Mukhtar Baba: Meet the former Kashmiri journalist Indian security agencies – and media – call a terrorist

Security agencies have used a dubious dossier to claim the former mediaperson is a terrorist threatening journalists in Kashmir. Journalists in the valley say it is a means to a darker end.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari
Date:
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Mukhtar Baba has lived life dangerously. As a young man in the early 1990s, he became a militant who fought for Kashmiri separatism. But he gave up the gun, and as the Kashmiris say, was “mainstreamed”. In the two decades that followed, he had a second life as a journalist working with local and national media organisations. That changed earlier this month when he was dubbed a “terrorist”.

The accusation came in a purported “intelligence dossier” prepared in the wake of threats issued to Kashmiri journalists a few weeks ago. On November 13 and 14, a blacklisted blog called Kashmir Fight put out a list of over 40 journalists in the valley, many of them associated with the dailies Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir and the news channel ANN, and called them “traitors”, “stooges” and “chameleon actors of media” whose “fate is sealed”.

The threats had a chilling effect. A day later, NDTV reported that five journalists in the valley had resigned from their jobs.

Not long after, the Press Trust of India and the Times of India reported that an “intelligence dossier” prepared by unnamed security agencies after an “initial assessment” claimed Mukhtar Baba was the “mastermind” behind the threats.

Baba, in these media reports, wasn’t an alleged terror operative, or a former journalist purportedly accused by security agencies of being a terrorist, but a straight-up “Turkey-based terror operative”. The news channel CNN News18 was more direct, calling him “terrorist Mukhtar Baba” on Twitter. DNA and OpIndia also quoted extensively from the “dossier”.

Baba has since been booked under the anti-terror law UAPA and the Kashmir police are said to be looking for his alleged associates in the valley. 

The three-page “intelligence dossier”, accessed by Newslaundry, is titled “intelligence assessment/advisory”. 

The second paragraph of the seven-paragraph dossier claims that Baba was based out of Srinagar but escaped to Ankara, Turkey, from where he visits Pakistan. It claims that he is a “kingpin in building and propagating false narrative, grooming youngsters in the valley for terrorism under the banner of TRF”, meaning The Resistance Front, which the J&K police claim is a shadow group of the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba. It adds that he was able to make the threat list of journalists because he has built “a network of informers from within journalists”.

While the dossier declares that it gathered this information after “careful intelligence assessment” that was “based on inputs from our own sources”, at least some of the claims seem to come from Baba’s social media activity which includes pictures of him in Turkey in 2020 and 2021. Further, the Pakistani press has recorded his attendance at several fora in that country where Baba spoke on behalf of Masrat Alam Bhat, the jailed Kashmiri separatist leader who heads the Hurriyat Conference.

A Kashmiri journalist who spoke with Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity dwelt on the “one-sided” nature of the recent spate of media reports on Baba. “The information that Baba has informers among journalists and is working for TRF comes from the security agencies,” he said. “A journalist in Kashmir has no way to cross-check these claims. If I reach out to Baba for comment I can be targeted by the agencies under the pretext that I was in touch with him.”

Newslaundry contacted Baba for comment on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. This story will be updated if he responds.

Who is Mukhtar Baba?

In 1989, Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of then union home minister and future Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was kidnapped by militants in Srinagar. She was released in exchange for five jailed militants. A victory celebration ensued in Srinagar, but it was targeted by the police. It was this crackdown that pushed Baba to militancy.

This isn’t classified information. It’s what Baba himself told BBC back in 2009. The third para of the intelligence advisory states that at this time Baba was affiliated with the militant group Hizbullah. He later became associated with Masrat Alam Bhat, it adds, and played “a pivotal role in the 2010 summer agitation”.

The third and fourth paragraphs claim that Baba was “notorious for his coercive means to compel journalists and media outlets in valley to toe Pakistani and terrorist line in reporting and opinions”. It adds that as per reports, Baba was "placed in Turkey sometime in 2018” by an American. These claims were uncritically reported by IANS, CNN-News18 and DNA.

Baba wasn’t placed in Turkey in 2018. This reporter interviewed him in Srinagar in August 2019, a few days after Narendra Modi’s government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, removing Jammu and Kashmir’s residual autonomy and splitting the erstwhile state into a pair of union territories.

Baba was a fixture at the Srinagar Press Club then. He was not really a proactive reporter, more a loquacious storyteller, regaling visitors with tales of 1990s Kashmir. August 2019 was a tough time in Kashmir. There was no phone or internet connectivity and movement was heavily restricted.  Baba told Newslaundry that the “information blockade” was the most draconian he had ever seen. “We are back to the bloody stone age, man,” Baba exclaimed one evening. “We have not been in touch with our families, our friends, and our colleagues. They don’t know whether I’m alive and I don’t know whether they are alive.”

Baba had little more than interesting gossip and good jokes. But more than one journalist in Kashmir told me to not take him and his grand stories too seriously.

The Kashmiri journalist Newslaundry spoke to said Baba left for Turkey in late 2019, more than a year after he had launched a media platform. According to documents filed with the Registrar of Companies, Baba and a fellow journalist founded Medium to Media Private Limited, based out of Srinagar’s Sheikh Bagh, in June 2018. This entity, operating out of a room in a house owned by Baba, runs the news website Kashmir Press. Baba was its editor-in-chief.

Kashmir Press is no adda of pro-Pakistan or pro-separatist content. Its reportage includes everyday stories on Indian politics and opinion articles. According to the ‘About Us’ section of the website, Kashmir Press is “run by seasoned and professional journalists who are graduates of reputable local and international universities with the sole aim of providing quality news from ground zero”.

Baba’s LinkedIn profile states that he has a masters degree in political science. Besides journalism he has dabbled in public relations and was the consulting head of an event management company called Kashmir News Communications between 2000 and 2009.

According to two Kashmiri journalists who spoke with Newslaundry, the event management company worked on a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar function in Srinagar in 2018 which infamously fizzled out into slogans and early exits.

The larger picture

Since the Kashmir Fight published threats to journalists, the Kashmir police have searched the homes of several journalists. At least four journalists who spoke to Newslaundry feared that the threats could give the administration a reason to go after the valley’s journalists.

The searches were conducted at the homes of, aside from Baba, journalists Ishfaq Reshi, Muhammad Raafi, Saqib Mugloo, Wasim Khalid, and Hakim Rashid Maqbool; former journalists Khalid Gul, Sajad Krylari and Gowhar Gilani; and Haji Hayat, the businessman behind the Kashmir Reader newspaper.

Several of these journalists have been questioned more than once at Srinagar’s Shergarhi police station in the last two weeks, according to Kashmir Reader. But the police interrogations, journalists in the know said, have been more about the stories produced by these journalists rather than the threats issued against their colleagues.

Newslaundry contacted some of these journalists for comment, but their phones were switched off.

“The security agencies have wanted to crack down on journalists for a long time, but they did not have a handle,” a Srinagar-based journalist told Newslaundry. “This threat has become that handle.”

He added that in 2020 and 2021, at least four journalists were pursued by the police as part of the investigation into the 2018 assassination of Rising Kashmir editor Shujat Bukhari. “Their phones and laptops were seized,” the journalist said. “The police even said they had evidence. But they were ultimately given a clean chit.”

Threat lists are not unknown to Kashmir. In July this year, an article by one unidentified Majeed Ahmad in Rising Kashmir named 11 journalists and called them “vultures”, “anti-state” and “pro-Pakistan”. 

Nor is state intimidation. In the last two years Kashmiri journalists like Masrat Zahra and Fahad Shah have been booked under UAPA. Sanna Irshad Mattoo, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist, has been stopped from travelling outside India more than once.

Newslaundry reached out to the J&K police for comment. This story will be updated if we receive a response.

Correction: This story erroneously stated that Kashmir Press published opinion pieces by Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express. Kashmir Press only reposted a Facebook post of his, the veteran journalist did not contribute to the website. We regret the error.

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