When they weren’t traversing the valley for stories and reports, journalists in Kashmir could often be found at the Press Club in Srinagar or at the city’s so-called Media Facilitation Centre. While the former remained a territory of choice for most scribes, the latter became a territory of circumstance.
In a Kashmir subjected to a complete information blockade, journalists faced the twin challenges of information gathering and dissemination. Local journalists fared the worst. In the immediate aftermath of 370 abrogation, when restrictions and uncertainties were the heaviest, local scribes were singled out by the authorities and the forces. While “movement passes” were made available to reporters from the rest of the country with little difficulty, they were denied to entire newsrooms of reputed local newspapers. One Kashmiri journalist was even stopped and asked to turn back by a CRPF jawan because he “looked like Burhan Wani”.
But with the exception of some friends of the Indian state, almost all journalists faced a severe bout of information distress: news was slow to travel, often dangerous to collect and always hard to export. So it was in the company of their peers that journalists in Kashmir learnt about new developments, discussed and debated issues, and made reporting plans.
Early afternoons and late evenings at the Press Club of Kashmir became the site of such rendezvous. Located by the slender Polo View Road of the Kashmiri capital, the Club is three structures strong: with a grey, dominating duplex which was usually locked; and two adjoining huts — one for the kitchen and the other for visitors. A verandah outside was furnished with chairs, tables and sun umbrellas where tea, coffee and toast were laid and often consumed with cigarettes. In the hut meant for visitors, a television screen blared Indian news channels all day, but it hardly found an audience. When journalists wanted news, they switched to BBC, Al Jazeera or TRT.
The Club is just above a year old. In fact, it held its first (and controversial) election just a couple of weeks before the clampdown on the Valley.
Conversations were the highlight at the Press Club. The subjects ranged from matters as international as the UNSC’s closed-door meeting on Kashmir to local ones like protests, arrests and stone-pelting. Discussions on the tension between India and Pakistan were made poignant by the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) jets that would circle Srinagar skies at night. A reporter freshly returned from South or North Kashmir would be heard earnestly, and there were always questions allocated for scribes from national media outlets. ‘What did you report today?’ seemed to be the most recurring one.
The Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar | Photograph by Daanish Bin Nabi
At the Press Club, one regularly met tired reporters with slagging shoulders who hadn’t slept well in days; worried scribes who had not heard from their spouses, children and friends since August 4; journalists from the West who landed their opinions on Kashmir in trouble and invited long lectures from local journalists; and those from the national media who would do odd things like launching didactic monologues on the plight of the Kashmiri people. To their credit, the local journalists would simply put on an ironic expression and lend an ear. They were never so impolite to tell the fellow to sod off.
The Press Club had a broadband facility which had been cut off by the government on August 4. A day or two after 370 was abolished, a J&K police van had passed by the Press Club and made a megaphone announcement asking journalists to go home. Another day, we heard a series of loud yells outside the Club. When an anxious half a dozen scribes rushed outside, we realised it was the same police van crassly harassing locals who had dared to open their grocery shops and resume livelihood.
Inside the Kashmir Press Club | Photo by Daanish Bin Nabi
Once while reporting on a story on Srinagar’s taxi stands, I met a group of Kashmiris and pumped up their tempers after revealing I was from Delhi and, worse, from the press. A molten discourse on the lies of the Indian media began and I started taking notes. But when I pulled out my camera-phone and tried to capture their rage, an elderly man walked up to me, placed his hand on my shoulder, and asked me to leave right away. It took me a few days to understand why he did it. Many ordinary Kashmiris genuinely believe that if they speak against the Indian state on camera, they could get into serious trouble.
But journalists also faced artillery on the other bank. A well-known television reporter of an Indian channel had been allegedly told by the high offices that he would be “fixed” if he did not stop reporting inconvenient facts. It was hardly surprising when this journalist was recently asked to vacate his government accommodation. And this when those who spoke the state’s tongue were bestowed with internet access, personal guards and special vehicles. The same ilk in Delhi deceitfully turned against members of their own profession when they bothered to give space to popular resentment in the Valley.
While fear, suspicion, anger and hatred could translate into non-engagement with “Indian journalists”, it could also erupt and become ugly. Journalists of an aggressive Indian news channel were assaulted in their hotel in Srinagar. A car of a newswire agency was stoned and smashed in one of the more peaceful and swish parts of the city. An eye-witness told me that the journalist of the agency was keenly reporting on how normal and ordinary things were in Kashmir. This really pissed off some locals. When I approached the journalist later and inquired innocently about the incident, he said it was a charas-bloated local auto-driver who had turned violent in his drugged state.
One way to skirt these obstacles was to claim one was associated with a media outlet that Kashmiris liked. In the event that you were asked to produce your press card and prove it, it was better to claim that one’s organisation was a vertical of the favoured media outlet. This worked in my favour throughout the two weeks I reported from the Valley. I later learnt that some Indian channels had gone a step further. They had stepped out for reporting after printing and pasting BBC stickers on their mics. This led to awkward situations, especially when actual BBC reporters were informed by locals that their colleagues had met them just hours ago.
On August 13, a friend informed me that internet facilities had been made available to journalists at a Srinagar hotel. The news came as a relief, since pendrive journalism had become increasingly frustrating. One local journalist working for a national daily, for instance, had been flying to Delhi almost every other day with pendrives. He would leave in the morning and return to Srinagar in the evening.
Others who did manage an internet connection either squandered it or were very secretive about it. A journalist living near the Airport road in Srinagar somehow had a working broadband internet connection during the initial days of the clampdown. But once he told enough people about it, the word spread and the connection was snapped.
The state-endowed “Media Facilitation Centre” was located at the Sarovar Portico Hotel, at the feet of the Shankaracharya Hill in Srinagar. It had one mother computer with a working LAN connection, and three others that received WiFi from the mother computer’s hotspot. Three clueless pen-pushing, desk-sucking blotter-jotters of the Directorate of Information had been assigned to troubleshoot problems on these computers. Besides this, a cheap, primitive plastic phone with a network connection had also been instituted so journalists could call their mothers and editors.
The Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar
Every day, around a hundred journalists tried to get access to the four computers and one phone. The hours that could have been spent reporting were instead spent in queues to access modern technology. To make things worse, the bloody internet hardly worked. It was slow and the troubleshooters slower. For two consecutive days it lagged and fluctuated. To avoid giving up their hard-earned access to the internet, journalists would often play the jumping dinosaur game on Google Chrome rather than walk away and show up later.
This is what made the media centre a territory of circumstance. Journalists had to turn up even if they did not wish to. After a few days of long queues, we managed to extract the WiFi password from one of the computers and connect our phones. By the end of that week, almost every journalist in the room had the password and stories were being sent from their mobile phones. The queues at the computer decreased. The blotter-jotters were perplexed and dismayed. They sensed espionage and began changing the password every day. The passwords reflected their mood — from a cheerful ‘golfview@321,’ one day it changed to ‘nation@123’ and then to ‘stalin@123’. According to a notebook page where I noted these down, one password even stooped to ‘tension@789’.
The blotter-jotters regained their wits one day and turned the internet connection to ‘hidden’. We cracked that too. Those who couldn’t had quite a showdown with these fellows. One senior journalist from Mumbai was heard thundering at them: “We journalists might be your only problem; but you are only one of our problems.”
In addition to phone and internet, daily press conferences were also held at the Media Facilitation Centre. In the initial days, there were two of them daily, but it was soon cut down to one after things became increasingly embarrassing for Rohit Kansal, the spokesman and the Principal Secretary (Planning) of the state government.
Journalists working on computers with internet connectivity at the Media Centre. Others wait.
He would march in everyday with a junior from the Information Directorate and the Inspector General (IG) and make the most broad and general assertions: things are getting normal, the situation is improving, restrictions are being relaxed, communication is being restored, and so on. As soon as journalists demanded the details, he would struggle. “Mr Kansal, how do you define improvement?”, “Mr Kansal, how many landlines have been restored?” or “Mr Kansal, which restrictive measure has been relaxed and to what extent?”
A glib Kansal would either field pet phrases and not answer the questions (“I’ve stated the facts, you’re free to go to the ground and verify them for yourself.”) or make claims that were far from true. One day, he claimed that 23,000 landline connections had been restored in the Valley. Reporters went around Srinagar to verify this and found there were only 4 connections working in the entire capital.
Besides the resistance and rancour, there were also moments that brought amusement. Like when a Kashmiri journalist confronted a reporter from a pro-establishment Indian news channel about their dishonest dispatches from Kashmir, the reporter simply said his bosses in Delhi were “running their shops” and so was he (dukaan chala rahein hai is the exact phrase). One day a well-known senior photographer from Delhi showed up at the media centre. He sat some journalists down and regaled them with juicy anecdotes and gossip from Delhi. The zing in his recollections was enough for the journalists to transmit the tales further at the Press Club and add some laughter to the evenings.
The ailments that journalists have been facing in Kashmir did not subside when I flew back after two weeks in the Valley. In fact, the blotter-jotters most likely outfoxed the password-cracking scribes at the media centre. I have not received Whatsapp replies from friends who I knew could manage to channel the WiFi connection to their phones. My suspicions were confirmed on September 3, when the Kashmir Press Club released a statement on the dismal state of services at the Media Centre.
The statement also “expressed serious concern over the harassment of Kashmiri journalists and pressure tactics adopted by the government.”
In any polity that nurtured democratic values and institutions, the draconian clampdown of such a gargantuan scale would’ve invited opprobrium and backlash for the government in power. But in Kashmir, the Indian government has instead been trampling confidently over both civil liberties and genuine concerns about civil liberties. The consequences of this will not be—like other things—manageable. On August 5, Kashmir felt like a giant prison, but it is now slowly turning into a giant madhouse.