Not long ago, a family elder suggested I bid adieu to journalism and look for a ‘normal’ job. Not for a moment did he mean that the profession offered me no future or denied me a decent livelihood. He was only concerned because, in Kashmir, journalism is a career that only earns enemies.
It was tough to reject his advice because I knew he was right in his own way. As a journalist one is judged everyday, and if an illiterate guerrilla or an arrogant securityman decides so, there is nothing to stop one from becoming ‘collateral damage’ in a war that has already claimed more than 50,000 lives.
Unlike an open confrontation, insurgency is a war in which every player considers himself a victim and thinks his cause is the only sacred struggle.
One day, a journalist could be dubbed ‘anti-national’ for defaming the security forces, who stake their lives for the country’s sovereignty and integrity. The next day, if he dares to write about a militant atrocity or hidden separatist agendas, he is labelled a traitor to the cause of Kashmiris, more so if he happens to be a local.
There are occasions, though, when reporters pay the price for headlines, literally. In a war where killings do not make page one anymore, the violent death of a journalist is guaranteed to make a splash.
I never thought of it this way till August 10, 2000, when a deadly blast on Srinagar’s Residency Road, just a mile away from my office, claimed 16 lives, including that of photojournalist Pradeep Bhatia. It was perhaps just a reprise of the stories of terror I had been reporting everyday, but the bodies haunted my dreams and one indelible image—a dismembered human limb dangling from an electrical wire, dripping blood—emblazoned itself into my mind.
For eight years, I had been reporting death almost every day. During my initial days as a cub reporter, every assignment was traumatic. But over the years, the daily dose of violence innoculated me against all pain.
But the August 10 blast pierced through that shell of emotional immunity. Death came so much closer. A few feet away from where I stood, I saw friends and fellow journalists blown to smithereens, flung high in the air like bloody rag dolls. The militant strategy to use violence as a communication tool had finally come of age.
Every Kashmiri reporter has a story to tell. Habibullah Naqash, a photographer, has had a close brush with death at least five times, the last in 1995 at the local BBC office, where a bomb killed fellow photojournalist Mushtaq Ali. Naqash and then BBC Srinagar correspondent Yousuf Jameel were injured. The bomb had been meant for Jameel. Srinagar’s Press Enclave has since been renamed Mushtaq Enclave.
Ali, however, was not the first to be caught in this maelstorm. In April 1991, when militancy was at its peak, unidentified gunmen barged into the office of the Alsafa newspaper and shot dead its outspoken editor Mohammad Shaban Vakil. Though the killing is still wrapped in mystery, many believe the provocation was his famous column Kadva Sach (The Bitter Truth). His death was supposed to be a warning for local scribes to ‘‘discipline’’ themselves.
Noted Kashmiri journalist Zafar Meraj, who writes for a national newsmagazine besides editing his own English daily in Srinagar, once interviewed top counter-insurgent leader Kuka Parrey, now a legislator in State Assembly, in his den at Hajin, 30 miles north of Srinagar. On the way back, a group of armed men stopped him and pumped half-a-dozen bullets into his stomach. Meraj spent 20 minutes plugging his bullet wounds with his own shirt and shouting for help from passersby. Nobody stopped at the sight of the profusely bleeding man till a truck-driver took pity on him and drove him to hospital. Though he recovered completely, the emotional wounds remain unhealed.
The militants are unsubtle when it comes to their press releases. ‘‘Manu un shaya karien (reproduce exactly)’’, was the common order that accompanied releases in the early ’90s. Local editors recollect being dictated headlines and column sizes; journalists remember being kidnapped and threatened hundreds of times. The Urdu daily Srinagar Times has had to close down its publication 10 times over the years under pressure from both Government and militants. Urdu dailies Daily Aftab and Alsafa, were forced to stop publication at least six times during those years.
Not just militants and the government, journalists in the Valley have to contend with the counter-insurgents as well. Once, a large group of journalists was taken hostage by counter-insurgent leader Azad Nabi in Anantnag; subsequently, the anti-militancy Ikhwan group too kidnapped scribes. The reason: they too wanted to be heard and have their statements published prominently.
For a few years thereafter, there was no direct threat to any journalist. The spell was broken in the run-up to the Kashmir elections last year when Zafar Iqbal, a fledgling reporter with Kashmir Images, was peppered with bullets inside his office. Because he had never written anything that could invite such treatment, the incident continues to be shrouded in mystery; Iqbal, lucky to have survived, has since left the Valley.
I have been lucky all these years. Though I have been physically harmed on just a few occasions, the daily grind of violence has changed life in other ways. Sleep is difficult, as is avoiding that knot of tension, the thump of fear, each time the phone rings late at night. Death and bloodshed can de-sensitise one, but when tragedy comes home so frequently, journalists have to remember one lesson: sense the boiling point and temper the reports to just a few degrees below that threshold.
A bloody yet unseen battle between Pen and Sword is played out everyday in the Valley. Muzamil Jaleel, who leads the Express team in Srinagar, shares some of his stories
This article was published in Kashmir suppliment of Express India.