As an accredited Indian journalist, I take strong exception to my colleagues from Kashmir being kept in conditions where it’s difficult to perform a job that is the cornerstone of any genuine democracy. That job is reportage and journalism that requires freedom to move, access phones and the internet in order to file their stories.
Journalists in Kashmir have been denied access to the freedom to move and report. (Photo: Reuters)
For several days now, I have dialed the numbers of Srinagar-based journalists only to hear the message that their phones are switched off. I have also searched online and not seen any reports from some regulars who write from the Valley for multiple print and web outlets. I keep trying those numbers hoping I will connect as I do see some journalists who have gone from Delhi access social media right through the nine days that Kashmir has been cut off. So, I keep hoping that the numbers of my Srinagar colleagues will miraculously come alive and they too will get the privileges of communication.
There are some journalists from Delhi who have gone and returned to say that conditions to report are impossible. Simultaneously, there seem to be other journalists who have gone from Delhi and seem to have unlimited net access as visible from their activity on Twitter and other social media platforms. They have, according to their own accounts, been on helicopter rides over the Valley along with TV crew.
I would have a few simple questions. Why do some journalists have internet and others don’t? Are journalists being selectively helped by the administration in Kashmir? Are some being given access to data to put out stories while other residents of Srinagar are groping in the dark? If that is so is this what we call embedded journalism?
Kashmir has always been a complicated terrain to report from and over the years there have been two types of journalists who fly in from New Delhi to cover Kashmir. There are those who move only with the security forces and there are those who move with the people. It’s always been possible to build entire careers on only getting the perspective of the army, police and agencies. It’s fairly easy work too — in picturesque surroundings — without much contact with locals who are not in uniform.
Reporting from Kashmir has always been complicated. (Photo: Reuters)
You fly into Srinagar, you get your briefings and in times of conflict, connect with a few local journalists. And since the entire army-police infrastructure also operates with logistical help from locals you can even take a selfie and say, hey I covered Kashmir.
Most of my journeys into Kashmir began in 2000 after the worst of militancy was over. I was sent there by Outlook magazine, then under the legendary editor who is no more, Vinod Mehta. His brief was always simple: talk to the people; never give me the security agency perspective. That is the tradition of journalism I knew and respected and was trained in. You get the ground report not the propaganda. (Today, however, I do recognise that it’s the state’s version that counts and not the views of the average residents of Kashmir Valley).
I would never call myself a Kashmir expert. My primary beat in the 15 years in Outlook, when Mehta reigned, was national politics. But I was frequently sent off to Srinagar as well where I learnt about insurgency, protest, military dominance, alienated populations, geopolitical strategies and the complex network of intelligence agencies.
I would never have managed to report from Kashmir without the help of several local journalists and this is my thank you note to them. Yes, from Delhi it was possible to get appointments with now incarcerated chief ministers such as Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.
I discovered during my trips there that when things went wrong as they always did, it was sometimes easier for Delhi scribes to approach the CMs than for locals. I remember Omar once joking: Whenever I see you I know there is trouble in Kashmir.
It was even possible for a Delhi phone number to make appointments with members of the Hurriyat conference. But in times of conflict, when anti-India protests broke out, when stone-pelting began, when people hit the streets shouting “Out, India Out,” it was only possible for me to walk the streets because of the help of local journalists. They would give my credentials to angry locals while taking me deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of a city in protest. It often seemed like urban warfare in Kashmir.
So thank you too all my Kashmiri colleagues. One of them is no more, shot dead on June 14, 2018, in Srinagar. I talk of Shujaat Bukhari, longtime correspondent of The Hindu in Srinagar and then founding editor of Rising Kashmir, a newspaper. One always met Shujaat or spoke to him when visiting Kashmir.
Rising Kashmir editor Shujaat Bukari lost his life to the protracted conflict in Kashmir. (Photo: Twitter)
The first local journalist I worked with in Srinagar was Zafar Meraj, a veteran. He had once been shot at and survived. Years later when I reconnected with him during the 2014 floods that devastated parts of Srinagar, I learnt he had joined politics and was a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I do not know if he remains in the party.
Another colleague who facilitated memorable assignments was Showkat Ahmad Motta who was subsequently retained for Outlook. I was tasked with assessing him in Srinagar when Outlook needed a new correspondent. It was a great pick and the arrangement lasted for some years. Showkat made it possible for me to cover the huge protest that hit Srinagar in 2010 and I would do a cover story for the magazine with his help. I used to call him even after I left Outlook in 2014. He has very young children and over the years, sounded completely hemmed in and lacking in any hope about what would come to the tortured Valley.
No mention can be made about Kashmir journalists without recalling the tale of Iftikhar Gilani who was working with Kashmir Times in 2002. He was roused from sleep one day and arrested, charged with passing information to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) about Indian troops in J&K. He would spend a year in jail and eventually write a book titled My Days in Prison.
But Iftekhar’s story is also a story of second chances. In January 2003, the government withdrew the case in the face of huge protests by fellow journalists and human rights activists. On his release, Iftikhar went on to have a great career as a political reporter-editor in Delhi. He was a Kashmiri journalist who regularly covered Indian politics, was great at it, and was on first name terms with leaders in most national parties. But earlier this year, various threats and unfortunate circumstances forced him to leave India and take up a job in Turkey. A fixture on the Delhi media circuit, he is missed by all his colleagues for his insights on Indian politics and Kashmir. I hope he can return soon and find his place among all of us again.
Journalists who have had to fled the Valley only for doing their job should be able to return. (Photo: Reuters)
A month before the clampdown in Kashmir, I was requested by another Srinagar-based journalist to be on the panel for the release of his book in Delhi. Gowhar Geelani’s Rage and Reason is a descriptive account of what it is like to live in a pressure cooker. The date of the book launch was July 17. So much has dramatically changed since then.
I have not been to Kashmir for two years as I am no longer supported by an organisation that provides valuable logistical help in a conflict zone in terms of local correspondents and stringers. But I will go as soon as it seems feasible and I can make contact with friends and colleagues. I do not want to be dependent on any administration.
So, I do not have a visual image of what is currently happening in Kashmir. But there is one image from that beautiful ravaged state that has always stayed with me. After the 2014 floods, when houses collapsed I went to the destroyed home of the late Agha Shahid Ali, the great poet. In the past, I’d been invited to dine there by his very charming father Agha Ashraf, who had turned the elegant two-storied house into a literary retreat and maintained his son’s library.
All that had drowned in the floods of September 2014. Where the house once stood, a family retainer had pitched a tent and lived there through sub-zero temperatures. He was lovingly trying to dry out books, find a memory, any memento at all. Years ago, I had bought Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems on Kashmir, The Country Without a Post Office. This time too I found a moment that always stayed with me. Propped against a ruined wall were these words of the poet, framed possibly by his father:
What I gave, I have
What I spent, I had
What I saved, I lost
Like so many things about Kashmir, those lines always stayed with me. I’d like to end this by apologising to all my colleagues in Srinagar for what they are going through. I hope they can read my words soon.