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Erosion of the role of the Editor

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By AdilTyabji

For an idea of what it meant to be an editor in the days when I was aspiring to be one in distant 1968 and how that role has changed since, one needs to examine how publishing has fundamentally changed. Publishing then was perceived to be a profession clearly differentiated from a business: a gentleperson’s genteel engagement with earning a living, but just about achieving the latter. Very few people knew what a publishing career meant so it had a certain cachet, particularly when you threw in mysteriously that it had to do with books, an even more mysterious commodity, provided you did not need to reveal what you actually earned; fortunately, not many stooped to ask you that, at least on casual contact.
Publishing then was a low-key, low-paid profession shorn of the razzamatazz that surrounds it today, but those within it believed they were performing a service of great value and thoroughly enjoyed engaging with it. Notwithstanding the low salaries there was very little staff turnover. I occasionally mourned that if no one left, there would be no room at the top to which to aspire!
Having broadly set the scene we come to what the editor actually did. As in all professions, where you work and with whom makes an enormous difference to your functioning and responsibilities. I personally worked for only two publishers: first with Orient Longman (OL), as the Orient BlackSwan of today was then known (three years), and Oxford University Press India (OUP).
Fortunately, and in a sense surprisingly, both, in the main, functioned more or less identically. Both had a head office in Delhi and branch offices in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, and each had an academic/general list which attempted to earn its keep and more but there was no acute scrutiny of that because it was the flagship or loss-leader. The real earnings came from (1) the educational list (school and college textbooks), annotated college anthologies prescribed by various state educational boards (if there was a somewhat seamier side, this was it!), and supplementary reading material; and (2) reprints of reference material (dictionaries in the main), at various levels, largely generated by the respective UK parent companies (although OUP stoutly maintained that it was not a company but a department of the University of Oxford, and we wore that as a badge of honour! and attempted to live up to it).
In OL then there was no strict bifurcation between the academic/general and educational departments so an editor could be simultaneously working on academic/general and educational books, although usually a broad bifurcation came about depending upon skills and preference; in OUP specific editors were assigned to each department but come the last minute rush preceding the academic year and most editors pitched in with the educational list, the academic/ general editors usually working on supplementary reading material. There was no specialisation within these broad categories either until later years when it crept in to a degree.
As a largely academic/general editor, in OUP I was either assigned a manuscript by the then chief editor/general manager (Ravi Dayal when GM, for many very fruitful years, combined these roles) or generated it myself on the basis of an idea or proposal, with of course the concurrence of the former, and where necessary a specialist report. There were visits to the university for inspiration and bookshops for feedback.
Manuscript in hand you were on your own without any external interference, no time pressure except from within and occasionally from the author.
Ivor Lewis for instance, a charming sprightly individual of 80+ years from the Isle of Wight, who became a great friend and spoke eloquently about the charms of the nuns at the convent where he stayed when in India, was forever threatening to die and once, just as we were approaching the end (not of him but the book!), in a state of depression, wrote lightheartedly that he would sue me. Then it was an intense 6-to-8-month engagement (although Irfan Habib’s An Atlas of the Mughal Empire took three gruelling years and Ivor Lewis’s Sahibs, Nabobs and Boxwallahs, two!) with the MS to be edited, detailed queries and suggestions exchanged with the author, the focus on expression and presentation but also on structure, discrepancies, repetition.
Then the proofs arrived and moved between editor and author, accompanied by carefully crafted letters, drafted and typed, with more queries, pleasantries, and humour, providing the author, frequently anxious and impatient, continuing reassurance and support. The relationship at this point was frequently very intense, albeit transitory.
In addition to the interaction with the author there was close coordination with the production department. I was extremely fortunate for most of my time at OUP to have the able and sage guidance of DipenMitra, a soulmate, as production manager.
They did the costings, chose the typeface, designed the text, and selected the most suitable press. When considered necessary, the press was jointly visited where I was privileged to watch the magical sight of molten metal pouring down to form letters and pass through successive generations of evolving technology: hand setting, monotype, linotype and admire the exceptional skills of the people who operated them and occasionally rescued us from the brink of disaster. Sadly, a sterling and dying breed of professionals defeated only by technology. Publishing and printing presses were then inextricably intertwined.
Those are glimpses of the past, what of the present? I have observed that in publishing it was initially the editors who were in control, and that was the period with which I naturally empathise, then the baton passed to the accountants, and eventually to the sales and marketing people who have since maintained a stranglehold.
Although from a purely economic point of view the present arrangement makes eminent sense, should publishing be subject to purely financial criteria? Does publishing in its present form adequately play its essential role of having the author at the centre and providing the mutually enriching services necessary to enable the organisation to get the best out of him/her and publish the best possible books in the most attractive form possible?
What brought about this dramatic change in the structure of publishing and even infected the renowned university presses whose fundamental role it is to nurture authors and scholarship. Some time in the 1980s I think, publishers overseas, followed astonishingly even by the renowned university presses, decided that having copyeditors on their payroll was a waste of money. They occupied too much expensive space, spent far too much time worrying about commas and split infinitives, so why not hire them in their own space at rates they (the publishers) thought they were worth. They succeeded in some measure because in consequence there were hundreds of experienced copyeditors on the limb with few other alternatives. Also, given the scale of many of their operations they were able to have an entire department monitoring the performance of their external copyeditors. OUP UK, for instance, which in the first flush of enthusiasm fired a substantial clutch of brilliant editors, has I believe an elaborate and very well-organised one.
A decade later, when the Indian general managers, by now rechristened managing directors! with a background in sales and marketing, with no interest in or inclination to fight for the traditional independence of the Indian branch operations, this organisational blueprint was transported to India.
To my mind this was an entirely misplaced move; the situation in India was very different. There were relatively few experienced editors and with the model being adopted by a large number of publishers, the catchment too narrow. In OUP we could by no stretch of the imagination claim to have had the best editors but what was important was that they were on the payroll and responsible to the management and the authors for the books they produced and how they produced them. A reasonably competent in-house editor, responsible to the organisation for results, I think, produces better outcomes than someone out of the blue, generally underpaid, under-qualified, and no sanction beyond not getting a second assignment from a particular publisher. I would imagine, and given my experience as a freelance editor of a couple of decades, the commissioning editors of today frequently do not have the time or the ability to evaluate the quality of the work offered.
I had naturally seen these winds of change and decided that my interest in working on manuscripts far exceeded that of merely planning and soliciting them. Perhaps the nature of the change can best be illustrated by a brief exchange I had with a charming lady from OUP’s International Division at a party to welcome her to India. Touching on the future, she informed me with the utmost gravity: “You will not be an editor you will be a product packaging manager.”
Needless to say, much as I admire individuals who tirelessly and splendidly package our goods, I did not envisage that as my future. My new avatar overnight as a freelance copyeditor was somewhat daunting with only a meagre provident fund and gratuity in the bank, and those took a month or more to arrive. I was rescued by my editorial colleagues in OUP, first RukunAdvani, the then editorial director, academic and general, and when he himself resigned, NitashaDevasar, who kept me almost continually in work, albeit at the near starvation wages that were then available, for over a decade.
A freelance editor does not have to prepare him/herself to rush to office in the morning, has the luxury of working uninterrupted in the comfort of home, can concentrate single-mindedly. On the other hand, there is an obligation to adhere to prescribed schedules, there is no guarantee that the morrow will see a manuscript on the desk, and if, as I do, s/he works on a single manuscript at a time, promising offers have to be declined, and it is more than likely that in consequence follow-up ones will not be forthcoming. The other disadvantage is that unless you are working directly for an author there is no contact with her/him whatsoever.
The commissioning editor emails a manuscript, you edit and return it with broad comments and suggestions, text-related queries highlighted within the text, email it back, and wait for a cheque to arrive a month or so later! You, more often than not, do not know what the book looks like, when it is published, how it was received/reviewed. When a trifle diffidently (time had passed, memories were hazy) I agreed to write this piece, the first few lines were tapped out on my mobile phone on a Saturday afternoon at the bar of the India International Centre.
A little Dutch courage is always useful in igniting resolve! This is only relevant here because it vividly illustrates how technology has dramatically changed the palate in terms of the editorial function, communication, and author-editor interpersonal relations, largely for the better, certainly for convenience and efficiency, and in some respects perhaps for the worse. Throughout my years with OUP there were no computers whatsoever, except during the last few years when a large, handsome standalone Mackintosh was acquired for design purposes which I admired from a safe distance! Then everything was done by hand. Manuscripts (ironically, the very word means book written by hand) were edited with fountain pen or ballpen, depending upon preference, proofs were corrected in the same way, letters were carefully crafted by hand unless you had a forte for dictation, and then typed and retyped.
For years after computers became omnipresent and ubiquitous, I obstinately maintained that editing by hand produced superior results because the slow pace of the operation permitted greater time for thought and consideration.
It was only quite late into my editorial freelancing days that I bought a laptop on a whim and was persuaded by its convenience, and that conversion itself was gradual, for some years both methods going hand-in-hand, depending upon clients’ preferences. Today I would regard hard copy as an enormous imposition but still miss the convenience of flipping the pages backwards and forwards. How times change!
Another significant change that technology brings is the instant availability of information. While in the past the editor scoured her/his reference shelf, and those of others, for references/words/meanings or queried the author, today the click of a button and there on your mobile phone is your dictionary, thesaurus, Wikipedia, Google, the last giving birth to that frightful term “googled”.
Again another major change wrought by technology is in author-editor interpersonal relations. Because in the past correspondence, both in the writing and its conveyance (with the humble postman a star actor), was so much more time-consuming and infrequent, if utilised effectively it could create a great bond between author and editor. It is difficult to replicate the same personalised effect with today’s instant electronic communication, which has taken a toll too on the art of correspondence and the pleasure of receiving a letter. Alas, no longer can “Lost in the mail” be proffered as a convenient excuse. On the positive side, everyone is constantly in touch with everyone else which, if it lacks magic it is convenient and efficient but with that comes the price of an enormous overload of information which is often difficult to digest and maximally utilise.
In conclusion, a couple of thoughts and questions run through my mind. Where will future generations of copyeditors come from and with what background? Will future generations of commissioning editors be in a position to evaluate the quality of copyedited manuscripts they receive? What effect will the new arrangement have on the traditional, mutually enriching relationship that existed between the author, the editor and the publisher, now that the functions of the traditional editor have been cleft in half?

 

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Opinion

The Kathua false news hall of fame

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Ayush Tiwari

The verdict of a sessions court in Pathankot on the abduction, rape and murder of a minor girl in Jammu’s Kathua district has sifted the wheat from the chaff from the event’s reportage. There were those who pursued the case with sense and sobriety, and those who chose to cover it with spuriosity and ill-will.

This latter crowd includes those whose reportage were simply not factual; those who tried to hoodwink readers through fatuous “disclaimers”; those who peddled misinformed tales on television, and those who produced fantastical claims on social media.

 

So here, dear readers, is a false news hall of fame of the Kathua incident:

Monger: Dainik Jagran

On April 20, 2018, Dainik Jagran flashed a sensational headline on its front page: “Bada khulasa: Kathua ki bachi se nahi hua tha dushkaram (Big expose: Kathua girl was not raped)”.

The article appeared in various North Indian city editions of Jagran: New Delhi, Agra, Aligarh, Allahabad, Amritsar and even Kathua. It was also published in the Jagran group’s Nai Dunia newspaper.

The story was authored by one Advesh Chauhan from Jammu who claimed the eight year-old Bakarwal girl from Kathua was not raped. To make his case, the author cited two post-mortem reports that allegedly mentioned the injuries and not the sexual assault.

The report argued that there could be other reasons for the victim’s injuries: the ruptured hymen, for instance, was because the nomad girl could be engaged in activities like cycling, swimming, horse riding etc; and scratches on the thigh could be a result of a fall. Conveniently, the article omitted other injuries that might indicate sexual assault.

Fact-checking Jagran’s junk science, AltNews produced a written note by the Board of Doctors of the District Hospital Kathua to the Police. It said the victim’s injuries “could be because of any form of sexual assault”.

Unsurprisingly, the misleading story was pulled down from the website around noon that day. Surprisingly, it was revived that evening.

In June 2018, a medical report proved that the victim was subjected to brutal sexual assault.

What reflects Jagran’s bad faith in this entire affair is that it hasn’t yet issued a note on its erroneous reportage.

Coward: The Sunday Guardian

There must have been much gleeful rubbing of hands when the editorial board at The Sunday Guardian struck upon the solution to the ultimate question: how do we circulate false information on the Kathua case without being held responsible for it?

So on April 14, Sushil Pandit’s awkwardly deceitful column Anatomy of a Concoction* was published in the paper under the tag “fake news”. An asterisk was added to circumvent a prospective controversy: “*This article is a pure concoction based on fiction. Any resemblance with any character or event is unintentional and coincidental.” Truly a guardian.

Pandit’s piece churned out three pieces of fiction:

  1. The eight-year-old Bakarwal girl was not raped.
  2. Her real parents were murdered and she’s apparently inherited property for which she could have been killed by her own relatives.
  3. The accused in the case were framed by the Crime Branch.

The first claim is obviously false. So is the second one, since channels interviewed both biological and adoptive parents (see here, here and here). The third claim has zero truth value since six of the eight accused were convicted by the sessions court in Pathankot on June 10. The seventh accused was acquitted given lack of evidence. Three of the six held guilty were convicted for destruction of evidence.

When Newslaundry had reached out to Madhav Das Nalapat, the editorial director of The Sunday Guardian, he justified the column’s deceit by claiming that “Sushil Pandit has the right to pen literature”. Nalapat spun it as a freedom of expression issue: “As someone who was more than once on the receiving end of having my writing driven off print pages, I would rather err on the side of freedom of expression than its suppression.”

Except Mr Nalapat, you did not err on the side of freedom of expression. You erred on the side of facts. By airing demonstrably false claims in your paper, you first spat on your editorial duty. By cushioning it under “fake news”, you then licked it back. And that’s cowardice.

Mr Pandit’s protective disclaimer, of course, seemed to have been mysteriously lost while on his way to the Republic TV studios, where he repeated some of his claims.

Spinmeisters: Zee News

Zee News is one of the few national channels that serves the people. Sudhir Chaudhary haters will now shoot this down and claim there is ample evidence that the channel serves its political masters (they’ll point to this, this, this, this, this and this). Well, you rootless cosmopolitans, the equation is rather indirect—one serves the people by serving the masters it elects. mic drop.

In April last year, in a segment on Zee News, Sudhir Chaudhary asked the following questions:

  1. A man let his son and nephew rape a girl. How is this possible?
  2. The temple where the victim was raped had four windows and three doors. How could the girl have been raped there?
  3. The son of the temple priest, Vishal Jangotra, was taking an examination in Meerut. How could he have committed a crime in Jammu?

The father has been found guilty by the court, and the nephew’s fate is to be decided by a juvenile court. So spare us the sanskari onslaught, Mr Chaudhary. The temple did have all those windows and doors, (and even God, who was tragically a prime witness in the case), but the chargesheet had noted that the victim was drugged and hidden inside the temple: “…they took the girl and kept her inside Devisthan under the table over two Chatayees (plastic Mats) and then covered her with two Darees (cotton thread Mats).”

As for Jangotra, he has been acquitted by the court. Mr Chaudhary was quick to jump on this and claim vindication on his show. He claimed that Zee News had proved that Vishal was in Meerut that day because of footage showing him in an ATM in Meeranpur, Muzzaffarnagar. This, said Chaudhary, led to his acquittal.

In its verdict, however, the court stated that the prosecution did not verify the authenticity of this news report. “No statement of any official of SBI Meeranpur was recorded regarding this. He (Sub Inspector Urfan Wani) further admitted that on confiscating the hard disk pertaining to the ATM of Meeranpur, the said hard disk was never sealed from any magistrate,” the court said.

It’s a pyrrhic victory, Mr Chaudhary. And did you talk about the absurdity and ignorance of the other two questions you asked? No. You let that slide.

Absolutely cuckoo: Madhu Kishwar

With the apostles of lies, cowardice and spins in full sway, how far thou remain, St Cuckoo? Though it tarries, wait for it.

In April 2018, Kishwar had claimed that the Kathua rape is the handiwork of “jehadi” Rohingyas in Jammu. She alleged that the then J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti used the murder as a “counterblast strategy” to deal with Hindu anger over their settlement.

MadhuPurnima Kishwar

?@madhukishwar

Very likely that family accused of rape have been scapegoated. Murder of #Asifa suspected to be handiwork of jehadi #Rohingyas settled by PDP in Jammu region. Since Jammu people angry at settling criminal Rohingya in Hindu areas, Mehbooba used this murder as counterblast strategy

And then she uncovered the ultimate plot behind the case in a long Twitter thread:

MadhuPurnima Kishwar

?@madhukishwar

1/n Far more to #Asifa case than media allowing to come out. Just spoke to senior lawyers in Jammu.They are emphatic that they don’t defend the rapist & killer. But pointing to political mischief being played by PDP at behest of Geelani Hurriyat with @RisingKashmir in the lead
1,372

9:50 PM – Apr 12, 2018

Twitter Ads info and privacy

1,645 people are talking about this

All this bunkum wasn’t just reserved for social media. According to Kashmir Reader, Kishwar travelled to Jammu in April last year to convince the victim’s father that he should defer the case to the CBI, and not the local J&K police.

Recounting the meeting, the father said: “They (Kishwar and her companions) wanted us to go for a CBI investigation. They said, what is the problem with a CBI probe? They (CBI) will do proper investigations into the case. Aapko kya takleef hai (what is your grievance)?

“I told them I don’t want a CBI probe. I am satisfied with the Crime Branch investigations. The government is doing the right thing. Wo doodh ka doodh aur paani ka paani nikalenge (they will bring out the truth).”

Despite Kishwar’s odious efforts, the case was left to the police. When the verdict was announced on Monday, Kishwar’s denial was both calumnious and comic:

MadhuPurnima Kishwar
?@madhukishwar

(Courtesy: www.newslaundry.com)

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Opinion

Facebook Drowning in Anti-Muslim Hate Speech

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By David Gilbert
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At the end of February, Facebook launched an ad campaign in the Indian state of Maharashtra that was designed to inform users about resources available to protect against harassment and hate speech.

But instead of informing the public, it enraged them.

Facebook’s mistake: portraying a troll as a member of the lower Dalit caste, an oversight that essentially reinforced ugly stereotypes against the very group that is most discriminated against on its platform. Hundreds of users reported the ad as hate speech, and within a day the ad was removed. But the incident symbolized Facebook’s mounting failures in its biggest market, particularly when it comes to the spread of harassment and hate speech.

 

In fact, despite Facebook’s efforts, it’s barely made a dent in that department: 93 percent of all hate speech posts reported to Facebook by monitoring group Equality Labs remain on the platform — including content advocating violence, bullying and use of offensive slurs, according to a new report from the South Asian advocacy group, which is dedicated to ending caste-based discrimination, Islamophobia and religious intolerance.

Facebook’s inability to curb hate speech is disproportionately harming India’s Muslim minorities and at times spilling over into real-world violence, according to the report, which draws worrying comparisons between the situation in India and the platform’s failures in Myanmar, where it was used to fuel violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

“Facebook has failed its caste, gender, and religious minority users.” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, one of the authors of the report, told VICE News. ”By its own community standards, it has not fulfilled the bare minimum required to ensure that hate speech and disinformation does not become normalized in the platform.”

Facebook has faced near ceaseless criticism at home and abroad for the often-unchecked megaphone it provides to hate mongers and merchants of disinformation. In India, those flaws appear super-charged and directed primarily at one community: Muslims. According to the report:

Islamophobic content was the biggest source of hate speech on Facebook in India, accounting for 37 percent of the content reported by Equality Labs. Fake News (16 percent), casteism (13 percent) and gender/sexuality hate speech (13 percent) were the next biggest groups.

43 percent of the hate speech Facebook initially removed was restored within 90 days, and 100% of these restored posts were Islamophobic in nature.

Facebook repeatedly states it responds to the majority of reports in under 24 hrs, but Equality Labs found that the median response time in India was 48 hours.
Facebook reporting violations

Facebook said it has removed some of the content Equality Labs flagged as breaching its Community Standards, though it has not seen the full report. But the company did not respond to a question about why so much of the content that was removed later reappeared on the platform.

Overall, researchers pinned the blame squarely on Facebook, which it described as ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with the torrent of hate speech on its platform. With almost 300 million active accounts and potentially hundreds of millions more still to join, India is Facebook’s biggest market, and its most challenging, with unique obstacles to overcome,. “Indian religious and socio-political contexts are complex enough to require their own review and co-design process to adequately address safety.” the report said.

But instead of tailoring a solution to cope with India’s specific challenges, the company continues to rely on community standards and practices designed for western markets, Equality Labs says, that don’t track with India’s challenges.

The problem is two-fold.

First, Facebook’s moderators have not been trained to properly understand the nuance and cultural context of posts in dozens of languages, Equality Labs said.

Second, Facebook only supports eight of India’s 22 official languages, meaning community standards and reporting mechanisms are often only available in English — meaning users don’t even know how to flag hate speech. To try and cover over the cracks, Facebook continues to rely on an army of volunteer translators to deal with issues in the languages it doesn’t support.

“If they have enough money to enter the market shouldn’t they have enough money to protect the users in those markets, particularly as they make money off the violence they face?” Soundararajan said.

The rise of Islamophobic hate speech on Facebook has coincided with a rise in real-world violence against Muslims in India, which has been fomented in part by increasingly divisive national politics. According to a recent study, Muslims were the victims of 59 percent of cases of religiously motivated violence — even though they make up less than 15 percent of the population.

Considering the current environment in India, Facebook has no excuse not to have had a better response plan in place to address Islamophobia, said Soundararajan, nor should they have been surprised, particularly in the wake of the atrocities in Myanmar.

“As early as 2013 Facebook knew the content on its platform could lead to large scale communal riots,” Soundararajan said. She points to Facebook’s role in helping to instigate the Muzaffarnagar riots. which led to left more than 50 deaths and over 75,000 people displaced from their homes. “Many say these riots were sparked by videos which were spread in part on Facebook.”

The report highlights a range of hate speech that circulates on Facebook in India. Among the most surprising was the proliferation of Pepe the Frog, the image favored among American white supremacists. In India, the internet meme was used to glorify the 1992 desecration of the Babri Masjid mosque in the Ayodhya district of Uttar Pradesh state by Hindu nationalist mobs, an act that triggered riots across India and the killing of hundreds of innocent Muslims.

The use of Pepe the Frog, considered an anti-Semitic hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, shows the common language of hate speech across the globe. Facebook knows this too. Documents uncovered by Motherboard a year ago show the company has a specific policy for Pepe, that doesn’t ban the image completely but deletes it if shown “in the context of hate, endorsed by hate groups to convey hateful messages.”

The report also reveals a worrying crossover with the hate speech problems Facebook encountered in Myanmar. According to Equality Labs, 6 percent of all Islamophobic posts researchers examined were anti-Rohingya posts. Facebook users labeled Rohingya “cockroaches” and posted screenshots from a debunked video claiming to show Rohingya slaughtering and cannibalizing Hindus.

When the video was removed from Facebook and WhatsApp, users got around the ban by posting graphic screenshots from the video, some as recently as last month’s Lok Sabha elections.

“Clearly something is wrong with Facebook moderation when it comes to Rohingya centered hate speech and given the precarious conditions Rohingya face in India and across South Asia, this issue must be dealt with immediately,” the report says.

Ultimately, the problems facing Facebook in India stems from its failure to engage with activists and groups in India, Equality Labs said. And simply hiring more staff won’t solve the problem.

“Facebook staff lacks the cultural competency needed to recognize, respect, and serve caste, religious, gender, and queer minorities,” the report says. “The hiring of Indian staff alone does not ensure cultural competence across India’s multitude of marginalized communities.”

Facebook did engage to some extent with activists in India, and at the company’s South Asian Safety Summit held in Delhi last fall, Equality Labs presented an early draft of its findings — but the process was “slow and often times did not address the structural problems our report outlines,” Soundararajan said.

The activists are now calling on Facebook to conduct an independent, third-party human rights audit on the problems in India, similar to the civil rights audit it is conducting in the U.S.

“Facebook is complicit with the extremism that is pulling apart Indian society and it must act before it is too late,” Soundararajan said.

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Opinion

English Writing in Kashmir: A Literary Culture’s Rise From Conflict

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By Basharat Shameem

In truly bringing Kashmiri literary tradition on to the international scene, the eminent poet Agha Shahid Ali could be seen as a prime example. He was certainly one of the first true voices from Kashmir who produced fine poetry in English. Among the various literary narratives published in the recent years, many important works of fiction which have caught readers’ attention worldwide are Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and The Scattered Souls, Siddhartha Gigoo’s The Garden of Solitude and Mehr, and Nitasha Kaul’s Residue,to mention a few. Memoirs like Sudha Koul’s The Tiger Ladies and Basharat Peer’s The Curfewed Nightare other literary feats. Poets like Subhash Kak, K.L. Chowdhari, Lalita Pandit and Mohammad Zahid are also being increasingly recognised in the literary circles. All these writers mainly write in English as they yearn for a global audience to hear and read the narrations which tell the stories of their experience of a very complex lived reality. In many ways, these writings indicate the beginning of the phase of Kashmiri English writing tradition.

It has to be said that contemporary Kashmiri English writing seems to have been more significantly influenced by the specific historical conditions pertaining to the conflict than the writings in other languages. This is in no way to demean the artistic or literary features in these writings which have retained the literary purity amidst all the topicality. On the contrary, it supposedly suggests a general historical reality wherein a literary culture is born and bred among certain specific historical and material conditions—conflict and violence in this case. Besides these poets and writers, many other young people are taking to different artistic expression like poetry, music, painting and graphic arts to express their profound angst at the existing conditions of the conflict. In significant ways, these writings provide witness to many profound issues like identity, justice, struggle, and oppression which are usually absent in the mainstream narratives on/of Kashmir. In doing so, these writings provide an alternative and heterogeneous account of a reality that seems to counter the view of the mainstream discourses that neglect very basic and yet very important facets of Kashmir’s reality and experience.

 

In their own ways, the new generation of Kashmiri writers reflect on the situation of the Kashmir of early 1990s, when Kashmiris took up arms against Indian rule and ushered in the era of a full-fledged militancy. Agha Shahid Ali with his poetry collections The Country without a Post Office and Rooms are Never Finished can be regarded as the first modern chronicler of Kashmir’s current pain. Agha Shahid describes the calamity of the 1990s in the following words:
Summer 1992 — when for two years Death had turned

Every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala.

This is the immediate historical backdrop against which the writings of our new writers are set as they endeavour to explore these realities by reflecting the perspectives of the people who face siege and repression from all sides. These new narratives can be seen as historiographies which sensitively bring to fore many unknown or unexpressed dimensions of the Kashmir conflict, thereby drawing attention to a long-neglected human story. Though the texts, under mention, grow out of a specific and critical historical reality, they convey a multiplicity of versions and facets that armed conflict in Kashmir has stimulated. This cannot be categorised as merely a “literature of protest” or “literature of propaganda” as some self-assuming critics would lead us to believe. The sensitive reflection of profound dimensions of human condition at a certain point is the real characteristic of literature.

Through the art of fiction, these writers have attempted to give an outlet to the suppressed aspirations and collective memories of violence and loss of home. In their narratives, memory, identity and time play a very significant role. Finally, these works also show how literature can intervene to challenge the contorted truths of power structures in the contemporary world. The idea of loss brought about by the memory becomes the new metaphorical ingredient of this type of literature. Out of its specific set of circumstances, it tries to develop a new aesthetic out of the elements of a lost joy and the current moments of suffering. For instance, in his poem “Exile”, Subhash Kak writes:

Memories get hazy
even recounting doesn’t help
I need to look at pictures
or listen to music to remember
and sometimes walking through narrow lanes of my town
a sudden perfume escaping from a window
halts my steps and I am transported
to my childhood years.

As the conflict and conflicting opinions, pertaining to Kashmir, continue to perpetuate each other, writing and research is likely to unfold new perspectives in the time to come. This can be stated with some certainty as it is now an established fact that narration or narratives—whether factual or fictional—do not describe reality in absolute terms only; rather, they attempt to present fresh perceptions and dimensions that offer new trajectories of reality. The writer of a work of literature does not aim at presenting historical facts in the same way that a historian does. Instead, he looks beyond facts to the spirit underlying those facts. This lends credence to the fact that an event, which might have a mere statistical importance for a historian or a journalist, could reveal many underlying angles of perception when presented in a work of fiction.

The narratives are mainly structured round and alternate between the present, “now”, and the past, “then”. The narratives do remember the Kashmir of the past in which the stream of life flowed smoothly, when militancy did not exist, and when life flowed along an even tenor. During the days of armed militancy, peace departed, and honour and security of life also took their leave. With their departure, a besieged people learnt to live under the shadow of the gun. The life and honour of people were at the mercy of the gun-toting armed forces and the militants. The sense of loss is especially made palpable through human loss that is defined and depicted in terms of killings, tortures, rapes, injuries, other forms of physical coercion, and even a huge displacement of a large section of population as portrayed in The Garden of Solitude.

All this brings to the fore the crux of the matter, that is, the issue of identity. In the context of the situation in Kashmir, the concept of identity is extremely crucial, complex and intriguing. Here, identity has multiple facets and also a differential composition; it operates also on many levels—the individual, collective, regional, and above all, religious. The complexity of the issue of identity becomes all too evident in the way events unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The aforementioned texts under study bring to prominence the fact that it would be fallacious to assume a homogenous conception of Kashmiri identity. In all these narratives, the protagonists seem to struggle for their identity at the individual level, but they find that it has a close bearing upon the larger collective identity.

For centuries, Kashmiri culture was defined by its plurality and scope for tolerant practices of diverse faiths and ideas that wove people together in harmony. This interfusion of distinctive practices of belief led to the articulation of a new cultural identity which came to be known as “Kashmiriyat”. Kashmiri Muslims, despite being the majority, found themselves at a disadvantageous position in contrast to the minority Pandits. This was because of the disproportionate division of socio-economic privileges that favoured the minority Pandits. The construct of Kashmiriyat was manipulated to overlook the growing political and economic demands of Kashmiris. With the outbreak of the armed uprising against the Indian state in late 1980s, the nature of discontent and resistance changed and Kashmiri Muslim aspirations aligned with the appeal to religious identity. To bring this out, Siddhartha Gigoo, in his novel, alludes to the “reinforcement of a new cultural identity.” Mirza Waheed, in The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, and Shahnaz Bashir in The Half Mother, also recount the surge of people’s religious passions with the onset of the armed movement. The new Kashmiri identity is thus shown to recast itself in religious terms, and this has put Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits at loggerheads and relations between them appear ambivalent as of now. Agha Shahid’s poem “Farewell”, which he refers to as a “plaintive love letter” from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit evocatively, describes this tragic aspect:

At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:

In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory…
Lalita Pandit, another Kashmiri-American academician and poet, reveals this aspect in her poem “Anantnag” in these lines:

What of that? Now you are
A stranger, an enemy.
Children stare with
suspicion. They have learnt
to hate; they are afraid.
Hollow eyed ghosts
walk the streets.

The aforementioned Kashmiri literary narratives can be seen as gripping histories as well as forceful tales of the human predicament in locales marked by violent conflict. In almost all these expressions, personal narratives have been unearthed, processed through the literary imagination, and re-crafted as collective expressions. The creative imagination of these Kashmiri writers who write mainly in English is able to capture the different facets and perceptions of people caught in a situation marked by contestation and confrontation.

(The writer is a blogger and a youth activist based in Kulgam)

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