas receiving primary education.

The houseboats were in good condition and mostly booked; there were long lines at tourist attractions; and restaurants were overflowing with people. I certainly saw no sinking houseboats and sensed no desperation or misery.

At the University of Kashmir in Srinagar and the Islamic University of Science and Technology, most women wore headscarves, and a few were in full burqa — but there were also women in western attire, some wearing skirts, and no one seemed bothered. I also visited masjids, ancient temples, and gurdwaras and saw no fear or restriction.

Rather than traverse the popular hiking trails, I wanted to go to places few others went to, so I hired a trekking guide, Mehraj Ganai, who has lived in Pahalgam for his whole life. Mehraj took me on the most remote trails up the mountains and introduced me to several nomadic families who rear goats, sheep, and cattle there during the warmer months and move to the foothills during winter. They invited me into their mud huts, offered tea, and shared meals and life experiences. The hospitality was sincere, and many families refused to accept even a small gift in return until Mehraj told them that I would be insulted if they did not.

Such hospitality was common even in larger towns. The taxi driver taking me to Srinagar airport from Pahalgam insisted that I stop over at his house on the way and have a cup of tea with his family. They invited me to pluck some apples from the tree in their backyard and packed a bag of fruit for my journey. Have you ever had an Uber driver do this?

And as far as Internet access goes, I went prepared to be disconnected from the world for a few days, yet everywhere I went — including in the mountains — I had better Internet access than I sometimes have in the hills of Silicon Valley. I was constantly able to tweet about my journey and share videos.

It wasn’t all cheery. Conversations with locals made clear the Indian government’s unpopularity was real and mostly due to the draconian measures it has employed to rein in terrorism, unrest, and to remove the special statehood rights that Kashmir had. These shutdowns, Covid-19 measures, and the presence of security forces have taken a toll. By and large, though, the people there were more resentful of their local politicians — whom they accused of continually stirring up unrest, stealing government funds, and failing to improve services and infrastructure — than they were of New Delhi.

A common complaint I heard from the locals was that American tourists were not coming to Kashmir anymore; that most of the visitors were Indians and Israelis — who apparently don’t tip as well. This is the disservice that the American press is doing to their readers by misinforming them: They are hurting the people they claim to be helping and thereby hurting the Kashmiris too.

What is worse is that there seems to be almost no journalistic accountability despite repeated errors in reporting.

An article that The New York Times published on March 28 is exemplary here. Titled “General Strike Throws India Into Confusion”, the article claimed that [in the words of the paper’s Twitter feed] a… “two-day nationwide strike in India, involving both public and private sector workers, has disrupted transport and other services across the country. Workers are protesting the government’s economic policies, including a privatization plan”.

Yet there was no such strike. Indians who read the article were left wondering what strike the article was referring to. As an Indian TV channel, WION, reported: “In the southern Indian state of Kerala and the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, there were partial shutdowns. However, even there, essential services were not affected. In most other parts of the country, cars were moving freely on the roads, trains were plying as usual and government offices were functioning as usual. There were no reports of mass rallies from these regions, there was no violence and certainly no ‘confusion’ as the NYT chose to put it.”

Some of the international coverage India receives is because of what western media perceives as a hard turn to the Right. It is fair to be critical and to hold Indian leaders to account. But when such agenda employs dishonest reportage, the damage it does is to the cause of democracy and freedom — and press credibility.

Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur, and author and tweets at @wadhwa The views expressed are personal

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