Shutting Down Voices From The Valley

Ubeer Naqushbandi, a reporter at the Kashmir Reader talks about the ordeal of how a ban order disturbed the peace and tranquility of a young reporter like him.

It was a few days ago when the newspaper Kashmir Reader, for which I work as a reporter, was banned by the government. On Friday at around 6 pm, I had collected all the necessary details for a story I was working on. After meeting a journalist friend at the city’s center Lal Chowk, while I headed towards my office at Batamaloo to file my day’s story, a man seemingly in late thirties, wearing a white shirt and black jeans, stopped me near Lambert Lane.

Aren’t you are Ubeer Naqushbandi, reporter with the Kashmir Reader? Well! You write good stories,” said the man and offered me to have a cup of tea. I thanked him for his gesture and told him that I was in a hurry due to my deadline. I thought that the man would be an avid reader of the paper and the stories published in it.

As I tried to leave, he grabbed my hand and took me aside. “Listen dear, I am your khairkhwa (well-wisher). I would suggest that you join any other newspaper. Pass my greetings on to your editor,” he said.  His demeanour and words confused me.

At this, I quickly assumed my typical downtown temperament. “Hey khairkhwa, mind your own business. This time I’m forgiving you for this, for trying to issue subtle threats to me, once for all. If we ever happened to meet like this, I’ll beat you,” I retorted in anger. The man quickly straddled his Pulsar motorbike and whizzed away.

After filing my story at my office that day, I went to see my editor. “Hilal Bhai, I met a man at Lal Chowk…” I narrated everything to the editor about the incident.

Sensing a young reporter’s temperament, my editor told me to concentrate on my work.

“Ubeer don’t worry about anything. Get your facts right and get every version into your story. Rest, you leave it to the organisation.”

This was the advice from Hilal Mir, Editor of the Kashmir Reader.

Ever since I joined Kashmir Reader a month and a half back, I found Hilal Bhai to be an encouraging Editor who never said no to any story idea. This gesture always kept me spirited.

And that night when I was travelling towards home, words of Muzamil Jaleel, a senior journalist, and Shahnaz Bashir, a media teacher, both close to me came to my mind. “Ubeer, you look more like a combatant than a penman,” words which both of them almost jokingly repeat every time I meet them for their valuable insights on journalistic professionalism.

The next day it was a routine as usual till I got the news of 18-year-old Muzaffar Ahmed Pandit from Chak-e-Kawoosa village, near Narbal, who had succumbed to pellet injuries at SKIMS hospital in Soura. Straightaway, I headed to SKIMS on a rusty Hero-Honda motorcycle I borrowed from one of my friends. At the SKIMS gate, the motorcycle broke down. While time was running out, I thought it better to keep the motorcycle at a nearby medical shop, the owner of which was a local acquaintance.

When I entered the “Emergency” ward of the SKIMS, I heard wails and Azadi slogans of women and boys. In the porch of the emergency ward, a dead body, draped in a blanket on a gurney, was surrounded by women and boys.

Years before I had read Muzammil Jaleel’s piece about obituaries. “Only name and places change, rest of it remains same,” wrote Muzammil Sir in that write-up.

And now on the porch I realised that Jaleel’s experience was similar as mine.

Ten minutes later an ambulance arrived outside the hospital to take Pandit’s body away. His parents and his aunt went along. I pleaded with the ambulance driver to take me too. He agreed.

As we headed towards Muzaffar’s home in Narbal, Muzamil’s parents cried. When we reached near Batamaloo, two teenage girls boarded the ambulance. They were Masrat and Shaheena, sisters of Muzaffar. All the way to Narbal, all of them cried unabated. Shaheena, the younger sister’s dirge made me infirm and cry. I could not hold back my tears.

Her words “Muzaffar bhaiya” were forcing me to imagine the consequences of being in Muzaffar’s place. My younger sister would have been wailing like this. While I was picturing this, the ambulance came to a halt.

I could see a huge number of people gathered outside a government middle school at Chak-e-Kawoosa to participate in his funeral. I spent the rest of the day in Muzaffar’s village, collecting details, narratives of locals, eye-witnesses’ accounts and everything about Muzaffar. I saw an old man staggering with a supporting walking stick in the funeral, wanting to have Muzaffar’s last glimpse. He was Ghulam Qadir, grandfather of the deceased Muzaffar.

For a moment my mind wandered and I wondered why in Kashmir it so happens that the grandfathers have to shoulder the coffins of their grandchildren? Is it a sin to be born in Kashmir? 

The interaction with Ghulam Qadir, late that evening, further moved me. “He is the second martyr from this family,” Qadir told me. While I returned to my office that night, I was cursing myself for being selfish of reporting a story about Muzaffar. “He was neither a number nor a commodity, a family had lost its young son,” I was telling myself repeatedly. But then what else can you do than writing an obituary?

While typing the story later I was anticipating the as-usual worn-torn, official version, which is always technically repeated with same words, suggestive of indifference.

And there was a wretched coincidence here: like in obituaries, only names changes here too. Rest remains the same. Miscreants.

I was mocking myself at how wicked these principles of balance and objectivity were in my profession. My fresh experience, the story I was writing—all would be ridiculed with these principles. But since my Editor believes in getting all the sides of the story, I had to balance the story and be objective.

I called the relevant people, the higher police officials of the area, but none responded. It was after frantically trying for an hour that one police official, who wished anonymity, talked about it.

My job was done and I headed home. On the way I received a call from one of my sources, informing that the “newspaper you are working with might get closed down”. This information coincided with what the ‘khairkhwa’ had told me that day.

I did not give much heed to it and concentrated on my work. The next was Sunday, I did a story, collected details and went to my office to file it. I called one senior police official to get the official version into my story. In an amusing way, the officer told me, “The paper you are working belongs to Lashkar. You must find another job.” Now I began to feel that something bad was going to happen.

On Sunday evening when Hilal Mir came to the office, I told him about what the police officer had told me. “Don’t worry,” the Editor sounded same as ever. The same confidence and not a tinge of fear. He reiterated, “Get your facts right, include all versions in your story, rest leave it to me.”

That evening the Kashmir Reader office was not looking the same. I noticed some of my colleagues doing a lot of side chat.

At around 9:15 pm, a journalist cousin, based in Delhi, called to ask whether it was true that Kashmir Reader had been banned? I called another friend to confirm whether it was true. “Yeah, unfortunately it is true,” he confirmed.

I felt the ground beneath my feet slipping away.

In just one and a half moths I had realised how greatest the platform Kashmir Reader was for a learner like me. I regretted what I had just lost.

The whole night I was wondering why this newspaper was banned, reading the District Magistrate’s order time and again, which said, “Contents in this newspaper are a threat to peace and tranquility”.

Never had the government produced any solid ground, or served any warning or pointed out any story published by the newspaper as “a threat to peace and tranquility.” It looked like some people were arbitrarily avenging some personal grudges.

The next day I called my Editor Hilal Mir. “We are holding a meeting in the office at around 12:30 pm. Make sure you come on time,” he told me. I was sad. The office was deserted. The senior journalists were sitting in the editors’ section. Everybody was putting forth their thoughts. But my eyes were glued to the computer screen allotted to me by the office. I was wondering when it would be that I would tap my fingers on its keyboard.   

In the meantime everybody stood up. I also got out of my reverie.

It was decided that we would hold a peaceful protest from Press Enclave at 4pm.

At 4pm on Monday, I saw veteran journalists participating in the protest. The senior journalists while accompanying in the protest march told us to march towards the Information Directorate. At the Directorate we held a sit-in and pasted posters demanding revocation of the arbitrary ban on its gates.

After protesting for three days, without any response from the government, Agha Shahid Ali’s verse struck my mind ‘these words may never reach you’.

On fourth day, we again protested at the Press Enclave.

One by one, the senior journalists made speeches about democracy and freedom of press but the whole while I was engrossed in my thoughts; the arbitrary government order had ruined the career of the young reporters working on a creative and professional platform like KR.

A learner like me was disturbed; the state government had become a threat to the peace and tranquility of the young reporters like me. Reporters who become professionals after going through the same education and exams the government seems politically so desperate to run and conduct at any cost. Will Kashmir Reader be back again? I kept asking that to myself.

Ubeer Naqushbandi was born and brought up in Kashmir. Currently, he is a reporter with Kashmir Reader. In the past he has been a contributor to weekly magazine Kashmir Life.

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