Mirza Waheed’s latest novel, The Collaborator, interrogates the role of the media in the conflict in Kashmir. It subtly critiques the language used in the press to reinforce propaganda on behalf of the state.
Louis Althusser talked of state control over ideological apparatus. This was a way to reinforce a repressive state that seeks overarching control. The Collaborator is loaded with close dissections of this idiom. It shows up the media for deploying language as subterfuge to cloak military oppression.
Media scholar Craig LaMay has pointed out how authoritarian rule employs strict censorship rules and journalists turn into mouthpieces of such a state. This project of control requires a language that can mislead people and manipulate facts. The purpose is to deny a struggling people their essential memories.
This process is recorded in Media Control by Noam Chomsky. During military oppression, the dominant power considers it “necessary” to falsify history, for it helps justify oppressive measures. Manufacturing consent and manipulation through the media are the usual route to thoroughly falsify history.
This holds true for the Kashmiri experience as well. The historical and political circumstances that define the narratives of the Kashmiri resistance also determine the parameters that will critically analyse the resistance itself. A falsified narrative overshadows the memories of Kashmiris and weakens their power to resist their own oppression.
Waheed’s narrative is located within this definitive context and here it is intersected by entrenched historical and political factors. The complex interplay of these factors transfigures into a struggle that stands against military siege. Recalling the bleak 1990s in Kashmir in an interview, Waheed calls the nineties “a dark, brutal decade” during which nothing about the horrific violence could reach the world outside. In those days, while Pakistan described the conflict as “Jihad”, India called it a “law and order” problem. In the novel, these two nation states adopt the posture of storytellers who control the master narrative of Kashmir. The narrator echoes this phenomenon, saying, “You know, sometimes I wonder—because for Kashmir there is always an Indian and a Pakistani version of everything.”
In many passages, The Collaborator refers to the assertions and contestations of both countries on how the Kashmir conflict is to be officially documented. In this way it drives home the point that the official accounts seldom echo what is really going on. It records the processes that have cloaked significant facets of the conflict; letting many stories remained un-rendered and pictures go unseen.
In doing so, Waheed wrests that “expropriated historicity back,” in the words of Barbara Harlow, a scholar of resistance writing. Many significant events of the early 1990s find place in his novel as it endeavours to re-describe and re-explore them, to “re-appropriate it,” in Harlow’s words.
Waheed’s narrative actively engages with how the historical memory of the oppressed Kashmiris can be restored, by tearing it from the pages of hegemonic power discourses. He lays bare how the inadequacies of the official accounts of the conflict have distorted these events or ensured that they are not fully rendered.
The references to tragic events of the 1990s include the bitter confrontation between Kashmiri militants and the Indian state’s repressive force. The (alleged) mass rapes in Poshpora, massacres of Gaw Kadal and Sopore, fake encounters along the Line of Control, which resulted in mass graveyards close to the border, are some of them.
In Kunan Poshpora village in Kupwara, northern Kashmir, more than 50 women were allegedly raped during a cordon and search operation by the 4th Rajputana Rifles on February 21, 1991. Many documentary filmmakers and national and international teams investigated this village. However, the government denied the incident and called the allegations baseless propaganda.
The women of Poshpora appear as “milk beggars” in the novel. Having been under curfew for more than three months, they go to Nowgam, desperately in search of milk for starving children. The narrator also states, “A brand new Minister for Kashmir Affairs from Delhi was also quoted as saying that no place by the name of Poshpur ever existed on the map.”
The incident at Gaw Kadal is also referred to. The narrator says that nearly 50 people had been killed by the Central Reserve Police Force or CRPF in broad daylight. The newspapers were full of headlines such as “The river of blood,” and “Young and old, men and children, dead, all dead, dead on a bridge.” The government defines the incident as a “breakdown in the law and order situation” due to which the police were “forced” to open fire,” killing 35 people. The novel scoffs at how a massive human tragedy is nonchalantly trivialised.
Waheed ingeniously satirises the language of propaganda that the media deploys when it reports on the conflict. The narrator’s father dismisses the national broadcaster, Doordarshan news, as “all lies, sarasar bakwas, and utter nonsense.” Whenever any armed clash takes place between the army and militants many end up dead, but the narrator says that such incidents are played down and called a mere “skirmish.”
There is also the description of fake encounters. A media team arrives from Delhi to report on the conflict, particularly at the border. This becomes an opportunity for an Army captain to arrogantly show off his skills in stage-managing the operations to the narrator. After the narrator is forced by the captain to identify the dead bodies of the trained militants and aspiring militants, he becomes familiar with the machinations of the Army in Kashmir’s hinterland.
He realises that the Army behind the scenes and the reality fed through the media are starkly different. In the context of the novel, this exposes the media, whose complicity and connivance conceal military oppression. In many other instances the media’s language and functioning are shown to actively dilute reality.
In their 1990 study on Kashmir, Tapan Bose, Dinesh Mohan, Gautam Navlakha and Sumanta Banerjee refer to a report published in the February 15 issue of a leading English daily. The report claims to be a first-hand account while its author, it turns out, had not been to Kashmir. The study notes that the magazine published a photograph of Jagmohan (the Governor) meeting Srinagar residents. In the backdrop are Chinar trees in bloom. This tree only changes colour in the summer; and it turns out that this photograph was taken a few years earlier, in April 1986, in Anantnag. The study also cites P Upendra, the minister for information and broadcasting at the time. He justifies strict press censorship in Kashmir in view of “special circumstances and the delicate situation there.”
These being the circumstances, it is left to the novelist to un-dilute the reality that the language of propaganda has masked.
Basharat Shameem is a writer and blogger from Kulgam, Jammu & Kashmir.