As rumours and panic gripped people in the summer of 2019, official denials to factual ‘rumours’, and falsified ‘news’ was the only truth that people experienced. Nine months later, as the world observes Press Freedom Day, the sorry state of Journalism in Kashmir is narrated by a Journalist who paid a price for reporting facts.
Things seemed to be going relatively smooth for Kashmiris: kids were going to school, business was slowly limping back to normal. But if there is one thing certain in Kashmir, it is that nothing is certain.
Viral and leaked government orders started circulating online, suggesting large contingents of paramilitary forces being flown into Kashmir, adding more forces to a valley that has the highest density of military per square kilometre in the world.
War hysteria, shortage of fuel and rations, imposition of an indefinite curfew and other ‘rumours’ gripped the population. Something was about to happen.
While mobile screens flickering with such updates kept people on their toes, there was no official confirmation. One of the first Journalists to report facts about the matter, was hunted down.
27-year-old editor of a news website called The Kashmiriyat, Qazi Shibli, received a ‘leaked’ official order from the Zonal Police Headquarters.
After confirming the authenticity from a ‘very reliable’ source, Shibli did what any journalist would do.
“It was about the heightened movement of paramilitary troopers in the valley. It had all the information about the troopers and where they were going to be deployed,” he says.
We decided to publish, he says.
The phone rang, ‘we expect you at the Police Station’, a man on the other end told him.
The Police Station at a stone’s throw away from where Shibli lives, was not just summoning him. There were others too, Shibli says.
Four more journalists were summoned for the same news, two among them had posted it on twitter and one on Whatsapp. “The police checked the timing of their posts,” he says.
Shibli had posted it first. The others were let go.
“I was constantly being asked to reveal my sources. I told them I was a journalist, and that it was better for them to check the office that leaked the information,” he says.
Three police officials questioned him for 4 hours and yet again, “I was asked to stay back for further questioning,” says Shibli who says he is used to getting summoned for his stories every now and then. But what was to come next, was not even routine for Shibli.
“We work in a very volatile area. Every now and then there are reports about ambushes by militants, grenade attacks, gunfights, young men picking up arms, civilians being killed, families appealing them to come back and what not. So, the stories we publish are indeed sensitive but we always fact-check. We take a position based on facts,” says Shibli.
“I was asked about my organisation, The Kashmiriyat, its content, sources and funding,” he adds.
While his family expected him to be back in a few hours, like every time, Shibli went off the grid, not to be traced.
His family had no clue about where he was. The only information they had, was that he was called for questioning. They reached out to his colleagues, who intimated other journalists.
While some senior journalists were trying to ensure that he gets back home safe, communication was suddenly shut down, and everything went dark.
In the night, forces were moved in and a blackout was enforced, like Shibli had reported.
In the tense morning that followed, Home Minster of India, Amit Shah, addressed members of the Indian parliament, telling them that they had decided to revoke the autonomy of the region, after securing signatures of the local government in Kashmir, placed by the Home Minister’s government in New Delhi, after dissolving the assembly in a ‘midnight coup’.
The entire political class of Kashmir, across the length and breadth of the political spectrum, was in jail.
Shibli’s family too is politically connected. His father Qazi Nisar, the head priest of South Kashmir was a political prisoner, jailed multiple times, before he was shot dead in 1994, in what was to be a series of assassinations of political leaders in Kashmir, who advocated independence, or had a pro Pakistan slant.
The family is acquainted with how the forces in Kashmir work. More or less, everyone feared the worst for their untraceable son.
Walking out of jail after nine months, Shibli narrates his story.
After a few days in the the police station, a civilian vehicle had stopped outside. “Some people got out and said ‘inko Sahab Bula rahay hain‘ (Sir is calling them). I did not know who the Sahab was. They took us to the hospital and got us checked. After that they took us to the Joint interrogation Centre in Khannabal, Anantnag where they questioned me again,” says Shibli, who was now also questioned about his politically affiliated brother.
“A vehicle came, and I along with a 16 year old minor from Anantnag, a Maulvi of a mosque, and another boy from Dochnipora, Anantnag, were then taken to an undisclosed location,” he says.
In the few days that Shibli was in police custody, the face of the valley outside had changed. From the cracks of the vehicle, he could see that the roads were deserted.
I could sense the tension in the air. I kept asking them where we were being taken, but it was like talking to a wall, Shibli says.
The vehicle stopped at Srinagar Central Jail at 12.30 in the night.
Upon entering the jail premises they were asked to strip naked. “I protested as much as I could, I denied, I said I won’t do it, but eventually, in front of those policemen, I had to bow down. There was no way out for me, was there?” asks Shibli.
The usual paperwork was carried out in an office in the jail but the prisoners were kept in the dark. “Before signing you would want to read the papers, but they rushed us saying they need to go for rounds. I could only read around three lines and figured out it was my Public Safety Act dossier.”
A barrack with 40 inmates became Shibli’s resting place for the night. “A young man who hailed from Kupwara was with us, and we became good friends. We spoke to each other about how we got here, and then at 5 in the morning, they came up with a list and announced the names. These people were taken to yet another destination,” recalls Shibli.
“We were then taken to Srinagar Airport’s defence side. It is cut off from the civilian Airport. They took us in an Indian Air Force carrier. At the Airport, amid the pin-drop silence, there were around eight Army-men who had sniper rifles pointed at us. It was… scary,” he recalls.
At that time, Shibli says that his education, logic and reasoning faded off.
Everything unexpected was happening and his mind was swimming in fear. As he looked at the faces of other inmates, he could sense the fear of death. Were they going to be executed? Maybe, but Shibli did not want to show he was afraid.
“I wanted to send across a message that we were not going to be scared by these pressure tactics. I also realised; other Kashmiris were scared to death. So, my friend from Kupwara suggested a singing session. I agreed, only to cheer the fellow Kashmiris up,” says Shibli who along with his friend loudly sang Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhenge” while the IAF flew in the air, rumbling all the way through.
After 2 hours of singing, the plane had reached. Where? He did not know.
Unlike many Kashmiris, Shibli can read Hindi, and quickly figured out they were in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, as written on some signs he could see as they walked off the military plane.
“We were kept in 4 police vehicles. On the way, from Airforce, defence station, 20 to 25 vehicles were following us. The traffic was blocked on all crossing. We were terrorised. An old man who was with us told me that they are ‘treating us like Masood Azhar. They are going to hang us’,” shares Shibli.
They were taken to Uttar Pradesh’s High-Security Prison in Bareilly. With cameras everywhere, it felt like it was the classic spectacle. They were villainized Kashmiris, being paraded in front of an indoctrinated population, who hated them for who they are.
For the first night, Shibli and other inmates refused to eat anything and tried to sleep off the trauma. Next morning they had gotten acquainted with each other. Twenty Kashmiris from 5 districts were made to sit in confinements. 4-5 inmates in each cell.
“They were arrested on, or after, the day of abrogation of Articles that granted Kashmir autonomy. I was the only one who had spent around 10 days in the police station before that,” says Shibli.
Later, the prison officials had asked them about their case and if they had any demands. Shibli had asked for a book, a notebook and a pen. He was denied all three articles.
“They said these were prohibited articles and that no print material could be provided to us. I had two books with me, Naom Chomsky and Little Woman but they were taken from me earlier. I had asked for Naom Chomsky’s book but they refused, saying it was a radicalizing material and that they did not want me to be further radicalized,” he says.
The next day they decided to go for a hunger strike.
“I wanted the books and a pen and paper. We also wanted clean drinking water. The water we were being made to drink came straight from a tank that supplied water to the toilets.”
After three days, a water purifier was arranged for them.
To stay sane Shibli took advantage of his ability to read Hindi. He read books on Munshi Prem Chand, Sant Kabir, Mira etc.
Shibli says he read Hindi literature just to clearly send across a message to the officials that they were “not anti-nationals or terrorists” as they were being perceived.
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