Amid shutdown and rage over the killing of seven civilians at Sirnoo Pulwama, a non-local journalist working with Free Press Kashmir went to the spot for a reporting assignment and ended up facing a grim reality and very uneasy questions.
It has been more than a year now since I arrived in Kashmir.
I remember when I used to share with my senior colleague, my intentions to go out of the main-city to report, especially the volatile south, he would warn: “O waha jaana khatarnaak hoga, Srinagar mein hi raho” (Going out of Srinagar would be dangerous.)
And hence, for the first few months, I had restrained myself from being adventurous and thus, my reportage was confined to Srinagar’s Hospitals only, treating the battling-with-life victims of the bloody conflict.
But this did not continue for long and on March 9, for the first time ever, I ventured my nervous foot outside Srinagar and went to Southern Kashmir’s Shopian district to report the mysterious killing of four civilians. I remember the anguished father of one of the slain telling me: “India wants Kashmir and not its people.”
As a non-local journalist working in Kashmir – where anti-India sentiments run high – comments like these have become ordinary to my ears. There is anger, there’s aggression, yet, not once have I been jeopardised by any local.
In search of yet another ground story, I went to Sirnoo village of Pulwama, where last Saturday, seven civilians were killed in indiscriminate army firing, post the gun-battle that had left three militants and one trooper dead.
Pulwama was entirely shut to mourn what the former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah called a “massacre”.
With no local transport, I had to walk over 1.5 kilometres to reach Sirnoo from the main town. On my way, I met an elderly man who happened to be from the same village, and so, we walked together as we discussed the place’s geography.
According to the man, last time Sirnoo village witnessed killings was over a decade back. However, its comeback has been dreadful, leaving the entire village burning in rage.
On reaching, the elderly man invited me for a cup of tea with no option of denial. After that, he took me to the exact spot where the militants had been hiding – an eight-by-six-feet pit covered with branches of trees and tin sheets.
He alleged that four villagers were used as human shields by the Army during the search operation. That’s when I started looking for the four men. They were going to be the characters of my story.
A few meters away from the hideout is the house of one of the seven slain civilians, where two separate tents were set up for male and female mourners who were in hundreds.
Just as I was standing outside the residence, trying to look through a poster written in Urdu, a 70-year-old man standing beside read it loud for me: “Shaheed (martyr) Shahbaz Ahmad Najar!”
Shahbaz was the 19-year-old who was killed in his neighbour’s courtyard when a bullet shot by the army pierced his head.
“What are you here for?” asked the 70-year-old. I introduced myself and evidently stressed on the fact that I work with a ‘local’ media based in Srinagar.
Incidentally, the aged man happened to be the father of two of the four men who were used as human-shields by the Army. I had come across the right man for my story.
The 70-year-old was Abdul Khaliq Najar, and his two sons Firdous and Showkat were dragged out of their house along with two neighbours at around 6:00 am before the brief gunfight.
Narrating the incident, Najar said: “I was offering my morning namaz (prayer) when the army knocked the main-door. I had to discontinue as the door was been rigorously banged.”
“Look, they don’t even allow us to offer our prayers in peace,”disrupted another elderly man standing right next to Najar. “We are shackled. Our young ones are dying before us.”
“And why do you journalists come and talk to us when you’ll have absolutely no guts to document the truth,” interrupted another man in his early 30s. “Leave aside the three militants, what was the fault of my seven unarmed brothers who were innocently killed? Moreover, the media dubs them as stone-pelters? Did you see any possibility of stone-pelting near the encounter site?”
“It was a massacre like Jallianwala Bagh,” the young man continued, “which has become a norm in Kashmir. But none of you will write about it, especially the ones coming from Hindustan (India).”
His anger was justified.
Top media outlets like The Sunday Guardian, Times of India and others actually tagged the civilians as “stone-pelters”. In fact, one news outlet, My Nation, went to an extent of calling the slain, “terrorist-shielding stone-pelters”.
While, the North Lines published an opinion piece by Brigadier Anil Gupta, who justified the media’s narrative, in-return saying the local media “did not lag behind in arousing the passions”.
Here’s the excerpt from his piece titled ‘Battle of Perceptions: Difference correct wordings can make’ – “…Most of the (national) media headlines, both electronic and print, read, “7 civilians, 3 militants, 1 jawan killed in Pulwama gunfight.” The vernacular press crossed all limits and chose to highlight Omar Abdullah’s tweet describing the incident a ‘massacre’.”
Further terming the seven civilians “co-hearts and (militant) sympathisers”, the piece read, “Terrorists are the enemy of the nation and those who assist them… deserve no leniency.”
The gunfight between the militants and the forces, as per the locals, was over in less than 20 minutes. Moreover, it had taken place in an apple orchard, where I, as a reporter was able to find only a handful of stones on the ground.
But when a group of angry locals were venting out their anger and frustration on me, I knew they weren’t wrong. Kashmir valley from past seven decades has been submerged in a bloody conflict that has consumed more than 70,000 lives since the anti-India uprising in the 1990. This year alone, rights groups say, more than 150 civilians have been killed.
In the case of Sirnoo gunfight, the damage has not just confined to the casualties; four villagers have been left ‘mentally disturbed’ after being used as human shields.
Manzoor Dar, one among the four, while narrating the incident said that the army beat them up and forced them to search the exact location where the militants were present.
“The militants had guns, and so did the Army. Why were we dragged in between?” Dar questioned in anger.
Dar said that they were forced to search and clear the orchard area for about two hours, until the contact between the militants and the forces initiated with an exchange of bullets.
All the four human shields, Dar said, miraculously escaped from the area of the gunfight.
“I had no hope of any of us returning alive. Who would have questioned the Army, had they killed and tagged us Over Ground Workers?” he said, adding: “AFSPA (Armed Force Special Powers Act) is their shield.”
“Can the Army do the same in your homeland Mumbai, or for that matter, anywhere in India? Until how long are we going to be occupied? Isn’t freedom and leaving in peace our right? What happened to Nehru’s promise? When will this bloodshed end?” – are a few questions that I have been sent back with, and I, have the answer to none.
Giving ears to the anguished villagers was the best I could have done in my knowledge, and that is exactly what I did – remained silent and just listened to their cries, anger, frustration, helplessness and disappointment.
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