Jammu and Kashmir’s apparatus of repression

In post-August 2019 Kashmir, the state is using, among other things, raids, look-out circulars, denial of passports, anti-terror laws and sweeping surveillance against journalists who are not willing to bow down to its diktats.

Published : Oct 05, 2021 06:00 IST

BEING a journalist in Kashmir has always called for indomitable courage and, in some sense, readiness to face the worst possible eventuality. A tragic case in point was the gunning down of renowned editor Shujaat Bukhari in the twilight hour of June 14, 2018, a day ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr. But the possibility of death and injury, and even the state’s apparatus of repression, had so far not deterred the small, intrepid community of journalists living in Srinagar from doing their work.

But in post-August 5, 2019, Kashmir, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party finding an animated audience for every assault on Kashmiris’ rights, including the world’s longest Internet shutdown, the strong-arm tactics of the state has turned into a well-oiled machine that has as its prominent feature raids, look-out circulars, denial of passports, use of anti-terror laws, and a sweeping surveillance of scribes and their families.

For the first time in history, journalists in the border (erstwhile) State are living in fear, not for themselves alone but for their families too, with a clear message being relayed to them that even the slightest discrepancy in their bank records and in their text messages could land them in jail. This is likely to result in even less information coming out from the strife-torn Himalayan region than before and will enable the linear narrative of the state, pillared on tall, unverified claims of development, to reverberate without any note of dissent. Perhaps, that is the design.

Frontline ’s investigation, based on the experiences shared by some of the affected scribes and inputs from reliable sources in the “system”, pointed to the predominant role played by two officers—one with the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police and the other in the intelligence wing—in operating the machinery that keeps a strict vigil on the assignments and movements of an increasing number of journalists.

Apparently, a white government building in the heart of Srinagar, a stone’s throw from a popular cafeteria, is where these covert operations are planned, executed and monitored. The idea is to create the notion of “narrative terrorism”, that is, terrorism through what the state perceives as seditious discourse. If sources are to be believed, dossiers have been prepared on journalists considered inimical to the state. They have been graded under three categories on the basis of their prominence, outreach on social media, connections abroad, and history of writing critical pieces against the state. According to some estimates, at least 22 journalists have been put on the Exit Control List. Also read: Press Council forms committee to probe harassment of Kashmiri journalists

The fear is palpable. When this reporter called up a journalist in Srinagar to ascertain whether news about the inordinate delay in the renewal of his passport was true, the scribe’s voice quavered before he regained control of it and then, ironically, he defended the authorities. “Things move in their own pace in Kashmir,” he said. Frontline , however, has information that his application has been forwarded to the Counter Intelligence Wing Kashmir (CIK), which is not a routine practice. There is a murmur that another senior journalist, who works with a national publication, abandoned the idea of renewing his passport after friendly government officials hinted that the police would give him an adverse report.

The controversy surrounding passports comes as no surprise. Soon after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked in August 2019, a few journalists and political activists were barred from travelling abroad. One of them, Gowhar Geelani, an independent journalist, was prevented from boarding a flight to Germany in September 2019. He told Frontline at the time that the authorities did not give him any explanation for this either verbally or in writing. “It appears that New Delhi and the J&K administration are paranoid and probably think that anyone with articulation and voice who travels abroad, even on a professional or personal assignment, would expose the government’s Goebbelsian propaganda with respect to the current situation in Kashmir,” Geelani said.

Several Kashmiri journalists who reached out to Frontline said they had received calls from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and, in several instances, were asked to fill up forms giving details about their assets, bank accounts and kin. Frontline has a copy of the questionnaire. It requires journalists to declare whether they have any political allegiance, first information reports filed against them and a case of conviction and whether they have relatives or acquaintances living in Pakistan. The questionnaire also requires them to draft a note on their “present and past activities”.

Although it is impossible to gather documentary evidence about what is transpiring in Kashmir given its reputation as a black box when it comes to any security-related information, this reporter through his sources has compiled a list of more than 30 journalists who were either summoned to various police stations or received calls for background checks. At least four well-known journalists embedded with national dailies and weeklies were summoned to police stations. Ostensibly, this was an investigation into stories they had done, but essentially, it was about sounding a note of warning.

In August, one journalist who had been summoned to a police station in Srinagar asked the officer what the motive behind routinely calling members of the fraternity and interrogating them was. “Have you read George Orwell?” the man on the other side of the table asked with a smirk. “Have you heard of thought policing?”

Few have been forthcoming when asked about their experiences inside police stations, at least not on record. Naseer Ganaie, who works with Outlook magazine, is an exception. “They took our [Ganaie and another journalist] front and side mug shots. Not once but four times. It was like a blitz. People kept coming and took our photos…,” Ganaie told a Turkey-based publication. “What pained me the most was that they took my phone, briefly though, and scanned it in another room. A phone is a very personal thing. There are pictures of your spouse, kids, family. These are intimate things.”

The surveillance is so expansive that even an innocuous conversation with a relative or friend over the phone could land one in trouble. Sometime in May, a senior journalist working with an English weekly was summoned to a police station. It was alarming for him as he had already had his share of parleys with the police and had even filled a lengthy form dishing out every minute detail about his family, income and assets. What could be the trigger, then, he wondered. It turned out that one of his cousins, who telephoned him often, was on the agencies’ radar. The cousin sometimes enquired of him whether convoys were moving around in his neighbourhood. The senior scribe always readily answered, thinking that these questions were commonplace. What he did not imagine was that he would one day have to sit inside a police station and explain this conversation to suspicious and implacable uniformed men.

He was lucky to be let off with a warning but others were not. In the Modi years, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has earned notoriety for booking journalists under laws meant for terrorists and often raiding their premises. In April 2020, the police overreach in Kashmir made headlines the world over when two Kashmiri journalists, Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were slapped with charges under the dreaded Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. After August 2019, instances of manhandling of reporters are not at all uncommon. In December 2019, Azaan Javaid and Anees Zargar, reporters who work for national news portals, were reportedly beaten up in Srinagar while they were covering a protest at the Islamia College of Science and Commerce.

In June 2020, in a move that many averred was aimed at stifling independent and upright journalism, the Jammu and Kashmir administration came up with the Media Policy 2020, a 53-page document that accorded the government unbridled powers to control the flow of news by empowering it to decide what constituted “fake, anti-national or unethical” news.

State’s impunity

A series of events in September and October 2020 brought to light the impunity with which the state was acting against journalists who were not willing to bow down to its diktats. In September 2020, Auqib Javeed, a reporter with a local English daily, was slapped by a masked man inside a police station in Srinagar. The police had summoned him there after he published a report saying that the cyber branch of the police had been intimidating Twitter users who voiced their opinion against the police and the administration at large. Around the same time, the Kashmiri reporters Fayaz Ahmad, Mudasir Qadri and Junaid Rafiq were beaten up in south Kashmir while they were in the field. On October 19, 2020, officials from the Estates Department, Jammu and Kashmir, forced the employees of Kashmir Times out of its premises and sealed it without any prior intimation of the move. Also read: Civil society group's report paints grim picture of Valley

The atmosphere is now grimmer. In August 2021, the police in Srinagar thrashed several journalists who were covering Muharram processions. In photographs and videos shared on social media, a policeman was seen chasing away the journalists at Jehangir Chowk and thrashing them with a baton. On September 9, the police questioned the journalists Showkat Motta, Hilal Mir, Azhar Qadri and Shah Abbas in Srinagar after their homes were raided and documents, laptops and mobile phones belonging to them were seized. The police maintain that the raids were done in connection with an ongoing investigation into a website that is accused of making threatening posts against journalists. The police said all four would be arrested “as and when the evidence is collected”.

What were earlier sporadic episodes of ill treatment have now metamorphosed into a kind of “star chamber” that systematically targets and harasses journalists, without any regard to procedure. According to several scribes based in Srinagar, the police routinely seize their mobile phones and laptops in the name of investigation. “This is unprecedented. They bump into us, take our mobile phones, ask us for the password and scroll through our picture gallery. We have no option but to cave in,” rued a journalist who writes for an international publication.

Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla , said his entire staff got calls from the CID around April-May and were asked to fill in a two-sheet questionnaire. “Nobody objected,” he said, betraying the element of fear prevalent in the valley. In the words of Anuradha Bhasin, a senior Kashmiri journalist and the executive editor of Kashmir Times , the state is attempting to “impose silence even on our whispers”.

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