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“My Arrest Was A Clear Case Of Revenge”: Kashmiri Journalist Speaks Up On Freedom Of Press

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By Mohammed Sirajuddeen:

A man is not aware of the future and does not know when things can go awry. Yet he plans for the future, despite the fact that the Almighty alone knows what will happen in times to come,” writes Sahil Maqbool (also known as Mohd. Maqbool Khokhar) in his masterpiece “Shabistan-e-Wajood” (The Ordeal of a Journalist), which has been adopted as a reference book on Kashmiri jails by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) praised it as the second best book in 2009. His ‘Parchhawan’ was endowed with the ‘Best Book Award’ in 2015 by then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed during an award distribution ceremony organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages (JKAACL). Currently, Sahil is the Associate Editor of ‘Buland Kashmir’, a publication of the ‘Rising Kashmir’ group.

His fate as an investigative journalist with Urdu newspaper ‘Chattan’ was cast into shadow when he was tossed into a jeep by five army men in civilian dresses in September 2004. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) enables army men to pick up anyone under suspicion, with full legal impunity, in Kashmir. Charged as an ‘ISI agent’, Sahil was tortured in the ‘Hari Niwas’ Interrogation Center and faced maltreatment at the hands of security forces. Between 2004 and 2008 he was kept in Srinagar Central Jail, Kote Bhalwal Jammu Central Jail and Amphalla District Jail. Slapped with ‘Official Secrets Act’ and ‘Enemy Agents Ordinance’, Sahil was held responsible for transgressions under the Public Safety Act at different junctures. On the pretext of his visit to Pakistan earlier in 2001, he was framed in cases pertaining to espionage. Authorities accused him of colluding with militants, possessing ‘secret documents’, sharing sensitive ‘photographs’ with the Pakistan intelligence network, and attacking jail officials in prison. While he admitted his ‘professional’ contacts with a journalist from Pakistan, he categorically denied the accusations of spying.

Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Lodged along with prominent Kashmiri ‘tahreek’ figures like Dr Mohammad Qasim and others in prison, Sahil says, “I spent 40 months or more in jail.” In the first chapter of “Shabistan-e-Wajood”, he notes, “I had never dreamt that I would be beaten to a pulp after being tied with ropes. I had never thought that I would be pushed to the hilt in the torture cell of a jail and would have to pass days together in jail. I also did not know that I would be presented in court and I would have to seek a remand for my release from the judge.” In early 2016, speaking in a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival, he asserted that Muslims of Kashmir Valley would welcome Pandits if they return.

Following are the excerpts of an interview of Sahil Maqbool by Mohammed Sirajuddeen on issues pertaining to contemporary Kashmir.

Mohammed Sirajuddeen (MS): ‘Shabistan-e-Wajood’ details your days in prison. How would you recall your arrest and torture now?

Sahil Maqbool (SM): My arrest was a clear case of revenge by some officers in the security forces, who were exposed in my articles and write-ups. As a journalist, I spoke about human rights violations and killing of innocent people by security forces and their ransom demands. Now when I look back, it seems like a nightmare, which lasted for nearly 4 years. I lost all my job contacts. My hold as a reputed senior journalist in conflict hit Kashmir got affected. About 9 years have gone-bye since my release… but still, I am struggling to regain my work and rebuild on the areas which were badly damaged due to my arrest and false propaganda by the state agents.

MS: You were charged with being an ISI agent? 

SM: Such charges provide a strong base to the police and other agencies of security establishment as they enjoy extraordinary powers under the draconian laws such as AFSPA and Disturbed Areas Act. Actually… they wanted to teach a lesson to the journalist fraternity of Kashmir, which they believed was favouring ‘separatists’ and ‘ultras’, so I was like a sitting duck for them. Nevertheless, they could not prove anything.

MS: What happens when a person is arrested and later proven innocent? Is there any provision for compensations in Jammu and Kashmir?

SM: In a state like J&K, it makes hardly any difference whether you are proven innocent or not. The person becomes paralysed for a lifetime as they don’t issue any passport or travel documents to the jailed person. Even their kith and kin suffer because of it and they can hardly get any government jobs.

MS: Do you think that State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has become a toothless tiger?

SM: Of course yes, State or Centre doesn’t take SHRC seriously and its decisions are just formalities. There might have been dozens of such decisions, which went against the police and the armed forces, but none of them was implemented or executed. The latest example is that of an army officer, Major Gogoi, who tied a Kashmiri boy to his vehicle and subjected him to torture in the month of April this year. Instead of being punished for wanton human rights violations, the Major was rewarded and honoured by the senior Army authorities. SHRC, in a recent decision, said that State must pay compensation to the affected boy, but unfortunately, it was rejected by New Delhi.

MS: What are the difficulties a journalist faces in Kashmir under the conditions of militarization?

SM: Numerous difficulties. He or she becomes a sandwich between the armed forces and their rivals i.e. militants or resistance leadership. Sometimes even common people are not satisfied with the reporting which mainstream journalists do. Many reporters and editors lost their lives, became handicapped or faced long jail terms like me. Working in an isolated, tense and disturbed place is never easy, but people learn with the passage of time and try to fit into the situation, just for the sake of survival.

MS: Could you find any difference after the Narendra Modi-led BJP assumed power?

SM: Of course, the situation in Kashmir is tenser now, suffocating and causing more loss of life.

MS: With the coming of the technological revolution, the ‘state of things’ in Kashmir is more open to outside world. How do you see this change?

SM: Technological revolution may be happening in other parts of India or in the rest of the world, but our internet, social media and all other mediums of communication are heavily monitored, censored and blocked. We have been observing long mobile phone, internet and social media ‘crackdowns’ as well as ‘blockages’. I think it is going to get worse in Kashmir.

MS: Could you shed some light on the role of Human Rights Organisations in Kashmir?

SM: Human Rights organisations in Kashmir are not freely allowed to do their duties, they are considered to be either ‘separatists’ or ‘Pakistani agents’. Neither are they allowed to make their reports public without restrictions, nor are they allowed to travel abroad. Barring a few groups, many of the foreign rights bodies are not allowed to enter Kashmir and collect or expose the truth.

Photo by Ramesh Sharma/India Today Group/Getty Images

MS: What are the qualitative changes that have happened in ‘resistance politics’ (led by Hurriyat)?

SM: Soon after the killing of HM Militant Burhan Wani, all three factions of Kashmir resistance leadership (Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Mohammad Umar Farooq and M Yaseen Malik) united and formed a coordination committee called ‘Joint Resistance Leadership’ which issued all the ‘protest programs’ under a ‘single banner’. Earlier, each of them used to go to common people separately with separate programs, but now they are ‘one platform’. Their political division was once badly felt by the common public, but their unity has provided relief to their supporters. Their calls are now followed more effectively.

MS: Is there any change in public perception with regard to Pakistan’s role in Kashmir?

SM: Yes, in the last few years, the new generation has badly felt the ‘intervention’ as well as the ‘tagging of Pakistan’. In fact, there is a feeling among the people that Pakistani support for the Kashmir issue is a negative on the international front. Here, the demand for ‘freedom’ is taken much more seriously than that of accession to Pakistan.

MS: What is inducing the young generation to glorify militancy? Do you think that the militancy of the early 1990s was different from the current wave?

SM: Yes, today’s militancy is entirely different from that of the 1990’s. Today, they are more trained, effective, committed and hidden, fewer in number but stronger in strikes. The reason behind today’s emerging militancy is a ‘total denial’ of dialogue and reconciliation from New Delhi. The fact that New Delhi never listens to political or democratic questions has forced ‘well read’ and ‘well off’ Kashmiri youth to take up arms. Today, they are well protected and served by the common people. Each and every army cordon faces heavy public protest, just to save the militants hiding inside the sieges.

MS: There are other conflicts in the Indian sub-continent, especially what we see in central India. How would you compare the state actions in Kashmir to the State-Maoist conflict?

SM: Maoist or Naxal rebellions have their own history and relevance, but there is a visible difference between them and the Kashmir problem. Kashmiris were promised a chance at ‘plebiscite’ by then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The accord or accession of J&K State to India was temporary. The UN is a ‘witness’ and a ‘guardian’ to the Kashmir issue. Moreover, Kashmir is an internationally accepted dispute with a promise to resolve it according to the will of people. The Indian state has a limited ‘legal legitimacy’ in our land, while other conflicts in India are not for a separate territory.

MS: Do you think that international community is becoming more sensitive to the ‘Kashmir question’ since the 2016 unrest?

SM: Yes, and that is quite visible. Along with the United Nations, veto powers like the US and China have been frequently talking about Kashmir. They suggested that both India and Pakistan should resolve their differences mutually.

MS: How do you view the future trajectory of the Kashmir conflict?

SM: Basically – this is not something sponsored by a company or a country. ‘Kashmir conflict’ is the name given to a strong sentiment stemming out of the peoples’ conscience in Kashmir. Imagine a 7-year-old or a 10-year-old boy holding a stone in his hands and fighting against a fully-equipped Indian soldier. They will grow up with negative sentiment against the Indian State. These fearless boys transform themselves into ‘mighty rebels’ and one can hardly change their mentality. May be there are ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ in their rebellion, but until the concerns are resolved according to the ‘will of the people’, it will never die.

The author is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. This interview was first published here.

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