Commentary

Gassed locality: Field notes of a Kashmiri photojournalist

A Kashmiri photojournalist regularly hitting the streets to capture their confrontational side often returns home with more than dissent frames.

“I will break your bones along with your camera,” a cop shouted at me on top of his voice when I was covering clashes in Pulwama town. On that day, the dissent broke out against the detention of a small school going children.

 

“I am from the media…”

“What media! Just go away from the spot, or…”

 

I have been working in the field from 2010 to photograph the reality of Kashmir. Covering the conflict, especially the stone pelting incidents in southern parts of Kashmir, often leave new impressions on my lens and mind.

Every time I step on the street, I cover more than just protests. It is a different world full of conflicting plot and characters. One has to join it to understand it, although at one’s own perils. Sometime even a journalist tag isn’t a guaranteed shield—especially, when the rage goes ballistic. Sometimes even the forces are caught napping, just like a top cop in Pulwama recently.

A senior police officer firing PAVA shells towards protesters, in Pulwama region of South Kashmir. (FPK Photo/Vikar Syed)

After firing continuous shots of tear gas and PAVA shells, I saw a deputy superintendent of police crawling under its effect. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He ran away a few meters from the scene. The front-line cops were literally coughing their lungs out.

On the same day, a lady died of suffocation.

Such was the amount of smoke released to choke the villagers. I was on the spot with my colleague Kamran Yousuf. We both stood to shoot in the line of fire, sans wearing any bullet proof vests.

In that Pulwama’s Tahab village, hundreds of stone pelters were out engaging with a posse of paramilitary and police. Thick plumes of bitter smoke had wrapped everything, even breathing became impossible.

I almost vomited because of excessive asphyxiation.

In another time and space, a young school going boy was beaten to pulp in the main market of Pulwama, triggering heavy stone pelting in the town. I rushed to the spot to perform my duty. Kamran, my camera comrade, was thrashed by a cop. The irate policeman even tried to break his camera. It infuriated me. I somehow managed to set my friend free from his clutches.

But after last year, I have learned that street ire in valley isn’t unidirectional.

While going to cover a protest rally at Pulwama’s Murran village on the bike in not so recent past, we were intercepted by a band of boys. They straightaway smacked our bike with bamboo sticks.

We were alleged to be the perpetrators because we “cover the reports for Indian media”. Such was their level of rage that they hardly believed us when we told them, “we work for local dailies, not for Indian media.”

The kind of venomous reporting being done by Delhi media on Kashmir has made life very difficult for local scribes and lensmen. Self-styled Kashmir experts issuing verdicts from studios have created this crisis on Kashmir streets for us. When that boy holding a stone on the street consumes such trash talks in the name of debates every evening, he loses it completely.

And then, he knows, who are against him.

So, in a huff, we left the scene.

At times, it also becomes hard to confront this street ire, especially after the killing of Burhan Wani, the young militant commander. Simultaneously facing both the parties in Kashmir, the angry youth and government forces, is always risky. Even riskier was, and is, to explain my situation to them.

Under such circumstances, working in the field isn’t easy for a journalist in the valley. Especially for photojournalists, who risk their lives to try capture every unfolding street moment.

And who knows, when that stone can come to hurt you.

Last time, it came from the CRPF men in Tahab and hurt my left leg. It took me weeks to recover fully and join my camera comrade again, to cover what has now become our disturbing routine.

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