The journalists chronicling Kashmir at critical crossroads in its history amid India crackdown

As India maintains that it was right to strip Kashmir of autonomous status, those who live there live by the day

Sameer Yasir,Jeffrey Gettleman
Tuesday 13 August 2019 21:39 BST
New Delhi protest over India's revocation of Kashmir status

Ever since Kashmir’s autonomy was suddenly revoked last week, Raja Mohi-ud-din, an editor at one of the few Kashmiri newspapers still operating, has been starting his days extremely early.

At 2 a.m., he jumps on his motorcycle with a hard drive in his pocket and zooms down Srinagar’s back alleys, the roar of the bike’s engine echoing against the tight brick walls.

He weaves around coils of barbed wire, past stones lying in the road from recent protests, past all the dark houses, eyes peeled for Indian soldiers.

His workers cannot get to the printing press — they live deep in neighbourhoods totally cut off.

There is no way to electronically transmit data to the printer — the Indian government has shut down mobile, internet and landline connections.

So Mohi-ud-din hand-carries the next day’s news to the presses and operates the hulking machines himself, something he has never had to do before.

At 5 a.m. he emerges, sometimes with a make-do edition that is sometimes just one sheet of paper (two sides). But he says a crowd always awaits him, the bearer of practically the only journalism available.

“People are desperate to see a newspaper,” he said. “The other day I sold 500 copies in 5 minutes.”

Kashmir’s journalists are striving to rise to the occasion and simply hold on in the face of one of the most severe clampdowns this predominantly Muslim war-torn region has faced.

On Monday, a week into the lockdown, Indian security forces sealed off main roads, deployed surveillance helicopters, cleared side streets and turned children away from parks. It was Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar, and most major mosques were ordered shut. Families that usually rejoice with friends found themselves alone and depressed inside their homes.

Protests continued to erupt, and residents said packs of young men attacked security officers, hurling stones.

At a news conference in New Delhi, Indian officials tried to paint a different picture, asserting that most of Kashmir was returning to normal. They continued to deny that any shots had been fired by security forces during last week’s protests even though a widely viewed BBC video shows thousands of demonstrators running through the streets of Srinagar on Friday as automatic gunfire erupts.

When questioned about the video, a senior Indian official grew irritated.

“What the government of India has said is what the government of India has said,” said the official, who spoke to members of the foreign news media under the condition of anonymity. “I’m not asking you whether your stories are true.”

Many Kashmiris feel cut off from events, further increasing the weight of responsibility for journalists tasked with documenting them as they unfold (AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights activists and many Indian intellectuals say the government is playing a dangerous game in Kashmir. For years, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan has been racked by rebellion and war.

Last week India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, cast Kashmir into more turmoil by abruptly canceling the limited autonomy it has held since the 1940s. That decision raised tensions with Pakistan instantly.

It is perhaps the most politically seismic event in Kashmir in decades, downgrading a long-standing relationship Kashmir had with India as the only Muslim-majority, semiautonomous state within a vastly majority Hindu nation.

The Indian government knew that in Kashmir this move would be explosively unpopular. Days before the announcement, the Indian military bused in thousands of extra troops.

With hours to go, Indian security forces shut down the internet, mobile phone services and landlines, rendering the Kashmir Valley, home to about 8 million people, incommunicado. Television news channels, which were allowed to broadcast news of the canceled autonomy, were later taken off the air.

Now, out of the 50 or so well-known Kashmiri newspapers, only about half a dozen are still publishing. They put out thin paper editions, a maximum of eight pages, that are quickly bought and then passed hand to hand for the rest of the day.

The reporters have no access to the news wires or social media. They cannot fact check anything online or make phone calls. They do their work the old-fashioned way, with notebooks and pens.

Each morning, they move out in packs of six or eight on motorcycles into Srinagar’s neighbourhoods to chase down the news face to face, whether a street protest, a gas shortage or the arrest of a politician. In the past week, hundreds of people have been detained.

Many journalists end up sleeping on the newsroom floor. Often, because of checkpoints, it is impossible to get home.

They are used to danger — over the years several Kashmiri journalists have been killed and many arrested. But the information blackout is new.

Tensions are flaring in Kashmir after the Indian government stripped the region of its autonomy (AFP/Getty Images)

“We don’t know what’s happening out there,” said Faisel Yaseen, a political editor at the Rising Kashmir newspaper, which puts out about 1,000 copies a day. “We are living in a dark room where access to accurate information comes from a hole, which is very small.”

The Indian authorities have called the communications restrictions necessary to prevent civil disorder, but have also said that they plan no action against the few newspapers still printing.

Still, the editor of The Kashmir Times, one of the oldest papers in Kashmir, has filed a challenge at India’s Supreme Court, asserting that the restrictions violate free speech and therefore are unconstitutional.

It is unclear how long Kashmir’s journalists can hold on, since printing a newspaper requires paper and ink.

Mohi-ud-din, the editor who rides to the printing press in the wee hours of the morning, said he was not so worried.

“In Kashmir, we’re used to this,” he said. “I’ve stocked up for a month.”

“But,” he allowed with a slight frown, “it’s never been this bad.”

Anger is growing, residents say. Journalists are surrounded by violent clashes, even when not seeking them.

On Friday afternoon, Sameer Bhat, a newspaper designer, was preparing to report to work. Be careful, his mother said: Stone throwers are fighting the police, just up the road.

As Mr Bhat stepped outside, he said, shotgun blasts rang out. Security officers in Kashmir use shotguns to control crowds; hundreds of young Kashmiris have been blinded by shotgun pellets.

Mr Bhat tried to cover his eyes. He was hit in the face and stumbled down.

The next day, soon after he was discharged from a hospital, he showed up in the newsroom with two black eyes.

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“I had a newspaper to design,” he said.

Kashmiris have been frightened, angered and confused by the turn of events. They feel sealed off. They want news.

Every morning, Vivek Wazir, a hotel manager, eagerly awaits his copy of Greater Kashmir.

“These two pages are my only window to the world,” he said.

Many Kashmiris resent living under Indian rule, and since the 1990s insurgents have been fighting for independence. Mr Modi said the new arrangement, which turns Kashmir into a federal territory and annuls special protections Kashmir once enjoyed, would increase outside investment, improve governance and bring peace.

Many Indians have accepted this reasoning. They see Kashmir as an integral part of India, and in the past week, Mr Modi’s popularity has soared. One famous actor just compared him and Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister, to Lord Krishna and Arjun, two heroes in an ancient Hindu epic.

But intellectuals and some opposition politicians have been speaking out. They see the move as a huge setback for democracy and a blow to the country’s commitment, outlined in the first lines of India’s Constitution, to be secular.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former minister, wrote in a pointed column Monday that revoking Kashmir’s autonomy would bring “simmering communalism, rising political tensions, unending hit-and-run terrorism, asymmetric armed struggle, and guerrilla insurrection.”

This is especially tragic, he said, because Kashmiris had proved to be patriots, resisting the “the siren call of Pakistan.” For years Pakistan, a majority Muslim country, has tried to turn Kashmiris against India.

But, Mr Aiyar asked, “How betrayed must they be feeling now that ‘freedom’ is being thrust down their throat, like castor oil to a recalcitrant child, by the largest deployment ever of armed might inside an integral part of the country?”

The New York Times

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