For families of murdered Kashmiri journalists, justice is secondary to survival
On a chilly evening in January 2003, Parvaz Mohammad Sultan was giving final touches to his daily bulletin when two unidentified gunmen entered his Press Enclave office in Srinagar and fired at him from point blank range. Left in a pool of blood, the 40-year-old editor of the local news gathering agency, News and Feature Alliance (NAFA), was rushed to hospital but lost the battle for his life en route. Parvaz was not the first journalist killed during the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, and has left a trail of misery behind him with a young wife and three small children.
Parvaz hailed from a remote village of Khiram in South Kashmir. A talented guy, he tried his hand at writing and soon carved a space for himself in the vernacular press. He worked in Al Safa – then a leading Urdu daily from Srinagar, for the Urdu weekly, Chattan, and had a stint as a reporter with the Congress mouth-piece, Quami Awaz. In 2000, he launched his own news service to give fillip to feature writing and received an encouraging response from the readers and news organisations. He also edited a local newspaper Wattan, though unofficially. It was owned by the infamous counter-insurgent turned legislator Javed Shah, who was also killed by militants in 2003.
The motive behind Parvaz’s killing continues to remain a mystery, as has been the case with hundreds of killings added to the accounts of ‘unidentified’ gun men. This is true of the killing of 10 other journalists who have fallen to bullets or blasts since the outbreak of armed rebellion in Kashmir in 1989. However, the grapevine is that Parvaz’s death was connected to the inter-group rivalry within a prominent militant organization. One version, not verified by independent sources, is that he “was used by one faction”, thus inviting trouble from the other. The association with the newspaper owned by a counter-insurgent can also not be ruled out as provocation for his murder.
Like many other cases, this was also a ‘blind’ case for the police who hardly bothered to go deep into the conspiracy and identify the killers. While a case was registered at Police Station Kothibagh (Srinagar) on January 31, 2003 under FIR no. 13/2003, the police investigation has failed to identify the attackers and has not been expanded to a desired limit.
According to officials, who wished not to be named, the case was closed as ‘untraced’ in 2003 itself. “Untraced means we could not identify the attackers and could not reach them so the case was almost closed”, an official said. However, the police have mentioned that it was the handiwork of ‘militants’.
The then Superintendent of Police Srinagar has also given a “clean chit” to Parvaz saying, “He had no connection with any militant or anti-national organisation”.
With the militant link to the killing becoming apparent, the journalist fraternity in Srinagar also turned its back on the issue. There was no follow-up of the case except the statements from organisations such as Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontiers who expressed their concern and demanded an independent probe into the killing.
For the shattered family of Parvaz, survival was more important than following the case to get justice. Faced with the challenge of bringing up three small children his 29-year-old wife Shameema was a broken soul who mustered courage to get a government job as compensation for her husband’s death. But there was more trouble in store for the hapless family. Severely affected by the shock of her husband’s death, Shameema’s health deteriorated and she passed away just after working for 18 months. This literally dismembered the family leaving the three children Sheema (11), Junaid (6) and Umar (3) at god’s mercy.
The arduous task to take care of three orphans was left to Parvaz’s mother Rehmati (75). She ran from pillar to post to see that the children do not die of hunger. From the Deputy Commissioner’s office to the Social Welfare Department, she managed to get a meagre amount in the name of being a widow and tried to feed the children who are now in their teens.
“This has been the biggest challenge god threw upon me,” Rehmati says with tears rolling down her wrinkled cheeks. “First Parvaz’s father passed away in young age and now I have to take care of these grandchildren. Can misery be worse than this?” she asks.
With the help of some journalists and philanthropists she is managing to bring up Parvaz’s kids and give them an education. For her to pursue the case against the killers has no meaning. “What will I get even if they are hanged?” she says. “I only want a safe future for these three young children”, she adds.
Ironically, there is no welfare scheme for journalists and their families in the state. And the way the fraternity has ignored the sufferings of such families, it is difficult to see a better future for the sufferers.
It is worth mentioning that Parvaz’s name figures among hundreds of journalists whose pictures are hanging as “Heroes of Freedom of Press” at the Washington based Newseum. But will such honours get the family out of their trauma and secure them justice? The question is indeed difficult to answer.
TRAIL OF MISERIES
Parvaz’s is not the only case in which journalists’ families are fighting a battle with their murders. During the last 21 years of conflict, journalists in Kashmir have faced a difficult time. Though a small community, it has paid the price of 11 journalists who fell to the bullets of either side. Both state and non-state actors have targeted the journalists for not toeing their line. There are many journalists who faced arrests, harassment, intimidation and kidnapping from both sides. Yusuf Jameela, a veteran journalist who has reported on Kashmir for more than 30 years escaped an assassination bid in his office when a pro-government militant group sent a parcel bomb to him. He survived, but his colleague and ANI photographer Mushtaq Ali bore the brunt and passed away. Pradeep Bhatia of Hindustan Times was on a professional visit to Srinagar in August 2000 to cover a devastating car explosion on Residency Road when another blast shook the area. Pradeep too got killed. Examples of Ghulam Mohammad Lone of Kangan and Mohammad Sidiq Sholoori are fresh in our minds. They were allegedly killed by security forces. The former disappeared in custody of CRPF in 1990. Their families are not without the scars of separation and have had a tough time surviving.
Unfortunately, there is no mechanism within the journalist fraternity to help the families of these victims. For those working in the local media, there is hardly any insurance cover. Despite so much of growth in the past 20 years, journalism is yet to come up as a full-fledged institution in Kashmir. Exploitation of working journalists has been an old story and the vagaries of conflict have further increased their dangers. The government has no policy of extending help except that ex-gratia relief is given to those who are killed by militants. But in most of these cases the investigations have not drawn any conclusions to declare that the victims were innocents. Unless the victim is proven to be innocent, his kith and kin are not eligible for government relief. And in many cases the ‘culprits’ were from the state apparatus, and giving a clean chit to the victim was not possible.
Though working conditions for journalists in Kashmir have seen a change, the professional hazards continue to loom large. In three years of unrest from 2008 to 2010, journalists were worst hit. The police and CRPF beat scores of them and publications of newspapers were suspended for many weeks. Habib Naqash, a veteran photojournalist has not missed any occasion when journalists were beaten by the security forces while discharging their professional duties. Daring the odds of survival, there are many such professionals who have braved the onslaught from both sides and never looked back.