In Depth

Yusuf Jameel: The smiling journalist whose uncompromising reportage made him a legend

Starting his journalism profession with a hard-hitting story against Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq’s Jamia Masjid affairs, Yusuf Jameel went on to become a legend in media circles in his nearly 4-decade-long career. Surviving six assassination attempts on his life, the winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, Jameel has already inspired generations of journalists in Kashmir.

At a certain point during his Friday sermon from the pulpit of Jamia Masjid in the late-seventies, the miffed Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq rose up to say: “Akhbaran manz chu yiwan waryah kenh lekhne. Tath peaith gazche ne diyaan dun” (Many things are being written in the newspapers. You should not take it seriously). Well before the remarks would send his followers into frenzy, the Mirwaiz played a pacifist: “Ye chune waupar” (The writer is one of us.)

The cleric was reacting to the hard-hitting write-up on the mismanagement of Jamia Masjid. It was written by a young college-goer who happened to be his neighbour.

“Then we used to live in old city’s Rajouri Kadal, close to the Mirwaiz Manzil,” recalls that young writer and now a veteran journalist, Yusuf Jameel. “I observed mismanagement at Jamia Masjid and wrote about it. It was critical of the Mirwaiz, but he was courteous enough to acknowledge the lapses.”

After that article appeared in the popular Urdu daily Aftab, published from Srinagar, young Jameel went to meet its editor, Sonauallah Bhat. The hotshot editor known for his scathing and searing satire called Khizar sochta hai Wular ke Kinarey minced no words: “Yeth tiez mazmoon gachan ne lekein” (Don’t write such hard-hitting pieces).

Jameel soon got his first gig at Aftab. The editor known as the doyen of Kashmiri journalism apparently liked the young man’s clear-headedness and fearless conduct.

A young Jameel during 1980s.

Down the years, this conduct would make Jameel a darling of the masses in Kashmir. His BBC Urdu radio broadcasts would hold Kashmiris captive to radios. His growing popularity eventually made him a thorn in the skin of the establishment.

Jameel’s fearless journalism continued at Aftab, where he rose to become the assistant editor within months of joining. Shortly, as Telegraph’s Kashmir correspondent, his investigative story put Indira’s man in Kashmir and late PDP patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in a tight spot. The story was about the exaggerated death number of Congress workers put forth by the party during a protest in Kashmir.

“As a Congress leader, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his party was obviously against the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah,” says Jameel. “As Congress organized a protest against Abdullah one day, we were briefed in the evening that nine congress supporters were killed in different parts of the valley.”

But Jameel smelt a rat, and decided to investigate. He went to Kunzer area of Tangmarg, where a local had figured on the kill list given by the Mufti-led State Congress. After meeting his family and neighbours, the journalist came to know that the man had not been killed, but had died a natural death incidentally on that very day.

Another injured person passed as killed was traced by Jameel admitted in SMHS. “After I told his mother that he had been declared dead, she cried and cursed Mufti,” he recalls. Jameel’s investigative story rebutted Mufti’s claims and left him red-faced as only four had died in the violence and rest were either alive or died a natural death that day.

As the story created an uproar, National Conference played it up to corner the congressman involved in the ‘smear-campaign’ against Farooq Abdullah.

“I was shortly called by Mufti,” Jameel recalls, smiling over the encounter. “Without complaining about the story, he told me, ‘Agar kenh zarorrat aisi, mein wanziMein karnowmay tche phone, magar tche chuui ne gare phone keheen’ (If you ever need anything, tell me. I tried to call you but you don’t have a phone at home).”

As soon as Jameel told him that there were feasibility issues from his side, “Mufti told me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me. I will right away call the General Manager of the BSNL.’ I told him there is no need of that.” Known for his shrewdness, Mufti wanted to keep the journalist in his good books.

When the same man became India’s first Muslim Home Minister and presided over multiple massacres in Kashmir, Jameel soon found himself in a dragnet.

Barely 10 days after the Hawal Massacre (May 21, 1990), drawing curtains on Jagmohan’s blood-spattered Kashmir campaign, and paving way to new governor Girish Chandra Saxena in Raj Bhawan, an army column raided Jameel’s residence.

Then Srinagar-based correspondent of Telegraph, BBC and Reuters, Jameel was arrested at 7.20 a.m. on June 2, 1990 by one Major Hawa Singh and Lieutenant P. Saxena from the 11th Gorkha regiment. They took him away on the pretext of identifying a person.

On the way to Srinagar’s Badami Bagh cantonment area, Jameel learnt that the person he was supposed to identify was his colleague, Zafar Meraj. Six months back, Meraj had played an active role in securing the release of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of then Home Minister Mufti Sayeed.

ALSO READ: The Editor’s take: ‘Journalists in Kashmir walk on a double-edged sword’

‘So, how many times Meraj has crossed the border clandestinely?’ As Jameel expressed his ignorance, the lieutenant threatened to use ‘other methods’ to make him speak. He curtly understood that the officers wanted to establish his and Meraj’s militant links. His arrest had followed a commonplace military method those days.

Intelligence had it that a young man named Ayub, arrested along with 16 others who were on their way back from Azad Kashmir after getting arms training, had named Jameel and Meraj as his ‘contact men’. The army officers were ordered by their commanding officer Lt-Colonel Bhanwar Singh to arrest the well-reputed journalist which became international news.

Then Governor Saxena and the South Block denied reports that Jameel had been picked up by the armed forces. But 30 hours later, when he was released from the army custody, it left the twin power centres red-faced and gave teeth to widespread complaints in Kashmir that many innocent people were illegally detained by the forces. Jameel’s arrest had reinforced that view.

Charar-e-Sharief, Kashmir / Monday, May 15, 1995: Yusuf Jameel (second right) with photographers Sheikh Tariq (extreme left), Late Mushtaq Ali and Habibullah Naqash.

“The officers acted without clearance and without jurisdiction,” Governor Saxena had to come clean on the journalist’s arrest. “A journalist of repute was involved and the higher authorities should have been informed.”

But such an extra-judicial custodial arrest didn’t diminish Jameel’s journalistic spirits.

When the 4th Rajputana Rifles of the 68 Mountain Division entered a settlement at Kunan Poshpora in Kupwara district on the night of February 23-24, 1991 and gang-raped at least 23 women of all ages and in all conditions, Jameel was the first journalist to break the story.

“I broke the story based on a letter which the DC Kupwara, SM Yasin had written to the Divisional Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah,” he recalls. “I got my hands on a copy of that letter and spoke to Habibullah. ‘Apko kaisay pata chala (How did you come to know about it),’ he blurted out, astoundingly. I told him journalists are supposed to know. ‘Yes, it has happened and I’ve already ordered an investigation into the matter,’ he told me. I soon visited Kunan Poshpora and filed an extensive story about the episode.”

While rest is history on the Kunan-Poshpora case, he paid a price for being Yusuf Jameel.

On September 25, 1992, he was among the five journalists arrested and ruthlessly beaten by armed forces while covering a Dukhteran-e-Milat demonstration. They were hospitalised for over a week. He went on to survive six attacks on his life, including the one on September 7, 1995 when a Burka-clad woman delivered a parcel at his office. That attack changed his life forever.

An injured Yusuf Jameel in the hospital after he, with others, was beaten up by the police while covering DeM protest in Srinagar on September 25, 1992.

As his friend and colleague, photojournalist Mushtaq Ali opened the parcel, it turned out to be a bomb, and exploded. Along with critically wounded Ali, Jameel and veteran Kashmiri photojournalist, Habib Naqash were hospitalised. The bomb sent to kill Jameel ended up killing Ali, leaving the veteran journalist with minor facial injuries.

“I suffered because my family suffered,” Jameel says. “My father had a heart attack after Mushtaq died in the hospital. My mother also suffered with what you call depression.” But even then, his parents and wife never forced him to quit journalism. ‘Be careful and just face it,’ he remembers his wife telling him.

That attack ultimately cost him his job at the BBC. He was first sent to Delhi and then to London on assurance that he would be sent back to his beat.

“I wasn’t ready to go because of two reasons—one, the people behind the parcel bomb would have thought that they’ve succeeded; and second, I didn’t want to leave my shocked parents behind.” The management at BBC however was adamant to send him away to England for treatment and a ‘much-needed sabbatical’ to overcome the stress.

“But I stood my ground and gave the BBC three options,” Jameel says.

Yusuf Jameel with Mushtaq Ali (right).

First option was to return to Kashmir on his beat. It was denied on ground of threats to his life. Second option was to get a job in Bush House. It was denied on grounds of No Vacancy. “I think they were lying,” he says, “because four days later they published an advertisement in Indian newspapers inviting applications for various posts in Hindi service.”

And the third and a very interesting option he gave to BBC management was that he should be send anywhere in the world, except Pakistan.

“When asked for the reason, I told them that there were people who’ve been openly saying that I’m hand-in-glove with militants, that I’m a Pakistani Agent. If I had gone there, they would’ve been vindicated,” he recalls with a smile.

After four months in Delhi, the BBC left him on his own. “Whatever we had to, we’ve done that,” the BBC management snubbed Jameel who in the thickest years of the war back home had singlehandedly made it a popular medium. By then, he had already lost his job with Reuters, as the international news agency had the impression that he was going to London for good.

But why would an organization leave such a star journalist high and dry during testing times?

“I strongly believe that they were under pressure from the Indian Government,” Jameel says. “The parcel bomb sent to kill me was from the Army which is a part of the establishment. They wanted to get rid of me. Once they failed in their plan, they didn’t want me back in Kashmir.”

By not considering him for Hindi services, BBC didn’t want to be at loggerheads with New Delhi.

“BBC was approached by various government officials a number of times complaining about my style of reporting, asking them to replace me,” he says. “One of them was Ram Mohan Rao, then the media advisor of the J&K government based in Delhi.” Every time Jameel used to file a story, Rao would call the BBC office in Delhi and complain about Jameel, dismissing his reportage as concocted.

BBC Delhi Correspondent Sam Miller, who later on became the organization’s Urdu service Chief, used to frequently inform him about the bile expressed by Rao on his reportage. “One day I got irritated and told him, Why don’t you ask Ram Mohan to file the story on Kashmir? Miller told me that he was only informing me,” Jameel says. “Rao on behalf of GoI was very deadly against me.”

But the threat was from the other side as well.

Yusuf Jameel (left) with Late Qaiser Mirza (second left), Habibullah Naqash and Late Mushtaq Ali at Dalgate on March 1, 1990.

“People liked me,” Jameel says. “But some militants were against me as they thought I was giving more coverage to others. They attacked me. JKLF guys hurled a grenade at my house in Ellahi Bagh after I asked some uneasy questions to them during a press conference. And then the next grenade attack was carried by Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen.”

As a journalist, his loyalty based on his objective reporting was repeatedly questioned.

“Pro-Pakistan groups like Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen used to openly say that I’m pro-JKLF, while JKLF tried to kidnap me,” Jameel says. “Then one Jihad Force issued a statement that I’m a part of the political process initiated by the Government of India through Minister Rajesh Pilot.”

In fact, he says, he had seen Rajesh Pilot only once during a press conference called in wake of the release of the kidnapped manager of the Indian Oil Cooperation, Durai Swami. “I saw Pilot there only,” he says. “But this group said that I was involved in the ‘political process’ and asked me to leave Kashmir within 48 hours.”

But Jameel asserts that there were some within the militant ranks who understood the reporters’ mandate. “They understood what my job was,” he says. “But then there were others who just wanted publicity.” However, despite bombs and death threats, Jameel managed to keep the ordinary listener hooked and happy.

Jameel in his Press Colony office. (FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid)

“I tried my best to report things as they were,” he says. “And that’s why people liked what I did. The ordinary listener was pleased with me when others were reporting half truths and just giving the official version.” As people relied on BBC for factual news, Jameel became a household name.

All those experiences and more are now shaping up into a memoir.

“I’ve already written about 100-150 pages and left it for a while. It needs a lot of research. I’ve to go through documents and meet people in India as well as Pakistan including politicians and ex-militants. A lot of research has to be done to capture one heck of a journey,” he smiles.


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