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If We Call it "Occupied Kashmir," Why Not Call it "Occupied Hong Kong"?

10/08/2014 05:19 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST

In their TV news reporting, BBC World often says "Indian-occupied Kashmir." And yet, the term "Chinese-occupied Hong Kong" is never heard. Why?

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"Occupied Kashmir" (photo courtesy Amitabh Bose)

For those living in India who have always thought of Kashmir as part of India, the term "Indian-occupied Kashmir" is bemusing. After all, India's first Prime Minister Nehru was Kashmiri and his family continues to be prominent in Indian politics today. Indeed over the years, there have been many notable Kashmiris in high positions in the Indian administration, the armed forces, and the arts. The people of Hong Kong may have reasons to feel more 'occupied'. Firstly, they were governed -- or 'occupied' -- by far-off foreign power Britain. And then 17 years ago, they were handed over to China. And despite being promised 50 years of autonomy and believing that Hong Kong will be governed by Hong Kong, there is now sufficient discontent to spur mass protests in the city.

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"Occupied Hong Kong"

While some media use the term "Indian-occupied Kashmir," some -- like Canada's Globe and Mail and the Shanghai Daily -- use the term "Indian-controlled Kashmir" and some -- like Al Jazeera -- use the term "Indian-administered Kashmir." Of course Kashmir is disputed territory, claimed by India, Pakistan, and most recently even China. But while press who are reporting on the region may feel that they are being fair or politically correct by using such terms, their choice of adjectives is revealing and their use of them in selective situations is disturbing.

'Occupied' is a definitive, biased, and divisive word; it implies injustice and practically invites the people of the region to fight back. 'Controlled' is perhaps a gentler alternative and 'Administered' definitely more so. Journalist A.S. Panneerselvan says that in 2005 editors from India and Pakistan actually met to decide that they should use 'administered' instead of 'occupied' in order to lessen tensions. But, later, given strong nationalistic pull, they slowly reverted to the harsher term.

Some may argue that 'occupied' is indeed the more accurate term and it's only fair to call a spade a spade. But is it necessary or helpful to call it a bloody shovel? While that may be right, it may not be the most constructive thing to do. It's one thing when press within India and Pakistan use such terms; their biased sympathies are expected and understandable. It's another when international press -- who pride themselves on being impartial and responsible -- use them. While the term 'occupied' may certainly grab more attention, it also inflames public sentiment and hinders governments in resolving the issues.

Others may go a step further and say that in the interest of giving full information that it's important to also name the offender; so not just 'occupied Kashmir', but 'Indian-occupied Kashmir'. If the term 'occupied Kashmir' inflames sentiments, then 'Indian-occupied Kashmir' directs the anger.

If we accept the media's argument of fairness and full information, why do they not apply it equally to the many other politically disputed regions around the world? Shouldn't they label the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as Israeli-occupied Palestine? Tibet as Chinese-occupied Tibet? Spanish-occupied Catalan? Iran-occupied Kurdistan, Syria-occupied Kurdistan, and Turkey-occupied Kurdistan? Canada-occupied Quebec? British-occupied Gibraltar? And what about an explanatory term for the occupied lands of the native people of the Americas and Australia?

This selective use of the adjective 'occupied' is particularly dangerous. As much as using the term implies something, not using the adage also means something. If using the word 'occupied' means against the will of the native population, then not using the word implies that the native population is fine with the situation. It seems that according to the press, some occupations are acceptable but others are not.

The pen is indeed mighty. Words and how they are used can indeed be a sword. What we call something can reveal our relationship and our attitude towards the object. The choice of terms can be a good indication of what side of an argument someone is on. And language is a powerful tool to express that. A rose by any other name is not a rose -- or at least it does not arouse the same emotions. A luxurious rose is not the same as a bloody rose.

Even the act of putting an adjective in front of the noun puts the object in a different light and brings focus to a specific aspect of it. To call Clinton, 'Impeached President Clinton' or to call Putin, 'former KGB chief Putin' puts a different spin in it. It may well be true but the emphasis is shifted. You're no longer presenting simply the object, but your take on the object. Also, 'occupied' is just one aspect of a region. However, in attaching the adjective to the name, you are making it the defining characteristic. By calling something a thorny rose, its danger is highlighted, while its beauty is suppressed.

Constantly referring to Kashmir as 'Indian-occupied Kashmir' and 'Pakistan-occupied Kashmir' is like rubbing salt into the wound and not conducive to the process of reconciliation. Even if we replace 'occupied' with 'administered', either adjective in front of Kashmir implies that it's a region under tension and does not allow for normality.

While not using adjectives such as occupied/controlled/administered may be misconstrued as the author being ignorant of the political situation, using such words only in certain cases shows that the author is acutely aware of it, taking sides, as well as trying to manipulate others' perception of the situation.

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"Canadian-occupied Banff"

Some people may argue that the terms Indian-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir are harmless and simply used to help differentiate which Kashmir they are talking about -- the one in India or the one in Pakistan. There are several places in the world with the same name. For example, there is a town named Banff in Scotland and a town named Banff in Canada. But no one thinks to call it Scottish-occupied Banff and Canadian-occupied Banff. They are simply called Banff, Scotland and Banff, Canada. Similarly, we have the option to call Kashmir as Kashmir, India or Kashmir, Pakistan.

There's a list of over a 100 disputed territories and yet none have the word 'occupied' formally attached to their name. CNN mentions 'India's Kashmir region'. WSJ writes 'the Indian portion of Kashmir'. Reuters says 'Indian Kashmir'. The Financial Times calls it just 'Kashmir' -- which is indeed the name of the region -- and then goes on to explain later in the article that it's a disputed area. And that, even without any adjectives, is something the people of the region will not easily forget. But without the adjectives, they may have a better chance to resolve the issue.