Silenced

One of the earliest jolts journalism in Kashmir received was the killing of Alsafa News editor Mohammed Shaban Vakil, reports R S Gull.

.                                                                          (Lawyer Mohammad Shaban Vakil)

Kashmir’s two main newspapers, Aftab and Srinagar Times went into a sort of a shell when armed militancy announced its arrival by sending a bullet with a letter to Sofi Ghulam Mohammad. During the militancy’s amorphous days, the two newspapers refrained from carrying strike calls and press notes of militant outfits overtly. But a lesser-known recent entrant daily Alsafa News, however, did not bother to be so cautious. It published such press statements boldly. As all the electronic media at that time was government-owned, people would rely on the newspapers for a less sanitized version of the happenings.

Alsafa owner Shaban Vakil belonged to Seelu Sopore and was an income tax lawyer before starting the newspaper. He was an outspoken man who had been involved in the al-Fatah movement of mid 1960s. He also was running an NGO – al-Safa Forum. As a new entrant, al-Safa created its own niche and offered readers a break from routine journalism. Apart from publishing all the militancy-related news, it would offer the best possible exclusives of the day. Within days it became one of the most popular news products that at one time had a circulation of 41000, a record of sorts.

But this all did not come simply because al-Safa would liberally accommodate the fugitives. It was this newspaper that exposed the molestation of a number of women in Chanpora. The exclusive forced Dr Farooq Abdullah to drive the then Kashmir Affairs Minister George Fernandes to the al-Safa office at Saraibal from where, in the dead of the night, he drove all alone to Chanpora and tape-recorded the statements of the women.

Vakil had aggressively taken up the state of human rights with the all-party delegation that Rajiv Gandhi led to Srinagar when the Jagmohan replaced Dr Abdullah’s coalition government.

Al Safa was the first newspaper office in Kashmir that was raided by CRPF after an encounter broke out near-by. Its staff was dragged out and ruthlessly beaten. It was one of the two newspapers that was banned by Jagmohan later, albeit temporarily. It came within days of the newspaper carrying a controversial statement of some obscure militant commander asking Pandits to leave Kashmir within 48 hours.

However, the early 1990s was a time when everybody from militants to the government to the security establishment wanted to control the media and pressurize them in carrying their views. In one of the first casualties, the media in Kashmir suffered was the killing of Alsafa owner and editor, Mohammed Shaban Vakil. On April 23, 1991, he was shot dead in his office by militants. He was 41.

Vakil’s death to a large extent made journalists and newspaper editors aware of the hard reality of the times they were living in. “The killing was a warning to journalists to discipline themselves,” says a senior journalist.

There are varied theories for the hit. One that the hit was ordered to serve as a threat and to warn the local scribes to ‘‘discipline’’ themselves. After his death, Alsafa continued its great success run until the turn of the millennium. But things changed drastically after that. The newspaper was taken over by his inexperienced young son Ashraf Shaban, who was a school back-bencher. He would carry any kind of news, sometimes bringing personal vendetta onto the news pages. The language would be of a very low standard.

On the way, the paper earned many enemies with its obnoxious language against some people for whom Ashraf Shaban carried any personal grudge.

The two most regular targets of the newspaper became a doctor and a banker. Though he spared few baseless reports, full of malice written in debasing language would frequently appear in the newspaper especially against the two.

The doctor later joined politics and became a minister in the Mufti Syed-led government. As Alsafa had ruffled many feathers and tarnished many reputations there was no lack of people who wanted to see it being hit. Then the offices, which also housed its printing press was demolished by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation for contravening building laws and encroachment. Though Alsafa is still published very few people read it as other better quality newspapers devoured the space. Lagging behind in technological improvement and manpower resources it was destined to fizzle out anyway.

As Shaban Vakil came from a reasonably well-off family, the family did not face financial hardships though the loss of a head of the family did have a traumatic impact. The biggest casualty in Vakil’s death was the fall of an institution that by now would have been an empire. Unlike his contemporaries, Vakil would spend heavily in his newspaper and would personally drop his staff to their residences during the dead of the night.

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