Bridge across the LoC

IN Regional Media | 09/09/2015
People on each side want to know about the other side. But there is a huge information and perception gap between the two parts of the divided state.
ERSHAD MAHMUD and SHUJAAT BUKHARI explain their recent intra-Kashmir initiative


Can journalists on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir make a contribution to the peace process? Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar and Ershad Mahmud in Islamabad believe they can, by eliciting the opinions of ordinary Kashmiris and funneling them into the decisions made by policy makers. To that end, they have set up the Kashmir Initiative Group to highlight the voice of civil society.

Mahmud is a senior journalist in Islamabad whose columns appear in News and Dawn. Bukhari is editor of Rising Kashmir in Srinagar.  In an email interview with Sevanti Ninan, they explained what they hope to achieve:


What is the Kashmir Initiative Group (KIG)? When and why was it formed?  From where did the idea of an intra-Kashmir journalists’ conference come?


Ershad Mahmud: The idea of KIG came up during several civil society meetings and frequent interactions across the LoC. It was widely stated that the voice of civil society in the peace process is largely, if not completely, missing. Instead of listening to Kashmiris, Islamabad and New Delhi have been talking to each other. It was strongly felt that Delhi and Islamabad were out of touch with Kashmir’s local narrative and ground realities across the LoC.

We also have had a feeling that the discourse around the peace process was traditional and quite conservative. Hardly any new ideas have been coming up from citizens or their representatives during the last couple of years. In this context, we thought that this void should be filled. In 2011, around 12 individuals from either side of the LoC came together and after lengthy deliberations, we were able to formally establish the KIG.

We were conscious of the fact that there are already a large number of NGOs and groups working on the Kashmir issue and the addition of one more to the long list would serve no purpose. Therefore, we very carefully drew up our objectives. Our key objective is to get people’s perspective into the peace process.  We aim to empower local narratives through advocacy, research, and capacity-building, besides bridging the communication gap between local civil society and policymakers

I am pleased to let you know that so far we have published four policy briefs wherein we have discussed urgent issues. We had three launching events, two in Islamabad and one in New Delhi wheresenior politicians, policymakers and civil society activists were present.

We told them that the absence of a sustained political process over Kashmir and the frequent suspension of the dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi is hindering progress and complicating the situation. KIG has suggested that New Delhi and Islamabad initiate a structured dialogue and institutionalize the process, so that no incident, no matter the magnitude, could derail it.

Shujaat Bukhari: KIG is an intra-Kashmir peace-building platform, building bridges between community perspectives and policy makers. It came into existence after some of the like-minded people from academia, journalism and other shades of civil society felt the need to consolidate the voice of the people for creating a space for peace and living in harmony as also to bring relief to people who have been caught in the conflict for last many decades. And the intra Kashmir journalists’ conference was first step towards achieving the goal.


Does your identity as Kashmiri journalists transcend the divide imposed by the LoC?


Mahmud:Yes, people on our side of Kashmir--Azad Jammu and Kashmir--are emotionally attached to the Kashmir Valley. We considered ourselves inhabitants of the state whose future is yet to be decided. Therefore, the political situation in the Kashmir Valley hugely impacts Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Our identity is quite a complex issue as we live under the administration of the government of Pakistan but we are not constitutionally part of the Pakistani federation.

"Though as journalists our responsibility is just to report events and make comments on it, the circumstances and particularly the suffering of the people compelled us to play an advocacy role. "

Bukhari: Yes it does. We have suffered together due to this divide and restrictions imposed by the governments. There are lakhs of families, which are divided.


What did you want some of the younger journalists brought to this exchange to gain from it?


Mahmud:There is a huge information and perception gap between the two parts of the divided state. I have visited Srinagar thrice in the last few years and found that generally people do not know much about Azad Jammu and Kashmir, its structure and social life. Likewise, on our side, people believe that in Jammu and Kashmir only human rights violations occurand everybody is running a life under the shadow of the gun.

Therefore, we thought that journalists and particularly young ones should get a chance to visit both sides so that they can directly interact with the local people and see the ground realities without state patronage. We have arranged their meetings with their counterparts as well as with governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. Besides, they went to Muzaffarabad where met local journalists. 

Bukhari: The first and foremost thing was to help them to know each other’s perspectives, demolish the stereotypes built by vested interests for long time, help each other share information about the happenings on the both sides, and build opinion that helps to understand the situation in the right perspective.


What would you say was the most tangible outcome of this two-day meet?


Mahmud: They got an opportunity to interact with different people during their visit, including journalists from the mainstream electronic and print media, civil society, politicians from government and opposition, academicians and key policy makers. We provided them a platform to share their perspectives on various issues and identify needs and explore areas where journalists from both sides could contribute and work collectively. After the deliberations, they finally agreed to form a joint four-member group which would be responsible for content sharing between the different media organizations and also a joint working group of the journalists from both sides to further build up the linkages. Keep in mind that this was the first of its kind interaction.

Bukhari:  That many journalists on both sides know each other well and they are in constant touch. 

"There is now a network that will help defeat the designs of vested interests who want to thrive on the miseries of the conflict."


What kinds of professional exchanges do you expect will now become possible, even without increased physical access?


Mahmud: It was decided that newspapers of the two sides will make an arrangement for content sharing (news, features and photo aggregate) and publish apolitical stories from one another’s region. They will create joint social media groups. They will hold frequent interactions and conferences, particularly in the region. It is also decided that an interim body “Intra Kashmir Journalists’ Group”will be created for further cooperation across the LoC. Though communication through the LoC has become normal, hard copies of newspapers are not allowed to cross this line. Therefore, it was decided that journalists will try to ensure that hard copies are circulated through cross-LoC routes and that all the libraries have these newspapers.

Bukhari: I think it is possible with the advantage of technology. We can use social media to improve and sustain contact and we have already started work towards that direction.


What are the joint social media groups expected to achieve?


"Our major aim is to improve connectivity between the two parts and particularly among journalists so that they can build a public opinion that is based on accurate information instead of fiction."

Mahmud: Social media is the only tool which is quick and free to provide info to each other.

Bukhari:  The free and accurate flow of information is the key to achieve the goal of helping to build bridges and remove misinformation.


Why is it important for Kashmiri journalists from both sides to share content?


Mahmud:  People on each side want to know about the other side. We have a huge market on our side – people who are keen to get information about the Indian side, their life and aspirations. Even daily political stories are read here with deep interest.

Bukhari:  It is important because people on both sides crave to know about each other. They have been divided for so long which is why the Confidence Building Measures such as the cross LoC bus service and trade are showing results.


Do you believe there will be less misinformation circulating in the two Kashmirs as a result?


Mahmud: If we are able to develop linkages, then certainly the information gap will be bridged. Most of the people trust local sources.

Bukhari: I hope so and strongly believe that if journalists work as a bridge, the air of misinformation will go.


Given the restrictions on movement and the difficulty in obtaining visas, do you believe a meaningful exchange can be sustained? And that more meetings like this first one will be possible? Is this envisaged as a media track 2?


Mahmud: I’m pleased that the government of Pakistan allowed Kashmiri journalists to visit Islamabad, Muzaffarabad and Lahore despite growing tension and deteriorating diplomatic relations. I hope that India will reciprocate and allow us to visit Jammu and Kashmir. We do not have any ambitious plan to develop ourselves as a media track 2 etc. as we fully understand our constraints.

Bukhari: To my understanding it is possible but only if the governments on both sides try to understand the importance of these contacts. We are looking towards a visit in reciprocation from the other side of Kashmir and hopefully we should get the visas without any hurdle.


Did the SAFMA experiment peter out?  Can journalists really bridge a divide created by a border conflict when governments do not allow free access?


Mahmud: In my view, SAFMA has done great work in its initial years but gradually it has become a club of elite Indian and Pakistani journalists. Additionally, their major focus is to improve connectivity between Indian and Pakistani journalists. Kashmir hardly figures in their scheme of things.

Frankly speaking, we do not make any tall claim, we are only urging both India and Pakistan to allow us to freely meet and visit both sides of the LoC and report events. That’s all. Certainly, it will help both Delhi and Islamabad to improve their understanding of people’s aspirations. It might also help them to reorient their approach towards the people of the Kashmir.

Bukhari: I don’t know why they could not continue with that flow but the hostilities between India and Pakistan played a spoilsport. If the relations between these two countries remain normal - if not friendly - a lot can be achieved. 


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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