Kashmiri leader Syed Shah Geelani and editor and former Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra died on the same day—1st September. Yet, the national media’s response to their passing away was a study in contrast. Lavish obituaries were written for Mitra, often by those who had worked with him, marvelling at his diverse interests, the analytical depth he provided to his political writings, and his influence on them. He was hailed for the uniqueness of his journalistic voice.
By contrast, the national media treated the passing away of Geelani as a news item worthy of publication only because he, even in death, was perceived to pose a threat to law and order in Kashmir. His hasty burial before dawn, carried out under the supervision of the police, became a testament to the state’s sagacity. His death was providence taking out the “thorn” from India’s flesh; a problem made less complex. The national press did not commission a friend or detractor to write on Geelani, as it had for Mitra.
A nation, it is said, carries out conversations with itself through the media. The contrasting coverage of the death of Geelani and Mitra shows the national media does not hesitate to mute certain voices. Or it glosses over the foibles of those who are votaries of the ideology of the Indian state.
Geelani and Mitra embodied the two extreme ends of India’s ideological spectrum. Perhaps the statement requires further refinement, for Geelani was a separatist who insisted on plebiscite in Kashmir, was hostile to the idea of even an independent Kashmir, believed his own national identity to be Pakistani, and advocated the merger of his state with Pakistan. Geelani is blamed for Islamising the secessionist movement, adversely affecting Kashmir’s economy through his frequent calls for bandhs, often heeded because of his popularity and credibility, and for endorsing the armed struggle that has been a factor behind the Valley’s suffering.
Mitra was contemptuous of all those who aspired to break away from India and supported or justified coercive action against them. A reading of his past writings would show that he did not have compunction in condoning the state’s abuse of human rights in places where militant secessionist movements had a degree of popular support, whether in Punjab or Kashmir. He admired officers who brutally crushed militant movements, regardless of their responsibility for the death of innocent civilians. Mitra espoused, unabashedly, the idea of a hard merciless state.
Mitra’s affinity for the Hindutva ideology was palpable in his editorial choices. He openly supported the Bharatiya Janata Party and believed India’s destiny was to become a Hindu Rashtra. His switch from Left to Right was noted in most obituaries. This transformation was, however, not as benign as has been made out.
I never had a reason to complain against Mitra in the two years I worked with him. But those who were in the news bureau bristled at how their stories were reworked to project the BJP. Or underplayed or binned to ensure it was not to the disadvantage of the BJP, of which he later became an MP. Yet, it must also be said, as obituaries for him did indeed, that Mitra’s knowledge of India’s popular culture was deep, evident from the felicity with which he wrote on films, music and books.
In contrast to the glowing tributes paid to Mitra, the national media skipped commissioning obituaries for Geelani. His past was recapitulated, in brief, in news stories, often without a personal touch, barring an exception or two. Geelani may have been an implacable foe of India, but his role in contemporary history is of undeniable significance, immeasurably greater than that of Mitra. It would seem the national media takes its cue from the Indian state in the portrayal of those whom it considers villains, who are therefore blanked out or made to appear bereft of any exceptional qualities, let alone humanity.
It is difficult to decide who is worthy of obituaries? Ann Wroe, who has been the obituaries editor of The Economist since 2003, has a simple rule, spelt out in an interview: “I think that it should always be about what’s the best story [of the week].” She has written obituaries of global leaders and celebrities; in short, all those who are household names. Her list, however, also includes people like Marie Smith, the last surviving speaker of the Eyak language, who died on 21st January 2008.
In that interview, Wroe was asked about her controversial obituary of Osama bin Laden. “You could just write a rant about how evil he was,” Wroe said, adding, “I don’t want to write what everyone else thinks of the person. I want what they thought of the world.”
Wroe’s obituary of Osama described his role in launching the global jihad. Yet she also etched out his humane side: “Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday… Yet the best thing in his life, he said, was that his jihads had destroyed the myth of all-conquering superpowers.”
Geelani, by Wroe’s yardstick, was certainly a compelling story. Consider this: he was the son of a daily wage labourer, walked 18 km, often on an empty stomach, to reach his school, was taken to Lahore by a historian with the promise of educating him—but was then made to work as a domestic help there. His rise from poverty to emerge as among Kashmir’s most popular leader over the last three decades is spectacular.
Geelani never diluted his political position or engaged in compromises. Even Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf felt the edge of Geelani’s stubbornness when he flatly refused to endorse the four-point formula for resolving the Kashmir problem that Manmohan Singh and Musharraf had evolved. These details are in journalist and Geelani’s son-in-law, Iftikhar Gilani’s piece in the Frontline and Kashmir Life, which have both print and web presence.
But personalised accounts of Geelani were few and far between—and mostly appeared in the digital space. Political scientist Sumantra Bose wrote for the BBC website about his first meeting, in 1995, with Geelani and the frank discussion they had. A very interesting obituary of Geelani was written by journalist Ahmed Ali Fayyaz for his Facebook page and was subsequently published in The Print.
Fayyaz speaks of his meetings with Geelani and the tough questions he would ask him at press conferences. Yet Geelani never held that against him. Fayyaz writes, “Notwithstanding my unapologetic opposition to violence of all shades and the gun culture in Kashmir, which I believed would only destroy Kashmir, Geelani Sahab used to address me affectionately as “Lala Phalia” (Oh my eyesight).”
The failure to feature an obituary of Geelani shows why it has become nearly impossible for the nation to converse with itself through what is grandiloquently called the national press or media. It prefers to speak the language of the state. This is one reason behind the growing disquiet in the country.
The author is an independent journalist. The views expressed are personal.