Covering Kashmir and Press Freedom

I write this piece with my left hand. No, I do not have the habit of being a quirky lefty, but a bamboo stick just unpeeled my fingers’ skin. And jackboots trample my clenched right hand.On my left thigh, a deep red mark bears witness to the waspish and brutal assault on me by dozens of Indian para-military Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

It is a bright morning of August 12, 2008. In Kashmir (Indian administered), a Muslim majority region, it is just the following day of killing spree when troops shot dead a prominent pro-freedom leader, Sheikh Aziz and four other protesters who were leading a peaceful march towards Muzaffarabad—capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, a small city tucked across the de facto border called Line of Control (LoC) that divides this Himalayan region into Indian and Pakistani portion of Kashmir.

The peaceful march was called to protest against the 10-day-long economic blockade imposed on the Valley from South, which ties Kashmir to Jammu—a Hindu dominated region of the State that connects the whole region to India plains.

Near my home, I am standing on the parapet of a baker's shop waiting for my turn to get bread among half-a-dozen other people that beeline the bakers shop. While on the opposite side, hundreds of angry youth in Batamaloo (that falls in Srinagar—Kashmir’s summer capital), amidst pro-freedom slogans, are smashing down three CRPF sandbag bunkers.

It is newsy. I get my camera, pen and a note pad from my home. And I start jotting down the observation. I click some pictures too. I try to overhear what people around are saying. They are happy, so am I. The news has reached my home very early today. And I will be the only one to report it.

The CRPF had abandoned the bunkers in the preceding night fearing reprisal and vengeance after 10 people were killed, 150 injured and lacs of Kashmiris who stood throughout the rainy night defying  troopers' obstruction and gunfire near LoC in Uri—the last village near the border.

I could see a concrete bunker that would house three CRPF personnel being smashed up and objects flying in air. A young boy unwraps its rooftop. And six others jolt its walls until it collapses. The first bunker of the area falls to civilians.

It is 7: 30 in the morning and the rebellion by the people has gained momentum —far more than one might expect from what it originally looked when it was just 6:30.

A looped razor wire that would surround another bunker is being pulled while the sand bags are being thrown in the middle of street. A wooden half-burnt heavy log shouldered by half-a-dozen angry youths is being ploughed into the wooden beams and bricks that sustain this bunker. It stumbles and the dust curls up skywards.
Hung with the bunker used to be a cloth banner that would decorate the bunker and claim 'CRPF For Your Security' and now it is being crushed under the hurried din of violent feets.

And as the steel sheets roofing the CRPF bunker are pulled up, the zigzag channels underneath get naked while the protesters jump in and demolish it. Within minutes, the bunker that has stood on the trisection of this area (Sidiqabad) for nearly two decades is a pile of rubble. Same is done with the third bunker too that was erected on a concrete slab over a line of shops. Everything has been flattened.

It is the battle, which is in its ferocity, yielding much to the youth of this area who had been beaten up regularly for the last two months. They shout slogans of freedom and say that these are the last days of the Indian troops in the valley.

The demonstration is well organized considering the speed with which it must have been planned. At the left end of this trisection near the martyrs’ graveyard youth are arranging the sand bangs so that no troopers' vehicle could launch the offensive. On two other sides, youths pile up logs and steel tar drums to cancel out any chance for troopers' surprise visit.

Amidst slogans, a particularly loud cheer goes up. On the rubble, dozens of youngsters converge, huddle and claim to take the evil powers out of the valley one day. On the roadside, a young man gets a round of applause by his fellow protestors when he says, "We will die for freedom," and "trample the oppressor."

He puts a pack of playing cards; he searched out from the bunker, under his foot, saying, "This is just such a critical turning point in the Kashmir's history. The oppressor won't be allowed to live here."

The crowd around, of course, loves it.

One of my friends who stand beside me has also come to see what is happening. However, he is not happy with the news agencies, particularly with the Indian news channels. He raises a great roar of anger by telling me that the 'mass uprising' for freedom across the valley is not being reported the way it should have been, a truth that strikes me as unbelievably wise. I have seen how rioters in Jammu, armed with tridents (Trishuls) and carrying Indian flag roasted down two police men alive—both Muslims. Some days back, a local cable TV, aired scenes of the highway where trucks carrying goods were set on fire and the drivers chased by the unruly mob. That too, in front of army and police, who watched as mere spectators and did nothing to stop Kashmiri drivers from being beaten up ruthlessly.

As I listen to him, several CRPF personnel come from behind. Exactly where I stand. Without listening anything, they manhandle me along with my friend, beat me up with bamboo sticks and kick me into abdomen. Even I tell them that I work for a Newspaper. Not once thrice! They beat my thighs, tear my trouser and leave me in pain.

They fire in air to dispel the roaring sloganeers. But, they fail. They could not chase the defiant protesters who are just done with the demolishing. And they leave me among five others injured on the road.

I walk back home with my old father supporting me. The feeling of not being among the protesters haunts me. Had I been among the protesters I would I survived. The mindless beating by CRPF fills in me a deep anger and resentment against the troopers while I writhe in pain.

As I finish this piece, sloganeering against India and rightwing Hindus fill the air. It is gaining momentum amidst the well-known sound of the unabated firing and canister lobbing from the troops.

Today as the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day, I am reminded of the freedom journalists have been enjoying in a conflict zone like Kashmir which has in the past two decades witnessed more than 12 journalists killed either at the hands of troopers, government-backed gunmen or militants. Past year only  from July 05 to Dec 25, almost 100 journalists, even those working for agencies like BBC, AP, AFP, and Reuters had to bear relentless beatings by police and paramilitary CRPF while performing their professional obligations.

But who cares!

Erstwhile BBC Urdu’s Yusuf Jameel aptly describes the journalist’s freedom in Kashmir.

He says that, “India has a strong media- both electronic and print-and no doubt there is freedom of press. But when it comes to certain issues and regions, you find it has disappeared.”

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About M. Umar Baba

Mohammad Umar Baba is a Kashmir-based Journalist and blogger and was born in Srinagar in 1982. He has been covering conflict, politics, and human rights in the region for the past several years and can be reached at [email protected]

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