As a witness to twists and turns in Srinagar’s Press Enclave for the last 40 years, Zafar Meraj makes no bones about his brushes with baddies, dandies and newsmakers of the day. But then, there comes a time, he says, when upholding objective journalism becomes a challenging task for newspersons.
The contemporary times, he believes, are no different in Kashmir.
Lately when gunmen struck and killed his colleague, Shujaat Bukhari, it brought home the terror of the nineties when Kuka Parray’s loose gun almost killed him for discharging his professional duty.
But all those memories are part of the occupation for the seasoned scribe who unsuccessfully tried his luck in electoral politics in 2014.
Inside his Kashmir Monitor office in the Press Enclave, he maps the current situation in a very freewheeling manner, talking about myriad challenges for journalists in Kashmir, with an editor’s note: “Terrible times don’t last forever.”
But perhaps 40 years is one heck of a lifetime to be a constant witness of such uncertain times, isn’t it?
Yes, it is, especially for someone, who happens to be a trained lawyer. When I earned my LLB (Hons) degree from Aligarh Muslim University in 1975, I came back home and found myself doing darbadari in the court. As a rookie, I didn’t get my gig. It was the time when my maternal uncle and teacher Shamim Ahmed Shamim used to run a popular Urdu weekly, Aina (Mirror).
Being a lawyer himself, he used to frequent the court where I would discuss political and social issues with him. During one of those conversations he told me that Aina would soon become a daily, and asked me to join it.
So is that how Zafar Meraj became a journalist?
Absolutely. I mean who could’ve said no to the veteran. I joined the four-page daily from this very building [Kashmir Monitor’s current office] as an assistant editor. Within four months, I became its in-charge. But despite being a standard newspaper, it was never so easy to run it, especially in the times of eventful power shifts in Kashmir.
Yes, since Sheikh Abdullah had returned as a very powerless head of the state—from Prime Minister in 1947 to Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 1975—how were things shaping up for newspersons in Kashmir?
Even before Sheikh Abdullah would act tough on newsmen, there was no press freedom in the real sense in Kashmir. But once he returned to power, he started imposing curbs on Press by banning newspapers.
In 1978, when a small Press Corps of Srinagar was majorly represented by Kashmiri Pandits, Abdullah introduced Public Safety Act (PSA) with a provision regarding press freedom as well.
We had to hit the streets to resist it. Even the likes of Kuldeep Nayar stood with us. In the face of intensified protests and marches, Abdullah had to withdraw that controversial clause from the PSA.
And how did you make peace with journalism amid those gags?
Well, I couldn’t go back to the court. You may also connect to it as a journalist, that once you’re addicted to this drug called journalism, you can’t leave it. With every good story, you’re simply drawn into it.
Talking about good stories, do you remember any of your stories of that era which you feel proved your mettle as a journalist?
Yes, in 1980, I was first noticed when I covered an altercation between the police and the Army. It was the same episode in which a top cop, then SSP Srinagar Ali Mohammad Watali was attacked by army men and left injured with a broken tooth near Budshah Chowk.
I was on that story all night, even after the paper was done for the day. My reporter instinct did not let me leave the story and go back home.
Once my neighbour and PTI’s Kashmir bureau chief PN Jalali knew about it, he wanted me to work with him. That’s how I joined PTI as a stringer. My first salary was Rs. 200. I worked there till 1986, and when I left I was being paid Rs.450.
And what happened to Aina?
I left it due to some personal reasons and joined Kashmir Times. By then, I had already worked with India Today and Independent run by the Times Group and edited by the great Vinod Mehta.
At Kashmir Times, I was the Bureau Chief as well as its only reporter, aided by the senior photojournalist Merajuddin. After I left it, I worked for The Guardian, The Financial Times and later for Outlook, for nearly 10 years.
While working for different publications, how did you see the journalistic community of Kashmir braving the brunt of the times?
Well, our community always faced the pulls and pressures. I remember in 1988, Farooq Abdullah tried to bring in a Press Bill on the same lines, which his buddy Rajiv Gandhi had brought in New Delhi. We again had to hit the streets.
As militancy was about to erupt in the valley, we staged a dharna in front of the State Legislature, which used to be across the Budshah Bridge in those days. In the face of protests, Farooq Abdullah had to abandon that idea.
And just then, as guns rattled, Farooq Abdullah was the first to abandon the ship as captain and reportedly went to England to play golf. How was the situation unfolding for newspersons who chose to report the ground situation?
Well, militancy brought its own baggage for us. As such there were no direct curbs on Press, but the atmosphere was very frightening.
Let me tell you, two guns were on work in the field. At the administrative level also, it was tough. After Jagmohan, Governor GC Saxena equally made it tough for us.
And then, suddenly, unidentified gunmen surfaced, and started killing people. Alsafa’s founding editor Mohammad Shaban Vakil became one of the first victims of the anonymous gun in Kashmir.
ALSO READ: Jagmohan: He came as a ‘nurse’, but…
And how was governor’s administration reacting to this situation?
To deal with the overwhelming situation, it mainly tried to suppress the Press. Those working for Indian news agencies from Kashmir were under great pressure. After Kashmiri Pandits migrated to the plains, reports from the valley began relayed and printed from Jammu.
Radio Kashmir and Doordarshan studios were transferred to Jammu and from there they used to relay the bulletins with Srinagar’s dateline. That created problems.
So in a way, it was a terrible time to be a journalist in Kashmir.
Indeed. The atmosphere was such that Kashmir was thought as the enemy state. Every Kashmiri was considered as the enemy of India. And the way the migration of Kashmiri Pandits was being politicised further added fuel to the fire.
But at the same time, it proved to be one of the biggest turnarounds as well.
Post-90s, many local Muslim boys joined journalism and made their mark at the international level. They even overtook their predecessors—who once considered them unfit for the profession. Their reporting was impartial and factual, presenting both the sides. You can say that it was one of the biggest achievements of militancy in Kashmir.
But for curiosity’s sake, how difficult was it for Kashmiri journalists to stay ‘impartial’ when they were reporting their own conflict in their own backyards?
I tell you what, while the government was behaving in a very suppressing manner, these young journalists wouldn’t dither from exposing human rights violations, including rapes, killings, excessive use of force. Basically, they covered everything without getting sucked up into it.
But upholding journalism in those terrible times had its own costs for us. We ended up losing a very dear colleague in the form of photojournalist Mushtaq Ali. He was martyred when he tried to open a parcel bomb sent to kill senior journalist Yusuf Jameel, then working with the BBC.
By mid-nineties when the Ikhwan sprouted and ruled the roost, how difficult was it for Kashmiri newspersons to discharge their professional duties?
Well, those renegades harassed us a lot, through bandook, gaali and maardhaad. We had an incident where 12 journalists were waylaid near Anantnag and kidnapped by a renegade. The order was given by his so-called commander to shoot all of them. By some miracle, they were all saved.
Talking about Ikhwanis, how can one forget your own tryst with them.
Well, I don’t want to go into the details of that, but yes, I was kidnapped and several rounds of bullets were fired at me by a young renegade. I was attacked after returning from Hajin where I had gone to interview Kuka Parray.
Those days, I used to work for Zee News which was the only private TV news channel operating in the valley then.
Even as I worked with a Pakistan-based newspaper Muslim, which was akin to Statesman of India, I finally decided to come up with my own publication, Kashmir Monitor, in 1998.
Once the sun finally set over the Ikhwan Raj, did things improve for journalists in Kashmir?
Well, the situation did change for the better. But fear still lurks. We as journalists are still walking on a double-edged sword in Kashmir. We don’t know what side we’ll end up offending with our writings.
When such is the reality of this profession, did you ever mull to quit it?
No, I didn’t.
Even after facing the life-threatening attacks?
Never. How could you leave something which is your identity!
But now, when somebody like Shujaat Bukhari is gunned down in broad daylight, doesn’t it make a journalist’s job ever more threatening in Kashmir?
See, the primary job of any journalist is to bring the truth to fore. But let me admit and accept that till date, truth has been one of the biggest casualties in Kashmir.
And now, when Shujaat-like incident takes place, it does instil fear. Yeh Aazmaish hai [It’s test]. Like all other nightmares, this too shall pass. The young journalists should not be cowed down by this and must continue to discharge their professional duty with utmost honesty and sincerity.
Journalism has always been a challenge—be it war or peace. A real journalist will continue inform their audience about what’s happening on the ground.
Like this story? Producing quality journalism costs. Make a Donation & help keep our work going.