India Today and the curious case of the stone-pelter’s confession
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India Today and the curious case of the stone-pelter’s confession

Kashmiri man says the video that India Today used as his confession in 2016 is from 2008

By Manisha Pande and Suhail A Shah

Published on :

On July 14, India Today went live with a story that sought to provide a perspective on the unrest in Kashmir when civilian protests in the Valley had claimed close to 40 lives. (The death toll today stands at 55.)

India Today’s Executive Editor Gaurav Sawant, who was reporting from Kashmir, claimed to have an exclusive video of a stone pelter confessing that he was paid to pelt stones at the forces.

As it turns out now, the boy in that video has come out stating that what India Today showed was shot back in 2008, when he was 19.

How is it that India Today, with a bureau in Srinagar and its Executive Editor on the ground, didn’t realise their narrative was pegged upon a video whose authenticity they themselves cannot verify? 

Video ga-ga

The video ‘confession’ by a stone pelter was used in three India Today programmes and one Aaj Tak debate. Sawant’s special reports were used by Rahul Kanwal for his show, Newsroom. Aaj Tak’s show, Halla Bol, saw Anjana Om Kashyap using the video to declare all stone pelters were for rent (“pattharbaaz kiraye ke…”).

When it was used in a bulletin, India Today’s anchor Padmaja Joshi said at one point: “…let’s also put in a small caveat, that this is not a video that can be independently verified by India Today. It has been released to us by our police sources.”

From a journalistic point of view, this means the video needs to be viewed with discretion.

On his nightly show, India First, Sawant used it to kick-off his ‘special broadcast’ — Pakistan’s mission Kashmir, Rs 100 crore to spark Valley unrest — without the “small caveat” that Joshi had mentioned. Sawant spoke passionately about the intense security situation in the Valley from “near the Dal Lake” — possibly the safest part of Srinagar and, incidentally, where the CRPF camp is stationed. This is only a minor quibble in this bulletin.

The near-20 minute programme, composed of mini special reports, and most of Sawant’s insights on Kashmir from his sojourn in Srinagar are pegged to the unverified video.

“We’ll get you a stone pelter on camera…on the cameras of the security forces…that they were paid to pelt stones at the security forces…,” he said before presenting the first special report, which starts off with the unverified video. Then a voiceover follows: “…young men seen using stones and bricks as lethal projectile weapons…caught by security forces during protests in downtown Srinagar have made startling revelations to the police.”

Notice the use of words like “they”, “men” and “have”.

Who are these “young men” and why is the plural being used for just one unverified video in which one boy states he was paid by Syed Ali Shah Geelani? Why didn’t Sawant or anyone else from India Today speak to some protesters instead of relying upon this one video to substantiate the narrative that the recent bout of unrest in Kashmir is sponsored by Pakistan?

Seemingly to balance the narrative, India Today showed a 20-second clip of a masked boy addressing the press and stating that stone pelters are not paid. Again, we are not told who this boy is or why he is addressing the press. All the while, you see “‘Rent-a-Pelter’ Plot” flashing on the screen.

Next on India First, Sawant spoke of getting an officer “on record”, who said one vehicle was stopped with large amounts of money, cloths and stones. “All of it going for stone-pelting, 100 crore rupees,” said Sawant.

Yet the report that followed had no further mention of the vehicle with Rs 100 crore. Where and when was this vehicle stopped? Who drove it? Where was it headed and which one of the forces operating in the Valley apprehended it?

No one expects Sawant to reveal his sources, but to not give the viewer the bare minimum details is simply bad reporting. Young men being used by vested interests to further an ideology is hardly unthinkable in a conflict zone. But where is the reporting to back up this point of view, especially since it’s the focus of Sawant’s report? Should he just rely on “police sources”?

The boy in the video 

Despite sending one of their more high-profile editors, India Today didn’t question the source who supplied them with the stone pelter’s ‘confession’. Neither did they investigate the story they were putting out with the rigour it deserves. If they had, then they would have found themselves face to face with Bilal Ahmad Dar, the boy in Sawant’s ‘exclusive’ video.

“People called, dropped by to see if it had happened to me, again,” 27-year-old Dar told Newslaundry, from his home in the Palpora locality of Noorbagh in Srinagar, six kilometres from Lal Chowk.

In 2008, when he was 19, Dar worked as a pharma salesman in a diagnostic lab in Karan Nagar, which is less than two kilometres from his home, using back alleys.

Dar does not remember the exact date, but he says his fateful encounter with Central Reserve Police Force took place around the end of July, when the Valley erupted in protests around the Amarnath land transfer.

“I was riding along with a friend on his bike, headed for the lab,” he recalled. “When we were midway, we got caught in street protests near Veer neighbourhood of Chattabal area.”

Dar remembers some protestors being chased by CRPF men. Seeing this, his friend jumped off the bike and ran away to save himself. Dar took control of the bike, made a U-turn, and was riding away when a man in civvies hit him hard on his left arm with a lathi. Both bike and Dar fell on the road.

“By then uniformed CRPF men had reached me,” alleged Dar. “They caught hold of me and took me to the nearby CRPF camp at Chattkadal Chowk.” He claimed that he was kept in custody for at least three and a half hours.

“Those three hours were the darkest of my life,” he said, adding that his left arm was broken but that the CRPF had kept beating him repeatedly on that same arm.

This was when Dar says he was filmed with a video camera. “My shirt was torn and used to tie up my hands. That’s why I’m shown only in a vest in that video,” he said. As Dar remembers the incident, the CRPF were intent upon getting the video. “They kept asking me to say whatever they wanted me to and I kept refusing till my body could not take any more of the torture,” said Dar.

“I knew what I was getting into, but there was no way out of the pain other than to give the CRPF men what they wanted.” Dar said that he had repeatedly begged the security forces to shoot him. “I was pleading with them to shoot me. The pain was so unbearable. I did not want to say the things they wanted me to. If you have had a look at the video, those are my first words. I really wanted to get shot and die at that point,” he said.

Once they were done filming, the CRPF handed Dar over to the Jammu and Kashmir police at the nearby Bagiyas police post, where he was given first aid and then taken to hospital. He was booked for stone-throwing.

Dar said that for the next one and a half years, he had to appear at a lower court in Lal Chowk before the case was quashed and he became a “free” man again.

Not that being free has done him much good. “Who will give a job to someone with a criminal record?” he asked. “Besides, I get picked up by the police in times of unrest and I am made to spend the day at the local police station. I have my name in police records, you see.”

Dar currently works at his brother’s workshop. They make jackets and bags. The video made that day was pushed to the back of his mind. “It never surfaced in any media before India Today’s ‘exclusive’,” he said. He elaborated on the story of the video to Rising Kashmir in an effort to clear his name.

Newslaundry reached out to Bagiyas police post to look into the first information report filed against Dar. We were told that the police post lost all its records in 2014 floods. We were directed to call up Safa Kadal police station. When we did so, we were told that the police would consider looking for Dar’s FIR, but only after the local situation calmed down. Since August 3, when an ATM guard was found dead in Chhatbal in Srinagar, the situation has been anything but calm and with curfew, it has not been possible for us to go to Safa Kadal to procure Dar’s FIR.

The mystery of the source 

How India Today got its hands on the video remains a mystery. Both Sawant and Kanwal did not respond to Newslaundry’s queries. Meanwhile, the video has angered some of the group’s employees in Kashmir.

“We have our credibility at stake here,” said one of them, requesting anonymity. He said the video was instantly recognised as an old one, and not because of Dar. The CRPF men in the video wore a particular headgear, which is apparently no longer in use. “Their new headgear comes with protection for the face attached,” said an India Today Group’s Srinagar employee.

When Newslaundry reached out to CRPF’s Public Relations Officer (PRO), Rajesh Yadav, he said we should seek clarification from the news channel concerned and the boy in the video. “We don’t have this video, neither have we released this video,” said Yadav categorically. “We saw this video for the first time on the channel itself. We have n number of videos with us, we are not in practice of releasing them through channels,” he said. When told the boy in the video had said it was old, Yadav said, “If you take a Kashmiri on face value, then it is up to you…”.

Inadvertently perhaps, Yadav touched upon the crux of the problem with reporting from Kashmir: whose version of reality do you believe?

Ideally, journalists should treat all versions with a healthy dose of scepticism. Police sources would not release a video unless it serves their purpose, especially in a hostile environment like Kashmir. The purpose here can be to win the perception battle, so that they aren’t viewed as just the bad guys who blind young men, women and children in Kashmir.

This is not the only reality, though. Just as being on duty in Kashmir comes with its challenges and dangers, equally real are the human rights violations, the pellet gun injuries and the fact that curfew doesn’t continue for a month if there isn’t genuine anger among civilians.

Journalists, like everyone else, have their biases and one only needs to look at Sawant’s Twitter timeline to see where his allegiances lie in the Kashmir story. While he’s most welcome to choose sides, being a journalist requires he back his convictions with real reporting, rather than a dodgy video that can’t be verified. It is possible to be a proud patriot and support the armed forces without doing PR for them using one’s professional platform.

There’s a responsibility that comes with journalism, particularly while covering volatile and sensitive areas like Kashmir. While Sawant has returned to the comfortable security of Delhi, back in the Valley, Dar is the one facing the consequences of Sawant’s report. “I am afraid to move out of my locality because some people, annoyed with my false accusations, might seek revenge,” said Dar.

Will you accept this anxiety at face value? And if you wouldn’t, think about why you’re suspicious of him and how much of your mindset has to do with how the violence in Kashmir has been portrayed on media.

Newslaundry
www.newslaundry.com