Suhail A Shah was commissioned by Newslaundry to write a story about the victims of the recent violence in Kashmir. You can read the final story here. This is an account of his experiences while reporting the story.
On July 8,Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani was killed in a gunfight with a contingent of the Indian Army, along with two associates at Bumdoora village in Anantnag district, 75 kilometres south of Srinagar. The news spread like wildfire.
A day later, curfew was announced in the southern districts by the authorities. Despite the restrictions, over two lakh people poured into Tral to pay tributes to their “fallen hero.” Violent clashes broke out in other parts of the Valley, and 15 people were killed, the majority from south Kashmir. It was the beginning of what would end up to be almost 18 days of curfew.
I was in Tral to cover the Wani funeral and from there, making my way back to my home in south Kashmir was a challenge. I made the journey back avoiding the national highway, taking back alleys instead. They were by far safer than many public roads.The national highway cuts through the major towns in Kashmir including Bijbehara, Sangam, Awantipora, Pampore and Lethpora. Whenever there are protests, the highway becomes a battleground where the youth and the security forces clash. So it’s always advisable to avoid the highway if you’re travelling during unrest.
From Tral to Bijbehara should be a 40-minute drive, but it took us more than two hours, driving through woods and lesser known villages to avoid any confrontation with the protestors or the security forces. We were stopped at a few places by the local youth. We did not tell anybody we were journalists. All we needed to tell them was we were coming back from Burhan’s house and their faces brightened up.
“Come back and stay at our place if you are not able to reach your place,” they told us invariably. Or, “You can stay for some time and have lunch with us.”
Once back home, I was asked if I would do a story reporting on the situation on the ground reality. I said yes. Doing justice to my work means to report the truth and to report the truth, you have to reach ground zero. There is no substitute to that and so I started trying to reach out to families of those who had been injured or killed in the recent and ongoing clashes.
However, getting through to contacts was not easy. The authorities had suspended cell phone and mobile internet services across Kashmir in a bid to stop people from mobilising. (State-owned BSNL’s mobile service initially remained unbarred because of the ongoing Amarnath Yatra, and presumably to keep government communication/business unhindered. By day four of curfew, that would change and BSNL services would also be completely shut down for one and a half days – from the evening of July 11 till 13th morning – in my hometown, Bijbehara.)
Meanwhile, reporting from ground zero was proving to be impossible. Civilians and the security forces had been fighting pitched battles. There was no safe passage for people who wanted to move out.
I still managed to find safe passage, avoiding clashes, on a few occasions, but was stopped by the forces deployed at the peripheries of Bijbehara in Anantnag. I tried to reason with the J&K police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel by showing my press card. Usually, the relationship between the police and the media is cordial. However the moment there is unrest, the media becomes an instant target. To be attacked, beaten and even detained as a journalist or photographer is nothing new in Kashmir.
This time, I was told at different points by the police forces that the media has been equally responsible for, “adding fuel to the fire.” “We have orders not to allow any media person to move around,” a masked policeman told me on one occasion. (The police and other security personnel deployed to quell protests do not wear nameplates.)
On another occasion, I thought I had reached a safe spot but as I was approaching the barricade erected by the police, stones came showering from different sides on the police deployment and I had to run for cover to keep myself from literally getting caught in the middle.
About four days into the curfew, my contacts were reduced to whoever I could contact using BSNL mobile services to communicate. While I was talking to one of them to line up an interview, my eardrums were almost shattered by a barrage of bullets, followed by bursts of teargas shells. I snapped the phone shut and ran out of my house, only to find three still bodies of young boys, whether dead or alive I didn’t know, lying a few hundred meters from my house.
Men, women and young children were shouting, “The boys were murdered by policemen.” The boys were rushed to the nearest medical facility, from where they were referred to Srinagar for specialised treatment. Eyewitnesses, including Aamir’s uncle, Syed Hussain, and three doctors present at Sub-District Hospital in Bijbehara, alleged that security forces had ransacked the local hospital as preparations were being made to shift the boys to Srinagar.
Allegations of vandalising ambulances and targeting the injured and their attendants have surfaced in the form of news reports like this from many parts of the Valley. A report in The Hindustan Times stated that close to 50 ambulances were attacked by security forces in Kashmir. The authorities have largely remained tightlipped about these allegations.
One of the boys who I’d seen lying on the road was 23-year-old AamirNazir, a post-graduate student of Commerce in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). He was shot on July 11 and succumbed to bullet wounds on July 12. In no time,Bijbehara became a besieged place. BSNL services were cut off in the evening of July 11. Hundreds of people, defying police restrictions, gathered outside Nazir’s home in mourning, shouting anti-India and pro-freedom slogans. (At least 15 people were killed over the next 14 days, after Nazir was laid to rest at the martyr’s graveyard in Bijbehara.)
Meanwhile,I was forced indoors. A curfew pass would come handy but I was told I’d have to travel more than 7 km to the district headquarters in the town of Anantnag to get this pass from the Deputy Commissioner’s office. I decided against it. I’d heard about colleagues being manhandled and harassed on their way to Anantnag and didn’t want to risk that.
Manhandling can mean getting pushed around by the forces, cameras and other equipment being seized, and expletives being hurled at you for being a Kashmiri. For instance, photojournalist Muneeb-ul-Islam was stopped by the Central Reserve Police Force in Anantnag. His camera was taken away and he was pushed around by the troopers. “They used abusive language and threatened to thrash me black and blue,” he alleged.
The security forces were not the only ones harassing journalists. With some in national media describing Wani as a womaniser, there was widespread public resentment against journalists for having misrepresented the militant commander. Journalist Shafat Mir, who works with the Kashmir chapter of India Unheard, was heckled and his equipment snatched in the outskirts of Anantnag by some young men. “They accused me of spreading lies against BurhanWani and not reporting facts. It took me three hours to get my equipment back,” Mir told me.
Similar incidents have been reported from Srinagar and other parts of the simmering Valley.
Since the day after Wani’s funeral, a media gag was placed on Kashmiri press. This is not the first time newspapers have been clamped in such a manner. In 2010, when violence spiraled out of control and killings took place almost every day, the Omar Abdullah government had, in a similar fashion, barred the circulation of newspapers.
The prime concern of the government in such situationsis to stop the free flow of information about protests and about killings so that passions do not flare as the news spreads. This is supposed to break cycles of violence. The government spokesperson, Naeem Akhtar, was quoted as saying of the media crackdown, “The undesirable step has been taken to ensure peace, to save lives and strengthen peace efforts.”
Growing up in the turbulent 1990s, in the Kashmir valley, has left a mark on everyone from my generation. For me, it led to wanting to tell the stories of the people around me: of massacres, of killings and disappearances. It’s possibly because of others who nursed the same dream that Kashmir has such a vibrant media scene today. This is particularly important in a conflict zone. The news and how its reported act as a mirror for the government to learn from their mistakes (that said, I don’t think the Centre or State have ever learned from theirs). For the average person, it’s a way to keep track and record of whatever is happening to them, whatever is being done to them and in their name.
Since July 21, newspapers are back in print and as of July 26, curfew has been lifted. So far, close to 55 civilians and two policemen have died. Following violent clashes in some parts of the Valley including Srinagar, restrictions on free movement have been re-imposed.
The Valley is slowly limping back to what passes for normalcy here. The number of killings per day has come down considerably but protests are still on and injuries owing to pellet guns continue. For the rest of India, Kashmir is no longer worthy of headlines. Here, though, there are thousands of stories waiting to be heard, documented and told.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Suhail_Shah13