As police arrested (later released by the Court) a senior editor for being a proclaimed offender for 28 years in a case registered in 1990, his colleagues opened up with Masood Hussain to explain why that era was the most dangerous phase for Kashmir media as recording history was a fatal business
It was quite an unpleasant sight when Ghulam Jeelani Qadri, 62, could not sit on a chair as he was waiting for his turn to be heard by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Srinagar before whom he was presented as a proclaimed offender of 28 years. One of the senior journalists, Qadri as the editor of JAK News, a local news gathering agency, was once the sole source of information to media since 1985 till the situation forced him to close it down in 1993.
A second-generation journalist, he was arrested by police on June 24, 2019 night. Revelations suggested that he had avoided attending the court in a case registered in police station Shaheedgunj somewhere in 1990, following which the court declared him a proclaimed offender. The accused had no information about the case that police said they had challaned before the court of law. Finally, when he was produced before the court, the police failed to explain the contents of the case or the investigation it had made in the last three decades. What was interesting was that the police swooped only on him even as there were seven others – including one who had passed away, accused in the same case.
The CJM bailed him out in the larger interests of the media liberty and asked the police to get more details of the investigations on the next date of hearing. Qadri’s arrest and his subsequent release perturbed the media that was busy in preparations in wake of Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit and the maiden election of the Aiwan-e-Suhafat, the Srinagar Press Club, which was later deferred.
365 Days of Hell
But the arrest in a case of 1990 has refreshed memories of what a senior editor said, “365 days of hell”. How media operated in that year is in itself a major plot for a dozen PhDs, if not for a masala Bollywood film. Faces of journalists who have reported 1990 get instantly pale as they start refreshing their memory of a year that changed Kashmir forever. This was not an ordinary year given the events that broke in those 365 days. Three rulers changed in a year amid a series of massacres, political assassinations, unprecedented mass protests, a sensational jail-break, mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits and those associated with mainstream politics and massive deployment of tens of thousands of battle-ready paramilitary and armed personnel who lacked support and intelligence. The protests did remain non-stop for almost six months after the government released five JKLF militants in an exchange of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the then Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, in the fall of 1989.
With the dotcom media not around and the TV journalism a distant dream, the Kashmir media has distinctly two facets– the section of reporters who would serve national and international media houses and the vernacular press. In collecting and disseminating news, these two sections faced distinct problems.
“The media was already facing the music for many years but the new situation made itself visible when Sofi Ghulam Mohammad, the editor of Srinagar Times got an envelope carrying a letter and a live bullet. The letter said the bullet is being sent as a testimony of a change,” Qadri, now the editor of Afaaq, said. “Sofi put the bullet in his bag and shared the information in a meeting in Partap Park. I was so scared by that bullet that I felt as if it will explode in my hand.”
It was a message to the media. It indicated a new situation, which was a shift from a status in which the junior reporters would be asked to jot down the Item Khabreh that Radio Kashmir Srinagar would broadcast at 4 pm. It was an interesting innovation of media management by the state. At 4 pm, the newsroom would put on the radio and the newsreader would dictate news by reading his bulletin sluggishly and slowly so that the newspaper clerks jot them down. But the bullet indicated the arrival of a situation in which even Radio would become hugely irrelevant. As the militancy peaked, the Radio Kashmir’s news section migrated to Delhi.
The year started with chaos but there was some semblance of order to the extent that the police and the political setup would respond to calls and share information. It abruptly stopped after Dr Farooq Abdullah-led NC-Congress alliance resigned in protest against the appointment of Jagmohan as governor. “All of sudden, the situation changed to an extent that government ceased to exist,” said Ali Mohammad Sofi, who would take over the leadership of the premier news agency PTI for many years later in the wake of the new situation in which his boss had to leave. The heads of UNI and PTI along with the correspondents of The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Times of India was, after a lot of insistence by the then governor, driven to Jammu in an army one-toner on March 1, 1990.
One of them, according to Sofi, returned within a week; two others came back after a month; but for others, including his boss, that drive was the last one out of Kashmir. “Then, the word of mouth was considered authentic and there were no officials who would help in getting information. The Information Department was literally dead.”
Kanhian Lal Dhar, the then Director Information, was the lone PR man shuttling between the Raj Bhawan and the offices of a few national correspondents. State’s public relations’ system collapsed soon after the JKLF shot dead Lassa Koul, the Director Doordarshan in February 1990.
Those were the days when JKLF’s Amanullah Khan led a huge protest from Muzaffarabad and made two attempts to cross the Line of Control (LoC). “India said about 10 protesters were wounded. (Pakistani officials said one protester was killed and 13 were wounded in the legs),” Barbara Crossette reported for The New York Times, about the attempted border crossing on February 6. “Pakistani forces tried to contain the demonstration, but an unspecified number of demonstrators crossed the disputed border, and were fired on by Indian troops, Indian television said.” It was actually a second attempt.
In mid-January, about 5000 PaK residents were chased away by Pakistan troops from the LoC. Reuters reported of another attempt on February 12, in which the Indian army hit six protesting PaK residents at the LoC of whom three died. The attempts were made from Suchetgarh and Chakothi sectors.
“The biggest problem that we initially faced was the terminology,” Manzoor Unjum, the editor of Uqaab said. “The militants would say Mujahid and the government would say Dahshat Gard. Using either of the two would push us towards a confrontation with the other side, so finally, we decided to use Jungjoo.” It also took editors some time to evolve a proper term to describe the Kashmiri Pandits who had started migrating late 1989 and whose exodus peaked early summer. They were called Mahajir, the migrants.
The Pandit-exodus created crippling communication problems as they were the Department of Posts and Telegraph’s main workforce. “The telephone snarls would make interesting anecdotes,” one journalist said. “You would ring up Police Control Room in Anantnag and a cop from PCR Kupwara would pick it up. Or while dialling a number, you could start listening to a romantic conversation of people – cross-connected to your line and you were to wait till they would drop their line.”
With movement hugely difficult for media in Kashmir periphery, newsgathering became the basic casualty. “We all were facing this problem but the correspondents of media organisations based outside the state were better placed unlike local newspapers,” Ali Mohammad Sofi said. “The governor and the army would routinely invite the national media for briefings but this luxury was not available to the local media.” Sometimes, the local newspapers would approach the national correspondents for details and use it, but mostly, there was no time for the reporters to share notes as events were breaking non-stop.
For the local newspapers, the biggest problem was to manage the daily press statements of the militant organisations and their parent bodies. An editor admitted: “There seemed to be sort of a race between these outfits who would say nothing newsy but would still issue statements, perhaps to retain their newsprint space in the newspapers. The editors would be strictly told not to change these statements.” Sometimes, newspapers lacked enough space to accommodate all the statements of the parties. One day Srinagar Times created precedence by publishing a small box regretting that for the paucity of space it could not use statements of almost a dozen militants groups, which, the manager of the newspaper said, would be used in the next edition.
“I have seen the situation of Khawaja Sanaullah Bhat, the editor of Aftaab who was dejected as his only role, the editing, was denied to him by the situation,” Unjum said. “There was no one who would intervene as the government had ceased to exist.”
The newspapers, all of a sudden, reduced their pages and would print only four pages. “Partly, it was because of economic factors because demand was huge and revenue was down but mostly it was to reduce the print space, to minimise the assault on the discretion of an editor who had no right to comment. Editorials moved out of print barring on key occasions.”
The situation dictated its own rules. No newspaper could be even readied for print on any of the major events in Srinagar because invariably severe curfew restrictions were imposed. No newspaper was published for many days after the Gaw Kadal massacre, for instance. Those details were used many days later.
Despite all this, the editors ensured that the happenings are reported properly. They would send reporters to the spots, as and when possible, to get as many details as possible. “With government nowhere visible, it was complete domination from one side. Once when Begum Abdullah issued a statement, there was a chain reaction, so was the case when newspapers would use the statements of the mainstream parties, especially the NC,” Unjum said. “The governor told us once that the government side was missing but he could not ensure the government side of the story ever.”
“There was complete insecurity,” Tahir Mohiuddin, the editor of the then mass circulated Chataan said. “By 1989 summer, Qaumi Awaz had started its Srinagar edition under Mohan Charagi and I was the Resident Editor. It had started very well but then the situation forced closure on it.”
Tahir whose office was in Hari Singh High Street was taken to various crackdowns and his office was literally raided by the BSF after a grenade attack in the market during which some of his staffers were arrested also.
The killings were a routine. In Dr Abdullah’s government, police and CRPF opened fire on protesters at various places in Srinagar on January 8, killing 17 people. This was followed by curfew restrictions across Kashmir. Jagmohan’s takeover quickly led to the Gaw Kadal massacre on January 21, 1990. On January 25, 1990, 26 civilians were killed in Handwara when BSF reacted to a bang. The township was set afire and an NC MLC Ghulam Rasool Malik was one of the persons roasted alive. Finally, came March 1, 1990, when protesters were fired upon at Tengpora and Zakoora crossing killing 14 and 18 persons, respectively. But neither of these incidents led to the halt in the huge processions.
On a few occasions, the Home Minister would fly from Delhi. There were a few cases in which the governor’s administration said they will enquire into the details. “The situation was so bad that today felt worse than yesterday and vice versa,” one editor said.
On media management, Raj Bhawan’s goal posts would change quite frequently. For most of January and February, Raj Bhawan would focus on foreign media. The police had told him that the foreign media was assembling in Srinagar to cover the Radio Kashmir takeover by militants on January 26, to declare independence so he restricted a strong contingent of 30-reporters in Broadway Hotel and cancelled all functions related to the Republic Day. As nothing happened that day, his sleuths later updated him that it was now happening on February 11, the day Maqbool Bhat was hanged. So he escorted out the entire visiting media to the airport and banned their re-entry.
On February 2, a posse of BSF barged into a local English weekly Global Topic office and bundled the editor Surinder Singh Oberoi, now with ICRC, into a car and drove him to Raj Bhawan where the governor personally questioned him about his finances and the contents. He was released 10 hours later.
The first major attack on the media came early April when authorities closed four Srinagar based Urdu newspapers – Aftab, Al-Safa, Wadi Ki Awaz and Azaan for publishing “subversive and anti-national material”. Their printing presses were sealed, and cases were registered against them. Azaan, the official paper of the Jamaat-e-Islami could never resume its publication.
In case of Srinagar Times, the police rounded up its three machine men. This led the newspaper to cease its publication. The newspaper finally filed a heabus corpus petition before the High Court on basis of which the trio was released. It resumed its publications after 15 days when the three mechanics were set free on April 16, 1990.
In its front page editorial, the Srinagar Times had scathing attacks on the administration when it resumed publication. It asserted that the editors did not know where the cases were registered against them so that they could prepare their defences. It asked a question repeatedly: “How the ban on media helped the situation improve in the last 15 days?” Its post-interruption publication carried three items on its front page pertaining to the media scene. One was addressed to the votaries of the press freedom sitting in Delhi: why did not even a single voice talk about choked Kashmir media?
There were no answers but the costs came knocking soon. By May 8, Srinagar Times announced its closure saying the police scared its machine man and they fled to their home in Punjab. Since no machine man was around to run the facility, the newspaper ceased its operations. It resumed only on June 1, 1990.
By then, the government had agreed to permit the vernacular media to operate. “There were two sections in the government, one was hawkish and would take an extreme position on issues related to media,” Jameel said. “Another understood the ground realities and would accommodate the concerns and try to help out by sharing information.” When the foreign journalists were expelled from Kashmir, Jameel said, BBC’s Murk Tully stayed back with a local friend. “At one point of time, Mark felt his decision to staying put should not harm his hosts so he asked me to check,” Jameel said. “I told a police officer and he said they knew it so the tensions were over.”
Soon, Jameel was himself in news. On June 2, 1990, the Army arrested Jameel from his residence and drove him to Uri. It was sort of a crisis as the army denied the arrest. After a lot of pressure, Jameel was set free 30 hours later. Soldiers were working on a lead given by one of the 13 boys who were arrested by the army while ex-filtrating as he had mentioned Jameel’s name. Army wanted to understand the connection. Many years later, a young boy came to Jameel’s Srinagar office with an invitation card on his marriage saying it was him who mentioned the scribe’s name during interrogation just to avoid getting killed.
Jameel was fortunate unlike a Sopore calligraphist, Mohammad Sidiq Shoulouri. He was arrested from his Batamaloo room by CRPF and disappeared in custody. His kids were minors and his wife could barely come once to meet the local police. The situation was such that no follow up was possible for a family that was rendered destitute.
But, Jameel, unlike his colleagues in the vernacular press, was better paced. “I used to tell all these (militant) organisations that I can send long despatches to London but the right to use it is with the BBC editors,” Jameel said. “This excuse was not available with the local editors who suffered a lot because of this.”
But Jameel continued to have his tensions. In Srinagar, militants would seek better coverage of their statements. In Delhi, Rammohan Rao, the then powerful Principle Information Officer (PIO), who served as media adviser to four Prime Ministers, would be always after the BBC for its Kashmir coverage. Then a household name in Kashmir, Jameel survived an assassination bid on his life. Eventually, he became Kashmir’s only Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) award recipient.
Newspapers started facing interesting problems. Once journalists would reach office, it was impossible to go home during the night so almost all the newspapers in Srinagar became residential institutions. It would take days to repair a faulty telephone line. It was all the more problematic to ensure all shades of a story in the absence of a state version. After all these efforts when the newspapers would finally get printed, it was very difficult to manage distribution.
When the newspaper resumed publications, reasonable editing of the content started. It irked the “stakeholders”. In order to counter it, they also started using attacks and bans. On May 1, 1990, militants banned the circulation of national as well as Jammu based newspapers in Kashmir. On October 2, 1990, a powerful bomb exploded in Srinagar Times office damaging its two vehicles. Twice that month, its office was ransacked. On November 4, another bomb, this time in the printing press facility of Aftab, exploded damaging the machinery.
“By the end of 1990, it was routine for the militant leaders to summon us to hideouts,” Unjum said. “I was once summoned to a hideout in Safakadal where I got a long sermon about how not to publish anything Indian. There was no logic and no reasonable argument was permitted. At times, editors saw the newspapers as their liability.” This situation altered slightly later when the Hurriyat Conference came into being in mid-1993.
The movement was risky especially if you were carrying any reading material. The paramilitary men would pounce upon individuals carrying anything in Urdu. In most of the periphery, Urdu books were hidden because it was difficult to explain to the security men what was written in them. One day, Qadri and Qaisar Mirza (then with AP) were on the way home when they were intercepted by BSF. “They discovered a copy of his despatch and when they read it, Qaisar was asked to get into the Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) that was parked around,” Qadri said. “I blushed as my body search could have revealed six anticipatory bails of the editors. Somehow they did not search me. I left Mirza with them and literally ran home just for the sake of court bails that I was carrying. Mirza was later released.”
One major crisis that the local journalists faced was that visiting reporters, politicians and the human rights activists would first come to them to understand the situation. This would annoy the administration.
“When the All Party Delegation came to Srinagar under Devi Lal’s leadership, some members of the team wanted to visit the Chanpora locality where some women were molested,” Qadri said. “The governor’s administration did not permit them for security reason and Rajiv Gandhi got ready to be a pillion rider with a photographer. We had to make a serious effort to ensure it does not happen. What, if something happened to Rajiv and what if he reached there and people attacked him and what if nothing happened and how the governor would react to it in the follow-up?” Later, George Fernandes visited those families, days before he was sacked as Kashmir Affairs minister.
The situation did not change much after Jagmohan was replaced by Garesh Chander Saxena in the wake of the assassination of Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq and the subsequent firing on his funeral by CRPF. The situation was complicated with a long strike by the state employees against the violation of human rights. This threw the established systems haywire.
The tension on the streets was induced by the frequent curfew restrictions and the protests against the arrests and killings. Even the state government employees were home because of strike for most of the summer. The only species on the road were journalists, so they took the brunt of a situation they had foretold but not heard. In such an overwhelming situation, when the police were working literally as scavengers and the reporters merely counting the corpses, the reports of the FIRs registered against them would only make an interesting study for scholars of future.