Putting their lives on the line, local scribes had to risk everything to piece together a story.
In the early nineties, two brothers had been tortured to death by the Border Security Force in Nawa Kadal area of old Srinagar. Prominent journalist Yusuf Jameel filed a detailed report about the killings for a newspaper in New Delhi. Next day, he was shocked to find that his copy had been altered and it didn’t convey the essence of the incident. He phoned his editor.
“The editor told me ‘look Yusuf, it is an unfortunate thing if a person is killed but when you talk about Kashmir, even the killing of 10 people doesn’t make a story anymore’,” said Jameel who works with Voice of America and Deccan Chronicle newspaper.
He narrated this conversation to make a point: Kashmir was witnessing a new normal then. A society in rebellion was transforming in a radical way. For journalists, as Jameel recounts, the times were especially hard.
“We faced the daunting task of reporting when information was hard to come by. You had to walk the extra mile for even rudimentary details,” said Jameel.
Death threats by both sides of the insurgency were common. Jameel has been threatened with death six times in the 36 years of his professional life. A parcel bomb delivered to his office on 7 September 1995—grapevine has it that government-sponsored militiamen were behind it—killed his friend and photojournalist Mushtaq Ali, after whom the hub of newspaper offices on the Residency Road has been named as Mushtaq Enclave.
The incident shook his family as well as the local journalistic community.
“I wouldn’t talk about my work at home. After that parcel bomb my father got a heart attack and my mother went into depression. I had alopecia [hair loss] due to stress,” he said.
Days later, he asked his teary-eyed wife how she felt about it.
“She said that I should continue it if I feel like. Deep down, I knew, everyone was scared,” Jameel said.
In fact, a friend of his invoked the Prophet’s migration to Madina to persuade Jameel to leave the Valley and practice journalism elsewhere. He stayed. Dangers persisted.
One particular Eid, he was asked by his editors to file a story on the killing of seven people that day. It was a holiday and no official would take his call. Jameel talked to a fellow journalist and filed the unverified story that blamed a clash between two militant groups for the killings.
“The next day I received life threat from one of the militant outfits telling me ‘you are a dead man in the next 48 hours’. I was supposed to present myself before the leadership of a militant outfit, although I had admitted that I should have spoken to other sources for the story,” said Jameel.
Then, in a very bold move that eventually made the militants see his point, Jameel issued a statement:
“I am not going to present myself before the leadership of Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen but I will be in Lal Chowk at 1pm tomorrow. They can shoot me.”
None turned up.
Many other journalists were sailing in the same boat, by and large.
Before the anti-India insurgency went full throttle in 1990, veteran journalist Zafar Meraj had a tryst with the dangers of reporting a story. He had interviewed resistance leader Shabir Shah, who was underground then, for India Today magazine in 1988. Zafar’s office, those days, was at the Bund. Right next it was Intelligence Bureau’s local office.
“When the story was published, the IB officials questioned me,” said Zafar. He was suspected of having links with Shah.
It appears that as the dangers grew, so did the journalists’ passion to report.
Zafar recalls that he was conversing with noted BBC journalists Mark Tully and Satish Jacob one day when then-governor Jagmohan issued an order asking all foreign journalists to leave Kashmir immediately.
“I told Mark to stay. While all journalists left, Mark stayed with me at my home. Jagmohan imposed curfew. Telephone lines were snapped. But my sister living next door had an ‘essential’ phone connection. I connected her phone with mine. Mark reported from my house and the government had no clue about where this BBC reporter was reporting from in Kashmir,” said Zafar.
One day, Zafar and several other journalists were travelling in a vehicle. They had to interview Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik, who was an underground guerilla then.
“But travelling along with us was a militant named Javaid who was armed with a pistol and a grenade. There were dozens of bunkers en route. We were freaked out. Luckily, the troopers didn’t stop the bus. But if they had, it could have turned dangerous. Incidents like that still give me goose bumps,” Zafar said.
On December 8, 1995, Zafar was shot at and injured by the men of a counterinsurgency militia, Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, sponsored by the government. He launched his newspaper, Kashmir Monitor, in 1998. By then, as many as 13 journalists had lost their lives.
Shujaat Bukhari, Editor Rising Kashmir newspaper, remembers Srinagar as the “city of bunkers” in the nineties.
“I remember walking past about 19 bunkers from Press Enclave to Tulsibagh then,” he said.
The rural areas were scarier.
During a media event in Sopore, Bukhari recalls, a gunfight broke out between militants and army.
“We took shelter inside a bunker. We were in that bunker for about four hours,” he said.
The bunker episode was followed by the abduction of 24 journalists in 1995. Bukhari was among them.
While travelling to Anantnag to attend a press conference addressed by government sponsored Ikhwan militia commander Nab Azad, the journalists’ bus was hijacked by a militant group.
“One of the militants said ‘we want five people who represent local newspapers’. Clearly, they begrudged local newspapers for little coverage of militants,” said Bukhari.
Bukhari and four other journalists were separated and the rest were asked to leave.
“We were kept in a single room where a militant commander told his boys ‘I want five bodies in the morning’. For 24 hours we were in captivity. Then we were released,” he said.
The conflict, as Kashmir Observer Editor Sajjad Haider says, became the “university” for a new crop of journalists who joined the profession in the nineties. Most of them lacked professional schooling and training.
Sajjad said that because of the inaccessibility of sources, reporters depended on military and militants for information.
“But as both sides were trying to outdo each other, we would usually lose the facts, and truth became the casualty,” he said.
Sajjad calls the chaos surrounding the journalism those days as “the fog of war.” He believes many things “are still hidden, unreported.”
Internationally acclaimed novelist Mirza Wahid used to write a satire column, Bitter Notes, for Kashmir Observer. Once, the office machine had developed a snag and Wahid was requested to fax his column to a phone booth in Rajbagh. A staff member was sent to collect it.
“It was about 8pm. When our colleague reached the phone booth, he found some men of the Special Task Force present there. They had to make some phone calls. The STF men noticed the fax coming. The column headlined ‘Clinton, Monica and Kashmir’ caught their attention. They detained our staffer and took him to Cargo (an infamous interrogation cum torture centre). Probably the ‘foreign’ connection excited the STF people,” said Sajjad.
The phone booth owner came running to the Kashmir Observer office and narrated the entire episode.
“Such was the fear of the STF that we left the poor guy at their mercy for the night. When two of our senior staff members went to the Cargo they too were held hostage for three hours. At noon they were finally allowed to take the detained staffer home. The poor fellow, with a lot of ambition for journalism, decided never to work for a newspaper. He has since been selling paint,” said Sajjad.
Some hardened scribes, however, have stayed put even after having close encounters with death several times. Ace photographer Habib Naqash is among them.
It was Naqash who had received the parcel bomb meant for Jameel.
“I insisted on opening the pack but Mushtaq snatched it from me and opened it,” he said.
“There was an explosion. Next thing I remember was pain in my burnt arm and legs. I was lying on ground outside the office,” said Naqash.
Veteran journalist Sheen Meem Ahmad can be displayed as a living miracle by an overenthusiastic evangelist before a congregation. On 10 February 1995, the government sponsored Ikhwan militiamen knocked at the door of his home.
“Through a window, I saw them with guns. I had no option but to open the door. My entire family was at home. They said ‘we have come to take you with us’. I was worried about my family so I went with them. They took me to a damaged house at Malabagh. I knew the owner of the house very well. My family had been helping him for a long time. They kept me there till Sehri. There was another captive with me, a young boy from Zakura,” said Ahmad.
He was then taken to an old Pandit house in Rainawari. About 50 militiamen guarded the house.
“A man came and started questioning me but his questions made no sense. Then he said ‘how dare you write against India?’ I said every journalist did that. One of them told me that I would be killed that night only. They bundled me into an auto-rickshaw and took me to Nowhatta, right next to the police station. We walked into a lane where they first set me free and then fired at me. Some bullets hit me and many went right through my pheran. They ran away. With whatever strength that was left in me I shouted for help. A family came out and rescued me. The fear was such that taking me to hospital wasn’t feasible. But somehow they saved my life,” recounted Ahmad.
Sajjad Bazaz is Editor Corporate Communication, J&K Bank. He was an active journalist through 80s and 90s. In the 90s, a journalist’s job was akin to walking on the razor edge, says Bazaz. Forces, according to him, showed no respect for press cards. “People loved to talk to journalists, but the security forces didn’t acknowledge press cards.” Bazaz believes that in the fear and mayhem of the 90s, truth was as much a casualty as the journalists who were duty-bound to bring it to the fore.