Dead eyes and dead conscience

Many of you must have seen the documentary recently aired on Al Jazeera, Kashmir: Born to Fight. Although a well-intentioned film, its title seems a little bothersome. It puts an implicating optics on Kashmir and Kashmiris. This title makes it look as though the problem is because Kashmiris are the troublemakers — they “fight” forcing the State to use violence to counter them. And hence the killings and injuries and blindings and all that follows. This is the facile stereotype media usually employs in its depiction of the Kashmir situation. Kashmir isn’t that simple that it can be reduced to the binary of action and reaction. It is like an onion — layer after layer after layer, each one tougher to peel off than the previous one. To simplify matters for its own convenience, media often takes the easy route of clipping away the antecedent events of politics and history, so vital to any rudimentary understanding of the Kashmir situation or any of its many facets. Can we understand why this teenager is throwing stones, or that soldier’s mindset, who is sanctioned and armed to kill or blind Kashmiris, by sanitising these acts from Kashmir’s history? The media is often guilty of applying reductive methods in its presentation of the situation in Kashmir. The entire issue then becomes a straightforward case of cause and effect scenario — that Kashmiris come out on streets to stone the soldiers and the soldiers respond with bullets and pellets. This is sheepishly simplistic. And misleading too.

Born to Fight opens with a ding-dong battle between stone-throwers and soldiers in the alleys of Srinagar. To add drama, the film’s presenter-reporter is there on the scene amidst all the violence — a dated technique of documentary-making. As stones and teargas shells and fourth-grade profanities fly back and forth, Kashmir’s ‘reality’ is thus established in just a few minutes. Great job this! It only helps reinforce the already distorted perspective through which Kashmir is viewed outside. Perhaps an international channel of such standing could have thought better so that viewers can make sense of things in the proper context.

If you look  how viewers have responded to this film in the comments column, you get a feel of how quickly any mention of Kashmir degenerates into a hate war mostly directed against Kashmiris. These comments also point to the demented mindsets with which Kashmir and Kashmiris are viewed. As always, the ubiquitous ‘five-million-Pandit- genocide’ walla is duly there spewing toxicity on Kashmiri Muslims. Whatever effect presentations like Born to Fight may otherwise have is instantly  lost in the din of such odious comments. Media houses of repute like Al Jazeera would do themselves and the readers/viewers some service if they block such offensive comments so that a healthy discussion on the issue ensues.

The film also creates a rather mock drama. The presenter-reporter sets off to a secret rendezvous in a barren smoky patch of land for a one-to-one with some self-confessed stone throwers who, at best, are confused about their politics. Sad, the film presents them as spokesmen of the resistance movement. If this isn’t enough, one stone thrower goes on a sugar rush induced by his heady vision of the way forward in the azadi movement. He wants to be a suicide bomber. Perhaps the Kashmiri freedom campaign can’t have a worse advertisement than this, that too before a global audience. This ‘aspiring’ suicide-bomber boy, who identifies himself as Jan, is a lone wolf voice, not representative of how Kashmiris generally want to go about their azadi movement. Inaccurate and misleading depictions like these, in effect undo whatever sympathy Kashmiris may have in the outside world. These characterisations also lend justification to the State’s violence against civilians — kill or blind them before they put on the bomber jacket.

Al Jazeera’s or this film maker’s intentions aren’t in question here. Problem is the presentation and treatment of the content matter. News outlets often take the easy route of rolling off decades-long people’s struggles with the treatment style of a 3-minute news package with dramatic visuals, strong soundbites but a missing all-too important background.

Born to Fight carries the story of a 13-year-old girl, Ifrah, blinded by pellets in one eye and left with 10% vision in the other. Ifrah was seized by soldiers outside her home in Pulwama, first thrashed, pinned down and then pelleted pointblank. Impact of Ifrah’s story and the severity of State-sanctioned blindings in Kashmir are somewhat lost as it gets buried in the film. Stories of systematic blindings in Kashmir carried out by State forces are worse than killings. This issue demands a full-length documentary, not customary fleeting superficial mentions. Al Jazeera often does brilliant in-depth 50-minute documentaries on such issues elsewhere in the world. But sadly, this is Kashmir standing alone in the cold with her blinded youth.

There is something very touching in the film about Ifrah. As she waits around with her grandfather outside the ophthalmologist’s clinic, she says something very disturbing to her grandfather. “Bae chheas khoczaan — I am scared,” she says twice in a muffled voice. What is this khoczan or fear about? Is she scared about the ghost images she is seeing floating around with her 10% vision? Or, the emotional and physical disorientation engulfing her? Or, is it about what happened to her in a few fleeting seconds that took her vision away? Or, is it about the impending bad news the doctor will deliver to her? Or, is it about the absence of what was visually present with all its splendour and ugliness just few months ago and has suddenly gone forever? Or, is this khoczan about the rest of her life where a world of darkness awaits her? Ifrah’s grandfather tries to comfort her, but the comforting is lost in the darkness she is drowning in. At 13, she can barely make sense of what it all means, let alone come to terms with it. Later, when the the doctor prescribes another painful surgery, Ifrah cringes up in fear. She doesn’t want any of it any more. “Bae gatche garre— I want to go home,” she immediately tells her grandfather in a state that reflects total despondency. Ifrah’s innocent entreaties to her grandfather, her broken self, her helplessness and the intensity of the storm that is sweeping her away from within are too overpowering to not make you cry. One wonders what the men who blinded such a tender soul, or those — the high and the powerful — who authorise the use of weapons that blind, would say to Ifrah were she to knock at their fortified castles ask them, “Why did you do this to me?”

Later in the film, Ifrah alludes to her inner psychological convulsions  as she implodes and explodes with revenge, anger, helplessness and trauma turning herself into a self-damaging recluse.

While the thousand-plus youth blinded over the past nine months or those since 2010, may be getting whatever medical treatment they can afford, the cycle of an unending psychological trauma they are trapped in is going unattended. That will prove ruinous for them in the long term destroying whatever is emotionally left in them. Our society, apathetic as it is, often leaves these victims to their own fate as palatial houses, plush cars, expensive gadgetry and shopping binges become our priorities.

A related aspect of this mental morbidity afflicting the State and those championing its vicious policies is reflected in this film as well. The film’s presenter is denied interviews by India’s National Security Adviser, Home Minister, Defence Minister, State police chief and others whose voices matter in this case. The State has no answers to  the sufferings being inflicted on Kashmiris. It doesn’t therefore want to be questioned by outside journalists over its policy of systematic abuse of civil rights in Kashmir which it needs to perpetuate the status quo. Credit must be given to foreign media outlets like Al Jazeera, Guardian, New York Times for picking up aspects of the Kashmir story which the Indian media, independent as we are told it is, has ignored in support of the State’s relentless use of violence against civilians in Kashmir.

While interviews by the actual architects of the repressive Kashmir  policy in Delhi are denied, the dirty work of justifying the military repression and the concomitant large-scale civil rights abuse is left to India’s political proxies here in Kashmir. The film manages an interview with the State government’s official spokesman and senior minister Naeem Akhtar. What he reveals in his tone and approach is deeply disturbing. Naeem’s  interview shows how dismissive and heartless the Indian states political proxies in Kashmir can get over the killings, blindings and torture of civilians of whom they claim to be elected representatives. Naeem sees these horrendous acts only as a ‘perception’. He callously characterises the killing of over a hundred people, torture, maiming and blinding of thousands others as ‘imaginary assaults’ meant to ‘orchestrate’ the situation.

When the film’s presenter reads him out a report of torture by State forces, Naeem yawns almost saying, “Get lost, I don’t give it a damn.”

The presenter presses for a time frame on the investigations of rights abuse, Naeem is non-committal. “I don’t know (how long it will take),” he says with an ice-cold dismissive expression on his face as if nothing has happened.

Ifrah and over a thousand others have been and continue to be blinded, and that is a sad story. But what is sadder is that the conscience of those in power who oversaw the blindings and the orgy of violence has also been permanently blinded.

Sometime ago, journalist Parvaiz Bukhari quoted an unnamed PDP leader in a piece in scroll.in as telling him this hideous thing: Kashmiris are destined to be raped and we want to make the rape a little easier on them. The sick mentality behind such remorseless statements and Naeem’s dismissive remarks in the film is not limited to individuals alone. Such statements and mindsets are symptomatic of the depraved approach of the entire clique of collaborator  politicians in Kashmir. It is also part of the collabrators’ dog-whistle politics — a way of relaying their loyalty to their masters to consolidate their proxy status.

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