Reporting From the Margins

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Photos: AFP
Photos: AFP

When six people were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Sopore, Kashmir, over three weeks, it was a chilling throwback to the 1990s when killings like these were routine. Many people had died then, with nobody owning responsibility or questioning the state of affairs. Enquiries were made in hushed whispers. The truth, if it was known, was shared only among trusted acquaintances. Else, the common man with an intuitive understanding of the situation made his own judgement and went on with his life.

For a journalist based in Kashmir, it is this muddled, ambiguous reality that makes the “disputed territory” such a fraught place to cover. There are some known actors, but beneath them are layers of unknown actors at play, who clash, overlap or sometimes appear to merge.

The Sopore shootings offer a glimpse of the challenges of reporting a uniquely treacherous facet of the lingering violence. It began on 25 May when a little-known militant outfit Lashkar-e-Islam attacked a BSNL outlet killing Mohammad Rafiq, 26, and injuring three others. Earlier, the outfit had put up posters calling on people hosting telecommunication towers on their properties to get them removed. One Ghulam Hassan Dar, who had a transmitting tower on his land, was killed soon after.

The attacks didn’t go down well with Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and various separatist groups, who dissociated themselves from the killings and branded Lashkar-e-Islam as a government- funded group, tracing its genesis to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s recent statement that he prefers “using terrorists to kill terrorists”. The police, on the contrary, first blamed the Hizbul and then a breakaway group for the deaths.

Lashkar-e-Islam insisted they were genuine mujahideen and challenged Hizbul and the let to probe their credentials. But, at the same time, the group’s field operations spokesperson Gazi Abu Sariq alleged that some members of the Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani had betrayed four top militants to security agencies and got them killed. The Hurriyat dismissed the charge.

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Then followed the killings of four former militants and separatist sympathisers, three of them over successive days. Nobody claimed responsibility. A hush fell over Sopore, a militant stronghold since the secessionist movement broke out in 1989. The positions of the known actors — separatists and the security agencies — hardened, with both blaming each other. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed ordered a “timebound probe” that is still to take off. The police also put up posters across Sopore announcing a reward of 10 lakh for information leading to the capture of two militants who were identified as commanders of the “breakaway Hizb group” and therefore responsible for the killings.

Now, two weeks later, Kashmir is normal again. The story is no longer news and the political discourse has shifted.

How do you tell the truth of this story? Who killed the six persons, making widows of four women and orphans of 14 children? And why? There is little clarity on all this. The journalist’s curiosity confronts you with Kashmir’s own “unknown unknowns”, a dark underground where little is visible and where dangers lurk round every corner. These dangers have always stalked mediapersons in Kashmir — not necessarily from the “unknown unknowns” or the “known unknowns” alone but also from the “known knowns”, the security agencies and the militant groups. The past 25 years have seen numerous attacks on the press, with some journalists even losing their lives.

Looking back, there are several personal tales that recapture for us the horror of the times and give us a sense of what Kashmiri journalists have had to go through to get the story. One of the earliest episodes that jolted journalism in the state was the 1990 assassination of Muhammad Shaban Vakil, editor of Alsafa, then a leading local daily that went on to have a successful run until the turn of the millennium. Vakil, under whose leadership Alsafa was consistently reporting on the ongoing turmoil, was dragged out of his office and shot dead. More killings followed. Saideen Shafi of Ankhon Dekhi was killed in 1997 and Parvaz Sultan of News and Features Alliance in 2003. The people behind these and more murders may not have been identified — and never will be — but the truth about them is street lore in the Valley.

It is not as if forces belonging only to one side of the political and ideological divide in Kashmir have stalked and hunted down journalists. Caught in the shadow war of the agencies, journalists have been sitting ducks in a place where murders have long become an effortless pastime for their perpetrators. In 1995, journalist Yusuf Jameel experienced this treachery first hand. A burqa-clad woman dropped by his office with a ‘gift’ for him in a parcel. But before Jameel, then a BBC correspondent, could open it, his young photographer Mushtaq Ali did. The gift was a bomb and it blew up in Ali’s hands, killing him on the spot. A decade-and-ahalf later, Jameel has hardly recovered from the shock.

Habib Naqash, Jameel’s colleague and photographer with The Asian Age, has evaded death four times. He was by Ali’s side when tragedy struck. Then, one day in 1999, Naqash was sitting with the then defence spokesperson in Kashmir, Major P Purushottam, in the latter’s office at the 15 Corps headquarters when fidayeen stormed the sprawling cantonment and killed the officer. Minutes before his death, the major had hidden Naqash and some of his journalist colleagues in his washroom. A year later, Naqash was taking pictures of an Ambassador car on Residency Road, Srinagar, when it suddenly exploded, killing nine people and a photographer of Hindustan Times.

Zafar Iqbal was starting out in journalism when unidentified gunmen fired at him while he was at the office of Kashmir Images, a local English newspaper where he worked. Mercifully, Iqbal survived and is now one of the prominent faces of journalism in the state, reporting for NDTV from Jammu.

Kuka Parray, who led the Ikhwans (surrendered militants allegedly armed for counterinsurgency operations by the security forces), once kidnapped the editors of prominent local dailies and some correspondents and demanded favourable coverage of the counterinsurgency. The media had to fall in line.

There were pressures from the militants, too, who sometimes dictated the editorial content of the newspapers: what to report, how to report and the kind of display the stories should get. The security establishment has been no less intolerant of criticism than the militants but it has always preferred more covert means of coercion than the in-your-face bullying by the militants or the Ikhwans.

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