Words and their meanings

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Opinion | 08/07/2010
The language used to describe those who protest in Kashmir is not just a matter of semantics. It is important because it places what is happening within a context,
says KALPANA SHARMA. Pix courtesy: worldsikhnews.com

Second Take

Kalpana Sharma



It is interesting how in the current standoff in Kashmir, with curfew imposed in Srinagar and even journalists not being allowed free movement, the phrases used to describe those confronting the security forces are consistently careful in most of the English language print media outside Kashmir.  The angry young men of Srinagar, Baramulla, Anantnag and Sopore are being called "stone-pelters" or "stone-throwers" or just the generic term "protestors".  Although some reports hint that some of them might be paid to provoke the police and the CRPF, nowhere is the word terrorists, or even separatists, used to describe those participating in street battles in Kashmir, notwithstanding their battle cry of "aazadi".


Is this because the bulk of the reporting, as the situation developed in the last month or so, is by Kashmir-based reporters who have followed the story, and the process leading to the protests, rather than by parachute journalists from Delhi or elsewhere who land up when there is a high drama?


Speak to journalists in Kashmir and you will find that many are extremely sensitive about the terminology that so much of mainstream Indian media uses without pausing to think about the meaning.  In fact, on a news programme on NDTV on July 7, the day curfew was imposed on Srinagar, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, the "moderate" Hurriyat leader, took the Indian media to task for calling the young men on the streets "hooligans" and "trouble-makers" without understanding why they have taken to the streets.


Another example is the generally accepted view that the higher turnout in the last elections in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the increase in tourism, adds up to a return to "normalcy".  Or that ordinary Kashmiris are now willing to settle for better governance, basic facilities and a "peaceful" life rather than demanding "aazadi".  Many journalists accept this conclusion without question.  Thus, through the summer, when tourists from all over India flock to the beautiful valley, you will find articles about "normalcy" in Srinagar and elsewhere.


Yet, when the street battles escalated, particularly in the course of the last month, many readers in other parts of India must have wondered why?  Were these young men provoked, paid to throw stones?  Or were they nursing grievances for months and years that finally came to a boil with the increase in civilian deaths and the lack of response from New Delhi on the demand for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Is it possible that the media did not probe deeply enough to assess the mood of these young people in the beginning, or to understand how widespread was the feeling of disillusionment and disappointment in the valley? Could it be that journalists from outside Kashmir underestimated the power of a Shopian or the fake encounter of three young men in Machil and presumed that a surface "calm" meant that things were indeed "normal’?  Could it be that journalists have been seduced by the language and phrases used by the authorities in relation to Kashmir and as a result overlooked the gaping wound of unresolved political questions that remains open?


I would suggest that the surface changes have not touched the deeper disappointment and disillusionment in Kashmir about the long-term future of the region.  Thus, it is not "peace" that ordinary people want; they stress they want a "resolution" to the Kashmir question.  They want development and jobs, yes, but they also want a political solution.  These are not mutually exclusive.  And for us in the media to believe that participating in elections settles open and unresolved political issues like Kashmir is naïve at best and foolish at worst.


The language used to describe those who protest in Kashmir is not just a matter of semantics.  It is important because it places what is happening within a context. Thus, what is significant is not that people are using stones instead of guns, as some reports suggest, but that young people are daring men with guns, even at risk to their lives, because their anger and frustration cannot be contained any more.  We need to comprehend this anger that fuels the "stone-pelter".


Writing in the context of the Middle East, veteran journalist Robert Fisk, who has covered the region for over three decades, talks about language and semantics in his column in The Independent.   He discusses the use of phrases like "spike in violence" when what is actually meant is an increase in violence, about the unthinking repetition of phrases like the "road map to peace" or getting it "back on track" or even the tautology "deadly massacre" when all massacres are necessarily "deadly".  Many of these phrases emanate from official briefings and become part of the lexicon of journalists.  Fisk questions this unthinking adoption of terminology and what it represents.  He writes:


"Power and the media are not just about cozy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.


In the Western context, power and the media is about words ??" and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops ‘correct’ our spelling, ‘trim’ our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?"

The context of Fisk’s comments might be different, but the point he makes is apt for Indian journalists, whether we cover Kashmir, the Northeast, or the so-called "Naxal-infested areas" in India.


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