Reporting On A Razor Edge

Dear Editor,

We, the reporters in Srinagar have passed through hell in last two decades. But we ensured, to our utmost capability, that every incident that takes places is recorded properly. Your last issue, aptly published as a special thematic issue, is a serious effort in chronicling the happening with the story-tellers of Kashmir.

But, I think, part of the hide-and-seek that reporters associated with blood-soaked Srinagar deadline, played with life and death during the peak of militancy to keep the flickering candle aflame, was missing in your special issue. You can not imagine the contributions that the reporters made during the initial days of militancy when they were target of propaganda unleashed jointly by their mainland counterparts and the state apparatus. As the government was bunkered in Raj Bhawan reducing the civil secretariat to a gossip-factory, the newsrooms then were the epicentre of activity, black humour, self censorship, pain and disbelief.

In Kashmir Times, then perhaps the only newspaper of any consequence from J&K that could accommodate the happenings as they took place, we were a huge gang – Zahoor Malik, Shujaat Bukhari, Rashid Ahmad, and at one point of time, Ahmad Ali Fayaz.

A day of reporting was literally an act of dancing on a razor edge. Every evening, we will go home with a feeling that we may never be able to be in office again. It was a re-birth on day to day basis. It was a consistent battle with our employers (for better wages), various appendages of the government (for more information and our right to report), with militants (for editing their press notes) and with renegades (to get our right to survive). Shujaat Bukhari personally led two successful missions in a few years to negotiate my right to life with renegades, and soldiers. One painful crisis I faced was managed by the fraternity with Altaf Hussain (BBC) in the remote-drivers seat. Prior to that, an elaborate exercise spanning many weeks secured the release of my younger brother who was kidnapped by insurgents after I “surrendered” and retracted my copy for the first and the last time.

Living with the dangers had transformed us into a lot that would never say die. I vividly remember an instance when a team of reporters had gone to attend the press conference of a renegade leader in south Kashmir on July 8, 1996. It was a trap. As they were passing through Islamabad, another renegade militia intercepted and took them hostage. They segregated five from the 19 newsmen and threatened to slay them.

Shujaat has remained a witty reporter throughout. After they were segregated and kept in a separate room, he somehow traced a telephone and rang me up.

“We have been kidnapped and they want to kill us,” he almost whispered.

I laughed and shouted at him: “Be there. There is good news for you. Your salary is hiked by Rs 500… Wait we will do something.”

Given his wit – Shujaat rarely forgets a phone number; he used the same telephone in the room to inform the US based Committee for Protection of Journalists. A statement from there brought in a lot of pressure on New Delhi to act. We in Srinagar went in a delegation to the director information and I remember Noor ul Qamrain almost gate-crashing into his TRC office and telling K B Jandial. “You will be personally held responsible for any harm to any of the reporters held by your gunmen,” he said in categorical terms.

It triggered a pressure forcing army to act against its men. A Major led an operation well before the evening and got us the entire group to Srinagar.

It was the same wit, Sheikh Mushtaq of Reuters told me, that Shujaat displayed in Magam when 42 reporters who had gone to report the killings from a landmine explosion were caught by BSF and now Padam Shri Muma Kanna and beaten ruthlessly on May 10, 2001. As the reporters and news-photographers were being beaten, he somehow managed to inform the SSP Budgam on phone. That was when they were rescued by police and an FIR was registered. It was this FIR that made the news when Kanna bagged the honour on the recommendation of Dr Farooq Abdullah and Wajahat Habibullah.

Shujaat was once kidnapped from Residency Road in an auto-rickshaw by unknown gunmen and then dumped near Eidgah. They fired on him before fleeing but he survived. From Eidgah he ran upto Hawal Chowk where from he rang up his home. Here, again, he had managed to send an SMS while being kidnapped.

But all these happenings would not dispirit us. Not because they lacked impact. But simply because incidents were taking place so fast that we never had time to think what is in store for us.

Twice in last 20 years have I failed to control my tears. The first was when I saw heaps of corpses in the police mortuary on January 21, 1990 (Gawkadal Massacre day). I did not report the procession because I was caught in the curfew. So I decided to do a detailed follow up. But the paucity of time pushed it to back burner. When I finally landed at Kralkhud police station, many years later to enquire about the first major massacre, the officials retrieved a file, dusted it and informed that the case stands registered under FIR 3 of 1990 but there were no details of casualties. There was no investigation, said the officials “as the case file was taken by the then DO (division officer) with him when he migrated to Jammu in March 1990”. Till date, the state police do not know which army unit was responsible for the massacre.

Sometimes, covering an incident would trigger an incident. When Handwara was set afire, we drove in a taxi. As we entered the town, it was more of a Hollywood set – no life anywhere and the entire rows of shops and houses burning. After watching it for a few seconds, Mukhtar Ahmad of CNN could not take it. “..but there is no life,” he shouted and broke down. He could become normal only when he saw hundreds of weeping people near the hospital around a heap of corpses. Mukhtar had a providential escape when ITBP personnel once opened fire on him and later a BSF guard near the Central Telegraph Office.

The movement of most of the reporters was possible only because they had dependable and very courageous and committed taxi drivers like Ghulam Mohammad and Ali Mohammad. The duo might have been beaten as many times as the reporters.

Qaisar Mirza died in a road accident many years back. But his contribution to the news photography (AP) was great. I still do not know if he carried magical hands or a magical camera but I can never forget the quality of the photographs he clicked.

For the media in Srinagar, the struggle to exist had actually started in 1989 when Dr Farooq Abdullah moved the infamous press bill and the NC-Congress coalition passed it in the legislature. It was aimed at a gag using the censorship and had adequate punitive clauses. Kashmir Times was at the frontline of the battle with Zafar Meraj taking an active role. The same journalist I found literally begging Kukka Parray for the life of four journalists whom the renegade leader had kidnapped. They were freed only after 42 journalists in two buses drove to present themselves before him at Hajan (July 1995). He visited Parray again on December 8, 1995 and on his way back home his gang intercepted him and pumped five bullets into his body. It was sheer grit and courage of Zafar Meraj that he somehow reached SMHS hospital where a prolonged operation saved his life.

Militancy threw up its own challenges. Chronicling daily happenings in an adverse situation in which there were more enemies for the newsperson than friends, the two conflicting powers – the militants and the government, had enough of power to make things happen. There were bans on publications from either side. Government did register cases against many editors and in certain cases even hawkers as well. Looking back after over two decades, I see the reporters contributed immensely even though there was less room for comment and analysis.

All these incidents had an impact but we had no options. Occasionally it would be the black humour that made us laugh and that was all.

Once, my Bureau Chief at Kashmir Times Zahoor Malik had gone to report a speech by separatists’ leaders in Khanqah-e-Moala. Soon after Prof Abdul Gani Bhat finished his speech, he was dragged and Malik witnessed it all. When he reached office and we asked what happened, he said: “Eyewitnesses said he was dragged and whisked to some unknown destination…”

Senior news-photographer Meraj-ud-Din, who lost an eye to a splinter, has many anecdotes to share. Once, he was summoned by some militant outfit and he obliged. After shaking hands he was directed to face the wall and not see backwards. For one hour, the militants were beating his buttocks. Once the marshalling was over, they shook hands with him and let him go saying: “We have nothing against you. It was direction from the commander.” They even had no charge against him!!

While covering the 1996 assembly elections in Batamaloo, media persons faced a pro-boycott crowd on one side and pro-active BSF on the other. It resulted in a clash. In the peak of crisis BSF commandant Joshi raised his fingers towards Meraj and shouted: “I will fix you”. Meraj thought the officer was telling him to fix the camera, so he said: “Where Sir?” The same officer was accused of misbehaving with women on the same day and later he fought a prolonged battle with PTI bureau chief Ali Mohammad Sofi and lost in the court martial.

But the most famous sentence that would keep the grim newsrooms laughing and smiling was by some unknown photographer. On a day when a massacre took place in Srinagar, a senior broadcast journalist’s office got a call from his foreign boss, he was out of his office. A photographer picked up the phone but could not understand what his colleague’s boss was asking for, so he said: “Sir, all Muslims dead, one by one”.

I think, the new breed of reporters who are enormously contributing to the institution of journalism these days have no idea about the happenings between 1988 and 1998. Then, most of them were in schools.

Our youngsters must know that better wages have remained a perpetual fight for their elders in Kashmir and Jammu. The etalaat might have proved a ripple but its contribution in elevating the wage structure has been great. This is something different that they have failed on retaining the system that crafted to destabilize others. But the institutions made corrections soon after and reporters in all the newspapers – Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Times are being respectfully paid.

No doubt, Fayaz Ahmad Kaloo deserves a salute for creating Greater Kashmir. At one point of time, he himself faced enormous problems. Once, a bid was made on his life by a renegade. He had to go underground many a times, as well.  Rise of Greater Kashmir did trigger the energy for creating more institutions.

Rising Kashmir is a new platform that has a vast chain of reporters across J&K and on the other side of the LoC. In a very small span of time, Rising Kashmir has emerged as major English language newspaper. It is a product professionally managed and marketed and offers much detailed overview of the happening from the street to the secretariat. Its sister organization Sangarmal is the only Kashmiri weekly newspaper of Kashmir that is a huge achievement in itself.

Sincerely
Masood Hussain
Assistant Editor,
The Economic Times

COMMENDABLE
This is with reference to the latest issue of Kashmir Life.  The news magazine has done a commendable job by highlighting the stories of the people, who have been telling the stories of people all these years and who have faced the most turbulent times in past two decades.

Regarding the story on slain journalist Parvaz Mohammad Sultan, the reporter has missed certain facts. While you have reported that the journalist was helped by the state government and also by some individuals, the financial assistance from the London-based Rory Pecer Trust has not been reported. The Trust that works for the welfare of freelance journalists bore the expenses of the family for one year besides providing expenses for the schooling of Sultan’s children. The Trust also donated money for purchase of a high-breed Jersey cow for the family for a sustained livelihood.

In case of another journalist Javeed Ahmad, who was working for the local Channel 9 as camera man, the Trust approached the local cable channel for details about Javeed so that he can be helped. However, despite calling the channel office four, five times, unfortunately they didn’t show any interest and didn’t respond to the Trust’s call.

We expect that other organizations would also come forward like the Rory Pecer Trust sand help those families who are in distress.

Regards
Mir Ehsan
Correspondent
Indian Express

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