Kashmir media has been a harried lot throughout. As the pressures mounted in recent days with cases under harsh laws being registered against them, the winning of the Pulitzer by three Jammu and Kashmir photographers for their lockdown coverage has acknowledged the life-risking efforts journalism is making in recording Kashmir’s contemporary history
A day after Jammu and Kashmir’s three photo-journalists got the rare honour of getting Pulitzer for their work, details started coming out that suggesting the most coveted prize in journalism is not new to India.
In 1937, a detailed narrative in the media suggested, Gobind Behari Lal – the son of Bikaner governor studying in the USA, bagged Pulitzer along with four others, for “coverage of science at the tercentenary of Harvard University”. A man who had interviewed Gandhi and Albert Einstein was later honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1969.
Almost seven decades later, in 2003, Geeta Anand was part of a Wall Street Journal reporter’s team that won the prize for reporting on the impact of corporate scandals in America.
In 2015, Sanghamitra Kalita, the then managing editor of The Los Angeles Times was part of the team that won this prize for reportage on the 2015 San Bernardino shooting and the subsequent terror investigation.
Three years later, in 2018, two Reuter’s photo-journalists, Adnan Abidi and Danish Siddiqui got a Pulitzer for documenting the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. They were part of a 5-member team of the newsgathering agency that bagged the award.
There was Pulitzer’s in the non-journalism category too: Jhumpa Lahiri, the Indian origin American, won it in 2000 for her Interpreter of Maladies. Indian-American cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee got it in 2011 for his The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. In 2014, Vijay Seshadri, another Indian origin American, won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection of poems 3 Sections.
In 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir’s Associated Press trio – Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand jointly bagged the coveted prize for the “for their striking images of life in the contested territory of Kashmir as India revoked its independence, executed through a communications blackout.” After Delhi’s reaction, this sentence changed like this: “For striking images captured during a communications blackout in Kashmir depicting life in the contested territory as India stripped it of its semi-autonomy.” In a different category, Anushree Fadnavis and Adnan Abidi, both photo-journo, were awarded for their work covering the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2020. This makes Abidi sharing a Pulitzer twice in two years.
What makes the honour to Jammu and Kashmir trio distinct and different from all others is that their work was completely based on a story that was Indian. They were neither Indian’s living in the US nor Indian’s covering a third-party crisis like the Rohingyas or Hong Kong. They were reporting the ground they live on and where they were brought up. The AP said the photographs were part of the “India’s crackdown on Kashmir”. On that front, the Pulitzer is the first such prize that came to the subcontinent, ever since it was constituted early last century.
Ideally, it deserved a grand celebration. The political and governance systems in India could have celebrated it as a rare honour. At a time when India slipped down the global democracy index many notches, the celebration could have indicated the tireless struggles of the institutions of media to get things back on track.
But that was not to be. “But this is New India,” The Telegraph commented in its editorial. “The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, unhappy with the text of the original announcement, has decreed that those in favour of recognizing this achievement are ‘anti-national’ elements.”
For such a major achievement, only two newspapers could muster the courage to editorially comment, The Telegraph and The Indian Express. There were many cautious commentaries but they were lost in the din of “anti-national” debate that dominated the popular prime time TV. Some newspapers buried the copies in inside pages and avoided giving it the treatment it deserved. A few took the Rahul Gandhi route, who congratulate the three photographers and was criticised by the BJP for that, to accommodate the copy.
The adverse reaction that the award triggered in the formal and social media indicated the age-old bias that has been there in the battle over Kashmir narrative for a very long time. It actually goes back to the pre-partition days when the mainland English media was supportive of the exploitative despots that were ravaging Kashmir in comparison to the language media in Punjab plains. The same dichotomy prevailed even after the partition and continues to be in vogue.
The rants and irrational criticism, as one social media user said, actually helped Kashmir to value its achievements better. “It would not have been so tasteful, had the hate mongers not smoked our steak with their fire,” one writer wrote on the social media. “Islamophobes are beauty. They always make us conscious of our greatness.” The shallow campaign against the honours helped commoners in Kashmir to understand the significance of the development better. It, however, did not hide either the larger reality dominating the ground zero or the serious life-risking efforts that the Kashmir journalists – more especially the photojournalists, have been undertaking to record history on daily basis.
The timing was crucial. The honour came at a time when the Kashmir media was under duress for more than one reasons. Only in the last fortnight, three days witnessed three cases against three journalists. For the first time, the police registered cases against journalists under the harshest UAPA. They were summoned to explain their stories and in certain cases to reveal their sources, too. If the cases continued being registered on the same pace, one senior journalist said, by the time Eid is around, the Kashmir democracy will be firmly on two legs! (It indicated the amputation of media and political executive as the two others pillars of a functional democracy.)
Amnesty India said the same thing: “Congratulations to the winners for bringing the Pulitzer Prize to Kashmir at a time when journalists have faced harassment & intimidation through draconian laws – compounded through lockdowns, prolonged restrictions on internet speed & arbitrary detentions.”
Apart from Covid-19, it was this pressure that made May 3,– the International Press Freedom Day, a silent day in Kashmir with no activities around.
Covering one’s own conflict is very difficult for journalists. They have to be extra cautious to ensure that they stay away from the bias. For this razor edge walk, they have paid a huge price in last more than three decades with more than a dozen of them killed by the two sides.
Photographers have been covering Kashmir in an extremely hostile environment. Unlike reporters, the lens-men are supposed to get closer to the subject and that is where they have to face the wrath of the forces in control of the subject or the event. It has been a crisis from both sides but the worst has come from the security-grid because they also have a feeling that images are powerful than words.
There are instances in which the photographers have paid quite a heavy price for their job. One even lost his eye to the pellets in 2016 unrest. In 2014 floods, one photographer was actually washed away by a water current just outside the Srinagar Civil Secretariat.
The two Kashmiri photographers – Dar Yasin and Mukhtar Khan, have passed through the same mill as have their seniors and juniors in the field.
Coverage of Kashmir, post-August 5, was different for various reasons. The government blocked all kinds of communications and banned the internet facility. Besides, the government took a stand that everything was all right and the people were happy with what the Lok Sabha did.
Recording the ground situation in pictures and managing them reach Delhi was not an ordinary issue. For the initial fortnight, the photographers would actually record their coverage in flash disks and then drive to Srinagar airport and handover their work to a passenger who could agree to deliver it in Delhi. “It reached a stage that Srinagar felt a dearth of flash disks,” one photographer said. “By then, however, the media facilitation centre had started and we were somehow able to push out data to our offices.”
AP credited its trio for the pains they took in getting the images out. “Snaking around roadblocks, sometimes taking cover in strangers’ homes and hiding cameras in vegetable bags, the three photographers captured images of protests, police and paramilitary action and daily life — and then headed to an airport to persuade travellers to carry the photo files out with them and get them to the AP’s office in New Delhi,” the main AP story about the award reads, insisting it was always a cat and mouse game. “Khan and Yasin took turns roving the streets in and around the regional capital of Srinagar, Yasin said, facing mistrust from both protesters and troops. The journalists were unable for days to go home or even let their families know they were OK.”
Dar came to AP somewhere in 2004 and started as a freelance videographer. Later, in 2006 he switched over to the still photography and there was no looking back. Kashmir apart, he has covered most of the conflicts around including the Rohingya crisis, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other places.
“It’s not the story of the people I am shooting, only, but it’s my story,” Dar was quoted saying. “It’s a great honour to be in the list of Pulitzer winners and to share my story with the world.”
The storytelling continues.