Friday, January 18, 2008

The case of Altaf Ahmad Khan

It is easy to destroy someone’s life and reputation. It is much harder to give such things back.

On my daily perusal of news this morning, the sky still hovering black over Paris, I came across the story of Altaf Ahmad Khan. On 7 January, the Times of India reported the following:

In what could be a pointer to the terror build-up in the state, Kerala cops on Saturday night arrested a Srinagar resident for his alleged links with Pakistan-based Hizb-ul Mujahideen. Altaf Ahmad Khan — wanted in several terror cases in Jammu & Kashmir — was held from the tourist town of Kumili in Idukki district where he was working in a shop, police said.

Terrible, the casual reader might say, that Kashmiri militant groups who have committed such acts as the December 2000 attack on New Delhi’s Red Fort , in which three people died, and the 2001 suicide attack on India’s parliament which left 14 dead, would set up shop in the Indian state known for its tropical Malabar Coast, one of the country’s main tourist attractions. In a follow-up article, the Times of India announced that “security in Kerala assembly was stepped up on Friday following an anonymous letter threatening to blow up the building to avenge the arrest of a Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) terrorist in Idukki district,” going on later in the article to note that Altaf Ahmad Khan was “a Srinagar resident with alleged links to Pakistan-based HuM.”

All of this would be all well and good except for the fact that, as of yet, Altaf Ahmad Khan is apparently not, in fact, wanted for any terrorist activity at all in Jammu and Kashmir. This is a fact that the Times of India apparently feels no need to correct even given the attestation by Senior Superintendent of Police in Srinagar, S A Mujtabah, to the Greater Kashmir website, that “We have written to Kerala police that Altaf Ahmad Khan is not required by Jammu and Kashmir police and is not involved in any activity.” In fact, more than any great coup on the part of Kerala’s law enforcement agencies, the arrest of Altaf Ahmad Khan appears to be little more than the latest indication of a pattern of harassment of Kashmiri merchants in the state, a pattern I recall continuing from at least this time last year when I was living in Bombay and read about Kashmiri immigrants being harassed as “terrorists.”

I have hoped for a greater engagement with the complex political and ethno-religious dimensions of modern India by the international media, many of whose members seem as if they can barely be bothered to move from their desks in New Delhi. Having reported from places like Haiti over the years, where I have seen both mainstream journalist and shrieking activist types fall victim to the same newcomer arrogance, I have never thought that repeating one’s own opinions, without vigorously challenging them with boots-on-the-ground, enterprising journalism, is any way to go about what I still believe can be a fairly important and influential profession.

But I must say, particularly as I read this news about the casual defamation of an (apparently) blameless man, it did nothing to dissuade me of the notion that the local Indian press also has done a pretty underwhelming job of covering the country and its political and social developments, particularly in its constant uncritical repetition of the Indian government line when it comes to writing about "militants" in Kashmir. As I wrote in my article The Dead and the Missing in Kashmir, published in the Spring 2007 issue of the World Policy Journal and the product of many hours interviewing around the state, the Indian government's portrayal of the complex, violent conflict there has been so awash in lies and deception over the years that, in my view, it represents a terrible failure on the part of many sectors of the Indian press that they remain so silent on it.

Much of the pedestrian spleen-venting that does make into the (particularly) U.S. press as commentary on coverage of India (such as Samanth Subramanian's lazy, haphazard article in the recent New Republic) hardly helps matters, in my view, and is one of the reasons that the stereotypical images of India continue to dominate as opposed to measured, critical pieces on such subjects as the reelection of the xenophobic demagogue Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat or the murderous actions of the government of West Bengal against the farmers of Nandigram, to say nothing of the country’s dazzling modern culture and intellectual life, which goes far beyond simply Bollywood to include thinkers running the gamut from Bangladeshi émigré writer Taslima Nasreen to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and beyond.

There are notable exceptions, of course, journalists who do a far better job writing about India’s complexity than most. I unfailingly learn things from reading local commentators like my friend Dilip D'Souza and Humra Quraishi, as well as nominally "foreign" journalists such as the New York Times’ Somini Sengupta, whose reporting has increasingly impressed me over the last year. Asia Society fellow Mira Kamdar, whose book, Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming the World, I reviewed in the Miami Herald last year, also does a good job about educating folks on the nuances of India’s current milieu in two languages (English and French).

Even given these exceptions, though, as someone who consumes literature on India despite my geographic distance and recently finished reading Sanjib Baruah's excellent India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, I wish that that some of the nuance that I find in academic texts such as Baruah's would filter down to the local and international media coverage of India

All journalists, local and foreign, can do better in covering the nuances of modern-day India, and I think that beginning to take the reputations of even humble shopkeepers like Altaf Ahmad Khan as seriously as we do those of politicians and titans of industry would be a good way to start. It is the least we owe to the people who entrust us to tell their stories.

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