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What is wrong with Barkha Dutt’s “We the Women of Kashmir” show?

When Benjamin Disraeli said that “The East is a career”, his words were bound to give way to a broader meaning not limited to a particular ‘The East’ only. It was about the then general trend of privileged Westerners building their careers, individual as well as civilizational, upon their self-produced heaps of manipulated knowledge about the East and doing the ‘service’ of (mis)representing it by monopolising the stages of discourse on and around it.

Kashmir is like that ‘The East’ for its West called India, with journalists every now and then flying from Delhi to Srinagar on vacations, doing photo-ops, speaking to a handful of selectively chosen people and going back with manipulated stories and blinkered narratives to tell the outer world about the ‘ground realities’ and ‘other shades’ of Kashmir. One difference, however, is that some of its own people also get trapped in this quicksand and allow themselves to be used as erasers for obfuscating the truth and giving the process a charade of credibility and genuineness.

Last week, on Tuesday, April 16, Barkha Dutt, a known voice in Indian national media, was in Kashmir, for a female-only show titled “We the Women of Kashmir: Female Perspectives on Polls in the Age of Machismo” for HTN News Network at Mughal Darbar, the famous Srinagar restaurant. She was hosting a total of five Kashmiri women from varied backgrounds ‘representing’ the ‘women of Kashmir’ during their talks while relishing a traem (platter) of wazwan (traditional multi-course cuisine).

For someone born and grown up in Kashmir like me, it was a gross misrepresentation of Kashmir before the already ill-informed and truth-deprived outsiders. The dodgy use of the plural ‘we’ was totally uncalled-for, as the guests didn’t enjoy the required agency and authority which would have given them the necessary characteristic of being representatives of and do justice with the common ‘women of Kashmir’. While I have no qualms about them being an indigenous cross-section of the Kashmiri society deserving to be heard, hosting them for a topic as complex as Kashmir was a far simplistic approach to a vexed problem.

While it had a bold ‘POLLS’ written in its title, apparently because stuff with keyword ‘election’ creates a melodramatic effect and sells to a greater audience amid the ongoing elections, it was about anything but polls. The show went along, for its larger part, just with the guests promoting their self and their careers, as I will specify in a while, the issues in the title (Kashmir and polls) were pushed towards the last few minutes.

While the title was ‘Female Perspectives on Polls’, bizarre it was to watch two of the guests, Fiza Nazir and Saba Shafi, straightaway showing their indifference to politics and polls while the two others, Shuja Tasleem and Shehryar Khanum, giving turbid comments with no clear answers to the question at hand – How will the women in valley vote? Couldn’t it have been proper to ask Nazir Ganaie, in addition to his rabaab-playing at the opening of the show, for his brief views on ‘polls’, for he might have been better informed and opinionated about the situation at the ground as a journalist? How much would have giving him a chance added to the ‘machismo’? The fourth, Rizwana Sanam, however, spared no chance to tell the local audience that she is contesting the ongoing elections and they should take no risk of not voting for her.

Rizwana Sanam, who happens to be a physiotherapist, is contesting the parliamentary elections from the ‘stressful south’ of Kashmir, as she described it, as a new independent entrant. All she had to build her case upon was that “people in the valley don’t like Mehbooba” while she can be the new ‘youth voice’ taking ‘no emotional decisions’. The abortiveness of her claim can be gauged from the fact that she is in the fray against some big names including the former Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, and Hasnain Masoodi of National Conference who will take the lead expectably.

Her popularity became evident the day she went for a press conference last week with a few odd journalists questioning her for five minutes or so with no people to accompany her while submitting the nomination papers. Funny it was to watch her saying that she can better represent the people for her experience of ‘knowing how the parliament works from her legislator friends’. I myself, as a resident of the constituency she is contesting from and well aware of its when and what, haven’t witnessed any of her ‘village-to-village campaigns’ in the area where stones welcomed the cavalcade of Mehbooba Mufti last week.

More comic it was to see her interposing by saying “people should vote for me” when Fiza told that she has started to get supportive texts even from people who would earlier oppose her for the unpopular decisions she took. Nothing better was her condescending tone towards the end when she told that “everyone wants a change but no one supports the right candidate”. What would be her reaction if, by a long stretch of imagination, she ever gets elected and someone of her opposite candidates tells the same about her?

Saba Shafi, who is a beautician by profession and was honest to tell about having got supportive parents, told nonchalantly that she has ‘no interest in politics at all’ and will cast her vote in Delhi, yet she is invited to the show ‘interpreting the Kashmiri vote’. She couldn’t, however, resist herself from deriding the religious-minded of her society for questioning her choice of a career unpopular to a Muslim-dominant Kashmir.

Isn’t it normal for people to be curious to know why someone takes such a less-opted path in a place where a majority of women still prefer to wear modest attire as they see it as their loyalty towards their religion? Her ridicule could have been proper had someone stopped her from pursuing her choice in an increasingly pro-choice world. Rest is normal and expected in a society which identifies itself with some religion by conviction. While situating the problem of misogyny within religious-inclined men of Kashmir only, the same attitude by women was painted as ‘not Kashmir-specific only through’ to show her stark double standards.

Shuja Tasleem, a young writer, had her heartrending yet inspiring story to tell. It was of her mother subjected to long-term domestic abuse at the hands of her own husband after she gave birth to this girl child against his wrongful wishes of having a boy. Even though she too hadn’t anything special to say about elections, she was mainly right in advocating for a woman’s right to choose her man and to get out of an abusive relationship, both of which are recognised by the religion of the largely Muslim society of Kashmir but denied at times due to some condemnable social constructs.

However, conceptually mistaken was her notion of strike and hartals having something to do with any villainous act in society. She was asking why there was no public outcry on the recent incestuous rape of a girl by her father in Bandipora area of Kashmir which later pushed her to commit suicide. While she questioned if the same silence, though it wasn’t precisely the case, would have been experienced had the crime been done by a CRPF man, she mistook an isolated crime with a more personal character and possible anywhere in the world with something particular to Kashmir, given cases like Kunan-poshpora mass rape and 2009 rape and murder case of Asiya and Neelofer on its record.

Calls for the strike are given against wrongs done by a democratic state and not individuals catching whom and subjecting to the law is the responsibility of the police. Yes, the same police another participant, Shehryar, is seen showering praise upon for their ‘helpfulness and cooperation’ minutes before in the show, but which has failed to play any appreciable role so far in such cases and has also failed to make a breakthrough in this particular case.

Shehryar Khanum, preferring to call herself an activist than a lawyer and the eldest among the guests, expressed some wisdom. Even if she, like others, hadn’t much to say about the ‘polls’ in the title, she was the only one to bring forth some real issues like lack of shelter homes for women (abandoned obviously), denial of access to places of women abuse happenings during law and order situations and denial of spotlight to societal issues in a place where political conflict has taken a permeating centre stage. She also, towards the very end, gave the outer world a message that Kashmiri people aren’t dumb to tell their stories, but intelligent, and the people from outside should ‘see them more’ and cover the multiple dimensions of Kashmir.

All this, however, couldn’t stop her from painting the whole Kashmiri society of being involved in abusing women in public transport. Her saying that ‘abuse in public transport is so rampant here’ is a grossly insulting generalization. Though it would be dishonest on my part to completely deny her claim it needs to be put on record that Kashmir is a place with a unique tradition of men offering women their own seats in overcrowded public vehicles.

While she claimed of being witness to a number of people dropping out of schools and colleges, she lacks awareness, or is pretending so, about the cases where girls were compelled to drop out of pursuing their dreams due to government forces forcing them to take off their veils during frisking parades on their way to college. Even in the first week of this month, a minor girl student was manhandled by forces at Lethpora on the Jammu-Srinagar highway on her way to school when the civilian vehicles were halted to give passage to the daily army convoy. Who will speak for such victims where the state owes the responsibility to act?

Fiza Nazir, the 19-year old martial arts player from Downtown area of Srinagar, can be spared for being the youngest among the guests and thus voicing simplistic complaints like ‘political leaders not helping her with her career’ while she prefers to be ‘not connected to and disappointed about politics’ in a state where promoting sports and investing in it was a very much closer-to-heart project of the previous PDP-BJP government and Narendra Modi’s Khelo India to keep the youth away from involving themselves in the local narratives like Azadi and grievances about the government.

Barkha Dutt, the lord in the ring, has again preferred to go after a shade of Kashmir that remains safely below the permissible ceiling of her self-serving ‘national interest’ and doesn’t conflict with her ‘my nation – right or wrong’ dogma which has earned her the taunt of being an English-speaking ‘soft sanghi’. This is happening at a time when the whole local population is being denied its legitimate rights. This isn’t for the first time locals feel cheated by her journalism. She was even recently called out by a local Kashmiri scholar for blatantly ‘misrepresenting and obfuscating the realities on the ground and painting simplistic pictures’.

While there are many who are at liberty to come to meet their self-chosen local ‘cross-sections’ and go back with manipulated stories and manufactured narratives, Kashmir is waiting for journalists who can read the writing on the wall and do some real reporting, even if that be a 10-minute vox pop in place of a long 42-minute show. #OnTheRoad2019 should have been about that and meeting the people who have been up in dissent ‘on the road’ during these years of violence and thus make them feel ‘represented’ which it utterly failed to do.

Mudasir Nazar is a freelance writer from Kashmir.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.