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Not just semantics: How the media uses one word to water down terrorism in Kashmir

Media frequently tries to paint terrorists as 'those fighting oppression' in order to ensure that the threat of radical Islam and terrorism in Kashmir can be reduced to a mere armed resistance against the oppression of the state. Branding JeM terrorists as 'militants' is just another step in the project.

Kashmir has been grappling with terrorism for decades. Pakistan, India’s not-so-friendly neighbour has been exporting gun-toting Jihadis to wage a “holy war” in Kashmir, not just for the land, but for a misplaced sense of Ummah. However, the media has often been sympathetic to the terrorism in Kashmir, even though it has claimed the lives of thousands – civilians and security forces.

According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, since the year 2000, 4,808 civilians have died in 11,442 incidents of killing. These incidents have claimed the lives of 3426 security personnel.

To give one a glimpse into the tinderbox of terrorism that Kashmir is, following are some of the terror organisations that function in Kashmir.

Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Lashkar-e- Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Al Umar Mujahideen (AuM), Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM), Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM) previously known as Harkat-ul-AnsarHarkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF), Jamait-ul-Mujahideen (JuM), Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Jammu and KashmirJammu and Kashmir Liberation Front – Yasin Malik faction (JKLF-Y).

As a thumb rule, most terror groups active in Kashmir want to overthrow Indian rule and merge Kashmir with Pakistan. Even the ones that claim to fight for the independence of Kashmir, are mostly ones who are funded and sponsored by Pakistan. Pakistan has been waging a prolonged war against India that essentially depends on exporting terrorists to Kashmir and the rest of the country and deepening the faultlines of India to create internal strife.

While the Kashmir history cannot be possibly be summarised in 200 words, the underlying problem of the Kashmir issue is not unknown, however inconvenient it may be for the ‘Liberals’ to digest. While several names and definitions have been applied to the Kashmir conundrum over the years, the truth of the matter is, however, that the reason why Kashmir burns is because of Jihad and Islamic terrorism. However, the media has been extremely kind to the terrorists of Kashmir valley as history bears witness. One recalls how Barkha Dutt once interviewed an injured stone pelter who kept saying he is doing what he does for Jihad, while Barkha kept prodding him to say he was doing it for Kashmir.

However, earlier, only a certain fringe element of the media, like Barkha Dutt used to indulge in the normalisation of terrorism in Kashmir. Now, one sees that the normalisation has taken root even in normal media parlance.

Today, terrorists were neutralised by security forces in Ganderbal district of Kashmir.

A J&K Police spokesperson said one of the terrorists has been identified as a Pakistani codenamed Talha, who was affiliated to the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The identity of the other terrorist is being ascertained, the spokesperson said. “As per the police records, he was operating as commander of the proscribed terror outfit LeT in the areas of Bandipora and was wanted by law for his involvement in terror crimes and civilian atrocities”. “Identity of the other killed terrorist is being ascertained. People are requested to cooperate with police till the area is completely sanitised and cleared of all explosive materials if any.”

While the police statement mentioned by Indian Express explicitly calls the Jihadis as terrorists, the news agencies themselves have chosen to take a different path and call them ‘militants’.

Indian Express headline

While the very police quote in the Indian Express article referred to the men eliminated as terrorists, Indian Express consciously chose to call them ‘militants’.

Several other media houses toed the line too.

Economic Times headline (PTI story)

News 18 Headline (PTI story)

Deccan Chronicle headline

Of course, Scroll went a little further and called the terrorist a ‘suspected militant’.

Scroll headline

The terrorist neutralised in Kashmir belonged to proscribed terror outfit Laskar-e-Taiba. The UN, while listing LeT as a terror outfit said, “Lashkar-e-Tayyiba was listed on 2 May 2005 pursuant to paragraphs 1 and 2 of resolution 1526 (2004) as being associated with Al-Qaida, Usama bin Laden or the Taliban for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of”, “supplying, selling or transferring arms and related materiel to” or “otherwise supporting acts or activities of” Al-Qaida (QDe.004), Usama bin Laden and the Taliban”. Yet, Indian media went ahead and branded the terrorist as a ‘militant’.

Is this a mere case of semantics? While these headlines may seem benign to the uninitiated, they further an extremely dangerous narrative that normalises terrorism, much like the media did Left terrorism in India.

The terms ‘Militant’ and ‘Terrorist’ have extremely different, though subtle differences in connotation attached to them.

Definition of Terrorism

While there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, the General Assembly has classified certain acts as terrorism.

Following is what is mentioned by the UN website:

“Acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”. 

Another example of terrorism-related terminology:

“… criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature, and calls upon all States to prevent such acts and, if not prevented, to ensure that such acts are punished by penalties consistent with their grave nature”. 

By all standards, whether local Kashmiri terrorists or the ones exported by Pakistan are ‘terrorists’.

Who is a Militant?

It is widely accepted that all terrorists are militant but all militants are not terrorists. Several people have tried to define the difference between a militant and terrorists. While there is no universally accepted definition of either, there are certain broad principles that define the usage of the term.

Militancy is widely accepted as a ‘rebellion’ and it need not be armed either. An opinion piece in ORF think-tank essentially said that negotiation is possible with militants but not with terrorists.

An answer posted in IDSA says:

As per the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2012, a terrorist act is an “act with intent to threaten or likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security [economic security] or sovereignty of India or with intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror in the people or any section of the people in India or in any foreign country by…” and it goes on to describe a number of ways and means that can be employed for terrorism. However, the important aspect that defines terrorism is the use of or threat to use violence to strike terror amongst the people. Terrorism can be used as an instrument of an insurgency or extremist ideology. It can, therefore, be a stand-alone option or integral to other forms of violent expression.

Militancy is a condition which experiences the use of violence, being combative or predisposed to fight. Militants can include any individual or group which takes to violence. This need not only include terrorists and insurgents, but also armed religious groups which take to violence to further their beliefs. Since resort to violence is a common factor here, often the term militancy and terrorism tend to be used interchangeably. However, since terrorism has greater acceptability as a term to describe extreme use of violence, both internationally and in India, it has largely replaced the term militancy. While it is difficult to ascribe a relative scale, a militant approach could however also imply a more moderate use of violence or expression of combative attributes, whereas terrorism clearly implies an extreme form of violence.

Essentially, militancy thus becomes a watered-down version of terrorism.

Not just semantics

Essentially, the terrorists functioning in Kashmir meet most of the standards that are prescribed to understand whether an armed struggle is terrorism or militancy. They instil terror, have a stated goal of fighting against the state, have religious motivations, they target civilians, they target security personnel, they even target off-duty security personnel as seen in several cases including Pulwama, so on and so forth. The aim of terrorism is to provoke the state to give a disproportionate reaction and the body count is irrelevant to the terrorists.

In fact, the media often forgets that at the peak of this “struggle”, the present-day Kashmir issue largely started with the genocide of Kashmiri Hindus. Even that was termed as “militancy” by large sections of the media instead of blatant terrorism.

While there should be no reason to term terrorists as militants, there seems to be a larger nefarious plan when terrorists belonging to JeM are branded as militants. JeM, as mentioned, is a proscribed terror outfit.

The aim is rather simple – to water down the threat of terrorism in Kashmir and brand it as some sort of armed resistance against oppression from the state, which it clearly is not. Hence, while the terms militancy and terrorism used in the context could seem like mere semantics, they are far more.

Another example

During the Amarnath yatra terror attack, several national dailies termed the attack as a terror attack as it should have. However, several local Kashmiri papers that have known sympathies with terror organisations termed the attack as a ‘militant attack’. The use of semantics and their importance becomes evident when organisations sympathetic towards terrorists brand a terror attack as a ‘militant attack’.

Media and its sympathies with radical Islamism and terrorism

It is no surprise that today the media would brand a JeM terrorist as a militant in an attempt to water down the severity of terrorism threat in Kashmir. This practice has been a usual by fringe elements in the media and is now only being mainstreamed more and more each day. One recalls how Barkha Dutt tried to brand a stone pelter waging Jihad as someone fighting for Kashmir. That demarcation itself shows that while the stone pelter was admitting that he is a terrorist, Barkha tactfully tried to brand him as ‘militant’ fighting oppression.

Mohammad Rafi Bhat was neutralized by Indian security forces in an encounter with the terror organization Hizbul Mujahideen with which Bhat had aligned himself. He was an assistant professor at Kashmir University. The usual suspects were out in full force to defend him saying that the soft-spoken and humble Bhat took to arms because of unrest in Kashmir.

Controversial publication The Quint, which had declared Kulbhushan Jadhav an Indian spy, decided to show Mohammad Rafi as a victim of the state. In their article, they had even written about how the slain terrorist was a ‘prisoner of conscience and not a religious fanatic’ because he ‘always talked about human rights violation by Indian forces’. In this case too, Quint tried to paint Rafi as a ‘militant’ and not a ‘terrorist’ by attempting to show that he picked up the weapon against oppression and not for Jihad, however wrong their assertions were, the intention was nefarious as best and treacherous at worst.

Essentially, media frequently tries to paint terrorists as ‘those fighting oppression’ in order to ensure that the threat of radical Islam and terrorism in Kashmir can be reduced to a mere armed resistance against the oppression of the state. Branding JeM terrorists as ‘militants’ is just another step in the project.

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