Kashmir: Politics, Politicians, People


In the just concluded Lok Sabha elections, Syed Shadab Ali Gillani was supposed to meet the politicians who were in the contest and accompany them to their rallies across Kashmir. He recorded his first-hand account of the highs and lows of a challenging assignment that came early in his career

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“I am sorry, I could not serve you,” was the curt one-liner I received once I reached my office late in the afternoon after finishing my campaign trail with veteran politician Mian Altaf. I along with my colleague Umar Dar had spent a tiring day covering his rally down south and talking to him while travelling to various venues. We lacked time to have any refreshments either, moving out of Srinagar or on our way back home.

Shuttling between venues and passing through the crowds, politicians during the campaign mostly carry juices, packaged water, and in certain cases, light lunches along. By and large, however, I saw even this missing in Kashmir, this election season. That is why Mian Sahab felt it even after we finished the hectic day.

For Kashmir, the Lok Sabha 2024 was very important as after a gap of almost five years, since the reading down of Article 370, some election of any significance was taking place. When the newsroom assigned the campaign trail and one-on-one interviews with contestants to me, I was both excited and nervous. As a junior, I lacked exposure to the political landscape, experience and contacts. There were no escapes. It was both a challenge and an opportunity.

For almost one month I remained too busy covering Kashmir’s political landscape. As expected, the journey was not smooth. It was a lesson that politics is transacted differently on the ground than in newspapers. From travelling miles to reaching destinations and managing appointments, everything came with its own sets of challenges. My editor and other colleagues helped a lot in this process from giving inputs to facilitating the interviews. There were rejections, delays and a lot of travel and loads of pain. The maze of access to political beings was painful. Sometimes, it was too frustrating. The assignment led me to hugely compromise my biological clock.

The Moon Led My Way

On May 15, afternoon, we travelled to Kupwara to interview Fayaz Mir, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate. We reached Kupwara around 6 pm and his residence but to our dismay he was not around; his colleague offered us some tea and later told us about Mir’s location. When we reached there, Mir was addressing a gathering. Once free, he suggested interviewing him but the conversation eventually took place at his next public meeting. The interview finished by 8:15 pm.

As the interview was taking place, we were constantly in touch with the brother of Engineer Rasheed who lives in Mawer, Handwara. In jail for the last five years, his two sons were campaigning for him and drawing huge crowds. We wanted to talk to Rasheed’s elder son Abrar, a student, pushed by the situation to campaign for his father.

It was in the dead of the night when we reached his home. There, we saw a crowd waiting to meet the two brothers. An hour later, I saw Abrar getting in after his day-long campaigning. We thought the challenging part was over and we would be able to have a conversation in peace, people interrupted and it happened twice. Some of these visitors were strangers to the family, who had come from distant places to greet the brothers. Interestingly and intriguingly one man from Bandipore just came to shake hands and clicked a selfie with Abrar, that too in the middle of the night, and left.

It was already 12:30 am Umar’s cameras stopped rolling. They offered us dinner but we refused. Instead, we decided to drive back home to Srinagar. As we started, it was the moon leading the way. As we updated the office, our colleagues were concerned and unhappy over our decision to travel in the middle of the night.

It was dreadful at times. As we drove home, we were met with countless checkpoints on the way. At one point, we were stopped and asked to share all the details of the car, phone numbers, home numbers, literally everything. Soon after leaving the place, we got confused about the way and decided to travel through Sopore by taking a turn. Just 500 metres into the journey, Umar asked me to make a U-turn and continue our journey on the main road.

“I am not getting a positive vibe,” he told me. We were not able to use Google Maps as one of our phones was discharged and another had a limited battery. It was haunting till a trucker helped us get the road we wanted to take.

Soon after, we were stopped at another checkpoint and this time they had a good piece of advice for us. “Media is fine, interviews are also fine but you should not risk your life at this hour. You should always remember that there is someone at home waiting for you,” an officer in his civvies, advised us not long before they opened the boot of our car and thoroughly checked everything. Before permitting us to move, they asked us why we stopped by the truck. The final words they told us were to move straight in the direction without taking any further turns and U-turns.

As we resumed our journey, Umar, my cameraperson and a dear friend confessed that he got scared when they were asked to come down from the car and open the boot. “I was frightened. I was so much in shock that I was trying to look at his ID card but my vision was blurry,” he said, “I only managed to see Rafiabad written on his card.”

“Who is winning the elections here?” an army man at another checkpoint, where we were stopped, asked. “What is your opinion about this and how do you see the scenario in the region?”

We finally reached Baramulla. There, we encountered another checkpoint with a soldier asking: “Are you travelling to Srinagar this hour? Phir toh bohat jaghun par tumhein rokenge.”

It was scary but fortunately, we did not encounter any new checkpoints till we reached the heart of Srinagar.

We had no meals and we were hungry. Behind the wheels, I felt sleepy. To our good luck, we managed to locate a tea stall in Pattan, where we had our refreshments, ate and then left again. The piece of bread we had that night was the tastiest one that we ever had in our lives. I realised why hunger and not the spices is the real taste.

At about 2:30 am, we reached our office. Our audio-visual editor opened the door and welcomed us in half-sleep. We dropped the equipment, and data and rushed home at 3:15 am. We had good sleep, no dreams, no nightmares. I have never felt as comfortable at home, in the safety of my room, with my family as I felt that day.

My Wild Goose Chase

In a short period, journalism has taught me some of the greatest lessons and given me some of the wildest experiences. The night travel on the erstwhile Jhelum Valley Road was one of those wildest experiences.

Our newsroom gets all the feeds and the news from all corners of Kashmir. However, my assignment was to see and capture the campaigning and talk to all the contestants and the party leaders. We had detailed conversations with two of the four major contestants from Baramulla, and interviews with Omar Abdullah and Sajjad Lone never happened.

This will be incorrect to say that they did not meet us. The fact is they met and did not talk. In anticipation of the interview, my editor personally met Omar Abdullah and briefed him about our requirements for his campaign. He agreed. In the follow-up, we lost in the maze of JKNC’s media management. It was Imran, the party’s main bridge with the media first. True to his public relations traits, he never said no but never granted access. We next approached Nasir Aslam Wani, party senior functionary and Omar’s close friend. He followed Imran style till it got too late.

Finally, we approached Tanvir Sadiq and he was gracious, after too many exchanges, to get us time for May 18, when Omar will lead a road show to Magam. We drove to Magam and approached Tanvir. He suggested us to follow the rally and the conversation would be recorded after the public gathering was over. Even after the gathering was over, and the leaders started leaving there was no response on their part. It was chaotic. Finally, we were told to follow them so that we could be “accommodated” for a Q&A with the leader.

We followed the huge rally again. Tanvir was not picking up the call, was apparently busy. Finally, we managed to meet him at a place where Omar was addressing the public. We told him that since we could not park our car anywhere as the roads were tightly packed, we could record the interview in the car or at Aga Ruhullah’s place, which is the place where they all were heading. “I will figure out something for you but it will be late, but we can record the interview at Ruhullah’s residence,” I remember Tanvir saying.

As soon as we reached Ruhullah’s place we called Sadiq, and dropped some texts but there was no response at all.

Finally, Omar came out to address the media. I went to him and briefed him about the tiring chase despite an appointment. “We cannot do it right now will see tomorrow,” Omar said. “I will let you know.”

The day actually never came, and the chapter of talking to the old Naya Kashmir leader was closed. It still haunts me how Omar and many others are accusing the Prime Minister of destroying the institutions when they lack even a bit of respect for the institutions operating in their erstwhile state.

However, we recorded a short film on his campaign after chasing Omar for 110 kms. We laced it with his speeches and used it the same day. The interview, however, never happened.

It was not Omar alone. Sajad Lone and Altaf Bukhari worked the same way.

Lone gave us a tough time. We approached him through his PR manager Adnan Mir, Courteous; he promised an appointment, fixed an appointment and rescheduled it many times. Then, one day, I was in the marriage of my friend when I got a call that an interview was taking place at 12:30 the night. I felt a bit relieved even though my friend disliked me and my job. At the last moment, I was conveyed that it was not happening.

A few days later, our editor accompanied me and Umar to Lone’s Church Lane residence, where, after a long wait, we were ‘bestowed’ access to the Lone Ranger in his study cum office. The discussion started. It was a very light-hearted conversation because we laughed as jokes cracked. Lone told his entire story and finally, my editor told him that the interview is being done by Shadab and he should get a date. Quickly the date and time were fixed and Adnan to asked to walk the talk.

“Sorry for the delay, Sajjad sahib is busy today, he said to convey to him my apologies and I promise I will interview on Monday,” this was the text I got on the day of the interview. Eventually, the interview did not happen. There were efforts but these did not succeed in talking to the new Naya Kashmir leader. The case of Apni Party founder and business tycoon, Altaf Bukhari was not any different either.

Those Who Talked

Others talked: Agha Ruhulla, Nayeem Akhtar, Waheed Parra, Ashraf Mir, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mehbooba Mufti. These were smooth, literally no-frills conversations. I recorded the entire conversation with Mehbooba Mufti in her car while accompanying her on a campaign day.

Me and Shuaib Wani reached her Nowgam residence at 10 am and joined her cavalcade. We recorded her speech and public address at Kulgam and talked to people. After she finished her routine programme and started travelling to another destination when the cavalcade came to a shirking halt. We were asked to leave the vehicle we were in and get into Mehbooba’s vehicle for the interview. The travel in the luxury bulletproof was bumpy but the interview was smooth.

Interviews with Apni Party’s Ashraf Mir, PDP’s Nayeem Akhter and Ghulam Nabi Azad were static, recorded at their residences, unlike Waheed Parra, Agha Rhullah and Mian Altaf.

Mian’s was our last Know Your Politician interview and I will remember it for a long time. “Why have you reached here so early? You have troubled yourself. It will take me half an hour more. Please wait,” The gentleman politician told us outside Omar’s Gupkar residence, which we had reached at 10 am.

“We are travelling to Ashmuqam today. You can cover the event, and we will interview in between.” Till he finished his interaction with Omar, we cooled our heels in his car.

As we reached Ashmuqam, it was already jam-packed with people. Hundreds of two-wheelers joined the convoy and it was a sight to behold.

Mian paid his respects at the famous Zaen Shah Saeb’s shrine and once back from there and the public meeting he sat with us for the interview.

“I am really sorry, you must be tired, and I could not even offer you tea here,” Mian said as he sent us to our office, after the day-long travel. “But I promise once this election process is over we will have tea together.” Already, he had repeated it four times. Then we reached the office and his text landed again.

The Campaign Trail

Interviews apart, I was supposed to shoot the campaign trail with the contests so that we could showcase what they are telling people and what is the response. It was all about the colour and noise of democracy.

Aga Ruhulla was the first politician to agree to the short film. We reached his Budgam residence where-from we reached Khanqa e Moula and later Dargah in Srinagar. The day concluded the travel at Chrar e Shareef, where we witnessed a huge colourful gathering. In between we had some conversation as well.

There were small crowds dotting the road as Agha’s cavalcade drove to the revered town. They all wanted to meet Agha, an influential Shia Muslim leader, but it took him his own time to show up from his car sunroof.

In the car, we had a chit-chat, covered with the crowd who were singing and dancing to celebrate the young politician and as usual we talked to several people too. The journey was undoubtedly fun, tinted with colours of flags, and music, and candies and whatnot. After a daylong exercise, they were courteous enough to drop us back to our places.

Travelling with Waheed Parra was different. As we reached his residence, he had left. He later waited for us at the bye-pass but we had no space to park our scooter with. Even his jam-packed vehicle could take one of us and not two. In Pulwama, we parked the two-wheeler at a petrol pump and accompanied the young politician, who has been in the news for most of the last five years for his cases and arrest. We barely managed to get into one of the cars. The vehicle we boarded had more than 20 passengers, some sitting on the roof and some literally hanging.

That was the norm of the day. Every time we stopped to shoot, we had to literally keep an eye on our vehicle because people would jump onto cars to become part of the rally. In this mess, Umar also lost the hold of his vehicle.  Half of the day had already passed when I received Parra’s call and I boarded his car. Umar was recording from another vehicle. In Parra’s car, I saw the entire journey through the sunroof and saw people showering him with candies. For me, it was a very cinematic view of the dusty roads. The journey was full of chit-chats, covering the campaigns and tinted with entertainment and emotions. A fun fact is that I ate loads of candies with a former lawmaker, who tried almost every toffee showered upon Parra. I was in the same frame as Umar, who took the position in the back seat of a vehicle ahead of us, many people mistook me as a PDP man.

After a day-long journey, when we reached our office, everybody stared at us. We looked miserable as most of the new Naya Kashmir dust had draped us.

All of the campaign trails we covered gave us a similar experience. But what fascinated me was the hospitality of people. Not just candies, people were also serving milk, kahwa, and other edibles to the politicians. In some places we were greeted by loud pre-recorded songs playing on the speakers and at other places there were groups of women engaged in wanwun, to show their excitement.

Covering elections was tough but a memorable journey. It has now been etched forever in my memory and being able to do this at the beginning of my career. My editor told me that for Kashmir politicians and you, this was the trailer. The real show is about to begin – the assembly elections.


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