‘As I cried ‘press’, the cops beat me and snatched my camera’


A series on true experiences


Showkat ShafiBy Showkat Shafi

19 AUGUST 2011. World Photography Day. I decided to shoot a gathering of people at Jamia Masjid, in the old city of Srinagar, after the Friday congregational prayers.

At around 2 pm, I, along with my photojournalist friends Shahid, Narciso (from Mexico) and Rajesh (from Delhi), went to the historic mosque. Inside, I got several good pictures. One especially stood out. I thought the place had again proved lucky. But this time, I was wrong.

Illustrations: Sudeep Chaudhuri

After the prayers, as the devotees started leaving, Rajesh and I waited for Narciso and Shahid at the main square. Suddenly, some boys started shouting pro-freedom slogans and began to pelt stones at the police and the paramilitary forces. I must have clicked only a few pictures when I was stopped by a joint team of the Jammu & Kashmir Police and CRPF. I told them I was from the press. Without saying a word, they pounced on me and started beating me.

I kept crying, “press, press” as 15 cops simultaneously kicked, punched, hit me with gun butts and bamboo sticks. Some cops tried to snatch my camera. The CRPF personnel must have hit me at least 10 times on my head with bamboo sticks. Things got blurry. I lost my hold on the camera and fell on the ground. They caught my arms, and three of them tore my clothes. It was humiliating as they paraded me half naked to the gate of Nowhatta Police Station.

There were four young boys in the lock-up. One had been arrested for the protest, the rest for being relatives of stone-pelters. They enquired about me and I told them that I was a news photographer. They removed my torn shirt to check for injuries and tried to relieve me of the severe pain.

That’s when we heard some screams outside the cell. The policemen and the CRPF were beating some boys mercilessly as they cried bitterly. After that, I heard the cries of my friend Narciso. The cops were beating him too. At that moment, I feared that they would kill both of us in a fake encounter because no one knew we had been arrested.

A few minutes later, the munshi shouted, “Showkat, the press guy, come out.” The second I stepped out, a cop started kicking and slapping me as he dragged me upstairs.

The SHO was sitting there. He stayed the cop’s hand and said, “I will show you how to slap.” He slapped me twice, with both hands, on both cheeks. Then, he kicked me inside a room, where there were some top police officers, CRPF personnel and Narciso. He was standing against the wall. His arms and legs were bleeding.

They told me to sit on my knees in the centre of the room. The scene reminded me of news reports from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The Superintendent of Police (SP) asked for my name. I told him, Showkat Shafi Shah. I thought that on learning that we share the same last name, he would sympathise with me and set me free. But he laughed and hit me more. I was asked to shut my eyes before they slapped me again. Meanwhile, an officer offered Narciso some juice and told him, “Welcome to Kashmir.” They all laughed again. It seemed like a scene from a Bollywood movie.

“Will you work again?” the SP asked me. I did not reply. “If I ever see your byline anywhere, I will not let you be. You press people are working for the army and Indian intelligence; you are associated with them,” he yelled at me.

Till then, I thought no one knew where we were. However, the SP received some phone calls and I was released after more than five hours of detention.

The physical injuries may have healed. But some scars still remain. Ever since, I have not been able to sleep properly. Earlier, as a press photographer, when I captured the police beating people, they were just subjects. Now, when I take pictures, I try to capture the pain I feel within.

Showkat Shafi is 25. He is a Kashmiri photojournalist based in New Delhi


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