On 30 September 2020, I, along with a photojournalist colleague, Bhat Burhan, drove to Ludhiana, Punjab, for an assignment for Business Insider, a New York-based publication. Our assignment was to cover the ongoing farmer protests. While in Ludhiana, we stayed in a hotel and visited protesting farmers in Moga, Barnala, and Khanna villages for this story. We even posted a few photographs from the protests on social media.
We finished our work in Punjab on 3 October and left Ludhiana in the afternoon, driving back to Srinagar in my personal vehicle. We arrived at Jammu at around midnight and stayed in a hotel before continuing our journey home – to Srinagar – the next morning. At around 10 am on 4 October, we resumed our journey.
There were frequent traffic jams on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway because of the poor condition of the road, and we arrived at the Jawahar Tunnel at around 5.30 pm. As soon as we came out of the tunnel, we saw police and paramilitary forces stopping every approaching vehicle.
The moment our car was seen, I was asked to park on the side. A government forces’ personnel wearing a black T-shirt with “Commando” written over it directed us to hand over our identity cards. Once the “Commando” saw my name, he went to a senior officer who was standing a little away. “Sir, this is the person,” I heard him telling the officer, pointing to my ID card. Within no time, over a dozen police personnel with assault rifles encircled us. We were asked to get down from the car. The senior officer demanded that we hand over our mobile phones to him. The officer asked me to unlock my phone, which I did, and he dialled some numbers, using his own phone as some sort of a reference. My colleague was not asked to unlock his phone but both of us were asked to wait. We were exhausted from the long journey (from Punjab) and were shocked, not knowing what was wrong and with how we were treated.
I mustered some courage and asked the senior officer the reason behind detaining us on the road. He did not respond to my query. He kept on talking on the phone with someone else, perhaps his senior. Half an hour later, the senior officer asked us to sit back in the car. We did that. The policemen still surrounded us. After some time, the officer asked us to get down again. The senior officer then told another policeman to bring a police truck and take us to the police station. We refused to sit in the truck. At this point, one of the police personnel got agitated.
“I will drag you like a dog, you bastard. Cooperate with us or I will show you what we can do,” the police personnel told me. Then, I told the senior officer that we are not criminals nor have we broken the law in any manner and that we will not get into the police truck. I told him that if they have to take us to the police station, we would go in our own car. The officer again walked away to call someone, perhaps the senior officer. When he returned, he asked a policeman to drive our car. A policeman took the steering and I was made to sit in the passenger seat while my colleague was made to sit with policemen on either side at the back seat. We were terrified because nobody knew what was happening to us. I started wondering if we were killed somewhere, no one will even know about it.
Seeing that we were worried, the senior officer told me, “Don’t worry I am also following you, I am coming too.” We realised that this checkpoint was erected specifically for us, because the moment our car started moving, all other policemen rushed to their vehicles to follow us.
We arrived at the Qazigund police station and I was told to accompany some police personnel who searched my car and directed me to open my luggage and checked everything thoroughly. At the police station, we were made to wait in the office of the Station House Officer for about forty-five minutes. The SHO wasn’t there.
Once he arrived, the interrogation started. He asked us questions about our age, our families, which schools did we attend, when did we start working as journalists, where has our journalistic work appeared et cetera. He also brought us water and tea and said that a senior officer was coming to speak to us. I kept on asking him about the reason for our detention and questioning. He replied that he didn’t know. I also requested him to allow us to make a phone call to our families — who at that point did not know our whereabouts — so that they don’t worry about our delay in returning home. Our phones were switched off, according to friends who had attempted to reach out during the time we were missing. He refused and asked us to wait until the senior officer arrived.
At about 8 pm, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Mohammad Shafi, arrived at the station and asked others to leave the room. It was this DySP, who had brought us to the police station from the checkpoint at the tunnel along with the SHO and the senior officer. Now the DySP had begun questioning us. He also repeated the questions about our ages, education, family et cetera. He also asked questions about our travel to Punjab. We answered every question.
He then asked me whether we have become a journalist without any qualification, implying that we were not qualified to be journalists. The police officers didn’t ask anything that would explain the reason for our detention.
The DySP then asked about what exactly had we reported about the Kashmir situation so far. He made a specific reference to a report about a gunfight in Damhal-Hanji Pora in Kulgam that we — The Kashmir Walla — had published back in May 2020. I told him that we had reported what happened and that the police would have issued a rebuttal if they had any problem with the report. He, however, didn’t elaborate further on this.
We had thought that nobody knew about our detention. But somehow a few journalist friends in Srinagar had found out. Perhaps a policeman in the station had told someone about our detention. The officers questioning us then started receiving multiple calls from our worried friends and colleagues, who were calling police officials in-charge of the jurisdiction where they knew we were last at. None of them had an inkling that the officers were answering those calls as they were questioning us. We heard the DySP deny having detained journalists. “No we haven’t picked anyone from the tunnel, I will still check,” he kept on telling callers while we sat in front of him.
The police officers then checked the videos and pictures on our cameras and asked us questions about them. These pictures and videos were from our assignment regarding the farmers’ protest in Punjab. After some time, the DySP asked another officer–who was waiting for us at the tunnel, a young officer whose name badge was hidden by the jacket he was wearing–about which of the two were they seeking to question. The officer responded with my name. After this rigorous questioning, we were taken out of the room while the DySP spoke to someone over the phone.
Sometime later, we were asked to come back inside the room and then the questioning resumed. This time, however, the DySP also told us that journalists needed to show “self-restraint” and report “cautiously” considering “national security”. I told him that we reported facts and nothing else. However, referring to our coverage of a gun fight and its aftermath in Srinagar city, the DySP said that there have been issues with our reporting. I told him that I was summoned by the police in connection with our coverage of a particular incident in Srinagar and we defended our work which was based on the facts.
It was around 9:15 pm that the DySP asked someone to bring our cellphones and ID cards. The SHO wrote a statement mentioning that my car, phones, and other belongings were returned without any tampering. He asked both of us to sign it, which we did. They also asked us to sign on a ledger. Then the DySP asked me if there is anyone in Qazigund who knows me so that they would hand us over to him. We, however, didn’t know anyone in Qazigund. The DySP insisted that they can release us only if somebody from Qazigund takes the responsibility in writing. At this point, our families were still unaware about our detention. I told him that if he allowed me to call a friend, it could help us arrange a local person who will take our responsibility.
Finally, at 9:30 pm, I called a friend, who sent someone he knew in Qazigund. The local person was asked to sign our release form and we were also asked to sign it too. After this, the DySP said: “We only helped you, now don’t make an issue out of it. It is our duty.”
We left the police station around 10 pm. We were extremely worried while we drove back home. Since our release, I have tried to find out the reason for our illegal detention and the treatment as if we had committed a heinous crime. However, I have not been given any answers so far.
Our detention was illegal and we believe that it is in line with how journalists are routinely harassed, summoned to police stations, treated like criminals, and intimidated because we report facts. The continued harassment is taking a toll on my mental health and impacting the work we do at The Kashmir Walla.
We have not broken any law. We have not committed any crime. Journalism is not a crime. Why are we being treated like this–harassed and intimidated? I am extremely worried about the safety of my colleagues and myself.
This article was originally published on The Kashmir Walla.