Through thick and thin

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Newspaper hawkers are known to face rain and sun everywhere, but in Kashmir bullets and batons are a supplement. Ibrahim Wani reports.

Even before the sun rises, the newspaper hawkers throughout the world are out to deliver newspapers to readers waiting at their tea tables. A morning is usually incomplete without a cup of tea and a newspaper.

Riding their bicycles the hawkers not only traverse large distances but also brave weather conditions ranging from extreme temperatures to torrential rain and snow. However in Kashmir, the newspaper hawkers have to brave bullets and batons too.

Since the onset of the militancy in 1988 the demand for newspapers went through the roof. Consequently the number of newspaper hawkers and vendors shot up to around 200. “Before 1988 there was hardly any demand for newspapers. Then as militancy erupted, the demand for the newspapers also skyrocketed. Everyone was hungry for news and the demand for newspapers increased manifold. Now we were selling thousands of newspapers,” says

Manzoor Ahmad from Pulwama who is the main newspaper distributor for the district. Together with the newspaper distributors, the newspaper hawkers form the backbone of the newspaper circulation in the valley.

“The newspaper hawker was the first point of contact between the newspaper and the reader,” says Nasir Mirza, a faculty member at the media education research centre in Kashmir University. For the people the hawker was the news deliverer. “Whenever there was an event people would be hungry for news and newspapers satiated this need,” says Basher Ahmad Basher, editor Srinagar Times who is also President of the Kashmir Press Guild.

The arrival of the newspaper hawker would be eagerly awaited as almost all the electronic media was owned by the government and the newspapers gave them a more balanced report of the events.

“There was no other source of the news other than the newspaper which the people could trust. The newspapers would give in-depth information on everything ranging from death tolls in explosions and encounters to hartal calls. Everyone eagerly waited for the newspaper hawker to deliver the newspaper,” says Aaliya Ahmad who teaches journalism at University of Kashmir.

The increased demand of newspapers brought cheer to newspaper hawkers. However the cheer was short lived. The newspaper hawker became an easy target. “When anybody had any grievance with the news the newspaper hawker became a sitting duck to be targeted on whom resentment could be unleashed. A number of them particularly from villages were also targeted because they were thought to be relaying news to Srinagar based newspapers” adds Nasir Mirza.

Ghulam Mohammad, a newspaper distributor in Sopore recalls, “As we would start unloading the bundles, people would literally pounce on us to get a copy. The security forces would get edgy at this and at least twice they opened fire to scare them away. The hawkers were also subject to constant beating.”

(Counting his load: Abdul Rashid Sheikh)

Abdul Rashid Sheikh, a newspaper hawker in Srinagar recalls an episode in 1994 when the armed militancy was at its peak. He was stopped while cycling with his daily pile of newspapers by the army at Zaldagar, “I showed them my curfew pass. The officer in charge checked it, but didn’t say anything.

Suddenly, he thrashed my face with a rod that had iron nails fixed on its tip. The spikes broke my facial bones. I fell down unconscious.” When he woke up in the hospital he saw his family weeping and pleading for him to leave the job.

“My wife demanded that I sell vegetables instead.” However he continued selling newspapers.

The condition has not changed much. Widespread protests after the Amarnath land row and the Shopian protests again brought harassment for hawkers.

According to Manzoor Ahmad from Pulwama, during the period the security forces came down heavily on the newspaper hawkers. “The security forces didn’t let us sell newspapers during that period. The newspaper hawkers were subject to constant beatings and harassment.” The hawkersfrom the area rose in protest and approached the SP who “gave us an offer that a policeman would accompany every hawker selling or delivering the newspapers.” The hawkers rejected the idea and chose selling the newspapers by themselves. “Would anyone like to buy newspapers from a hawker who carries a policeman in tandem.”

Mohd Ashraf Dar of Baramulla has a similar tale to narrate. He was severely thrashed by the police personnel for selling newspapers. “They threw away all my newspapers and threatened me not to sell them.”

The batons could not stop Ashraf, however. He started selling newspapers again.

“There were times when I thought that it is better to give up and change my business,” says Muzaffar Ali of Zadibal, another hawker. Ali recalls one morning when security forces thrashed all the newspaper sellers and damaged their bicycles.

Rashid Ahmad from Lawaypora was beaten along with another hawker Muzamil at Jehangir Chowk. “We were beaten because we were carrying newspapers.”

However many had to face bullets in place of baton. Mohammad Shaban from Kupwara was shot in the early 90s. He survived and left the trade.

Not everyone was lucky enough. Ghulam Mohammad Lone of Kangan was a newspaper distributor who doubled up as a reporter for Srinagar dailies. In August 1994, Lone complained to the editors in Srinagar that he has got threats from army men. Days later, while he was sleeping in his bed with his seven year old son, masked men barged in, spraying bullets. The father and the son died on the spot.

The newspaper hawkers were also an easy target for the “other side”. Farooq Abdullah Raja, who later died in a mysterious fire in his shop, was kidnapped many times by insurgents. He was the main distributor for national daily ‘the Hind Samachar’ and the militants would hold him responsible for the reports carried by the newspaper. In 1992 he was kidnapped for over a month. A number of hawkers also faced harassment for selling national newspapers and magazines which took a pro-India line.

The newspaper hawkers and distributors would also face the ire not just for political reasons but also for selling magazines with pictures of Bollywood heros and heroines considered immoral by the militants.

Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din, who is the main distributor for most of the national newspapers was kidnapped and threatened for selling magazines carrying pictures of Bollywood actors and actresses. “A number of times our newspaper supplies were snatched from us and burned,” says Rashid a newspaper vendor.

The newspaper hawkers also have had to bear tremendous losses on account of the prevailing situation “The hawkers book their orders for newspapers in advance. In case of a hartal or a curfew when the copies remain undelivered or unsold the loss is ultimately born by the hawker,” says Javaid Ahmad who is in charge circulation of a leading magazine.

The hawkers say that they are so vulnerable because the newspapers don’t extend them much support “even when without them the newspapers would not be worth anything”.  Countering this charge Manzoor Anjum the editor of the daily Uqaab says, “The newspaper hawkers have no direct link with the newspapers and it is the distributors who are responsible for their concern.” However the newspaper hawkers disagree. “We are being targeted for reports in the paper and as such they should take more concern to our well being,” adds Rashid Ahmad, a newspaper hawker.

Everyday more than 1,20,000 newspapers are delivered or sold by newspaper hawkers. From bus stands to narrow streets newspaper hawkers can be seen among the first people out on streets in early morning hours. Veteran journalist Yousuf Jameel says that newspaper hawkers have played a very important role in the survival of journalism in Kashmir. “It is impossible for a newspaper to reach the people without a newspaper hawker”, he says.

Through all the ups and downs the newspaper hawker has faced, the bicycle has remained a faithful companion.

As the demand for newspapers even in the world of cable TV and internet keeps increasing, Rashid Ahmad who has taken many beatings cycles his way through narrow Srinagar streets. “This is our business. No matter what the condition the newspaper has to reach the people.”

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