Journalists in the restive Kashmir region have often found themselves being sitting ducks. Recently, a well-known Kashmiri journalist from the central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district had to spend two nights inside a lock-up at a police station. He was formally arrested for two nights and two days.
Mushtaq Ahmad Ganai, 34, is a prominent journalist and works for the Srinagar-based English daily, Kashmir Observer. He alleged that police from the station in Sumbal area of north Kashmir’s Bandipore district hurled invective at him, seized his car, and confiscated his mobile phone and other essential belongings.
Subsequently, the authorities slapped serious charges against him which included “violating the lockdown rules” and “interfering in the professional work of the officials”, a senior police officer said. They also filed a First Information Report (FIR) against him.
According to Ganai’s statement, Station House Officer (SHO) Muneeb-ul-Islam pressed charges “against me with a vindictive mindset only to satisfy his inflated ego”. “You just see what I am going to do with you to fix you,” Ganai said attributing these words to the SHO.
Ganai had gone to Sumbal after receiving inputs that the people there had broken social-distancing norms. Hajin, one of the areas in Bandipore district, has been declared a hotspot. Obviously then, it was important news to cover.
From his hometown Ganderbal, Ganai left for the neighbouring Bandipore in his Alto car to report the possible violation of the lockdown only to see himself land in trouble and end up in a lock-up. Ganderbal and Bandipore are twin districts and are not far from the summer capital, Srinagar.
“My car was intercepted by the cops of Sumbal police station. I was asked to get down. The SHO tried to snatch my car keys which I did not allow him to do. But he hurled abuses at me and threatened me of dire consequences resulting in a verbal altercation,” Ganai told The Federal, adding that “as a law-abiding citizen I followed their orders and reached the police station.”
On reaching there, Ganai said he was shocked to see the treatment meted out to him. After snatching all his belongings, which included his wallet, currency notes, car keys, identity cards, credit and debit cards and other vital documents, he was made to wait for several hours until the SHO arrived.
“The SHO arrived at around 7 p.m. Without much ado, he physically assaulted me. And slapped me several times. Each slap was followed by an equally hurting invective. Another baton-waving cop accompanying the SHO beat me to the pulp with his lathi, so much so that I slept inside the lock-up without eating my dinner,” Ganai alleged.
The Federal reached out to Ashiq Hussain Tak, Additional Superintendent of the Jammu and Kashmir Police for Bandipore district. Tak says, “the allegations of physical torture are just allegations”. He, however, confirmed that the journalist was charged “for interfering in the official work of government officers and also for violating the lockdown norms”.
Ganai denied all such charges and said these were pressed to implicate him. “I did not create any hurdles in any officer’s duty. I was only performing mine.”
Around 4 p.m. on April 11, Ganai was arrested. He spent the next two days in the police station. He could not contact his family for several hours because his phone was seized. Only by late in the evening, he was allowed to inform his family members, who then started legal proceedings to move a bail application for his release the next morning.
“Even when my family got the bail for me from Sumbal court, I was not allowed to go. I had to again wait for the SHO to arrive,” Ganai said, adding that he had tried to convince the police officers that media persons were also performing their duty to report various developments about the ongoing pandemic.
“I showed documents to them including my press card. I argued endlessly to convince them, but they were in no mood to listen to me.”
Ganai has been a journalist for over a decade now. He had gone to inspect the availability of the doctors and to cross-check the reports about the possible violation of the lockdown in the Naidkhai area in Bandipore. He had heard from his sources that some markets were open there and social distancing norms had gone for a toss.
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“What is my crime? That I had gone for reporting assignment to find out the truth,” he asked, adding that verbal gymnastics should not become a pretext to slap unwarranted charges against journalists who are performing their duties under challenging circumstances.
After his family moved a bail application in Sumbal court on April 11, Ganai was taken for a medical check-up. He was finally released around 10 p.m on April 13, eight hours after the bail was granted. Even after releasing him, the police did not return his mobile phone and asked him to come back to the station the next day. Although the phone has since been returned, his car still remains there.
The charges were slapped against Ganai under Sections 188 and 269 of Indian Penal Code (IPC). The former is pressed in case of “disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant”, while the latter deals with a “negligent act likely to spread infection”.
Meanwhile, in a statement, the Jammu and Kashmir Young Journalist Association (JKYJA) strongly deplored the booking and beating of Mushtaq Ganai while demanding that his vehicle be returned to him immediately.
“After the family members approached court and got bail orders, Mushtaq Ganai was released. His car, however, continues to remain inside the police station.” The association also urged Dilbagh Singh, the DGP of J&K police, to “withdraw all the fabricated charges against the journalist.”
In another incident, an independent journalist Gowhar Ali Wani, 22, from north Kashmir’s Handwara district has alleged that the SHO of Villagam police station used “abusive and uncivilised language”. Earlier, Wani claimed that the policemen in civvies came to his house and asked him to accompany them. Apparently, the police expected him to refrain from filming the incidents in the area.
Wani also took to Twitter and described in detail how his father was allegedly abused by the SHO and taken to the police station. “Tell your son not to roam around with camera, I will arrest him and put chillies inside him. If showing reality is a crime then sorry,” he tweeted while attributing an alleged threat issued by the SHO.
Although journalists in Kashmir have seldom found reporting from ground zero a cakewalk, the incidents of alleged harassment and regular summoning of journalists to police stations, cyber cells and counter-insurgency headquarters have become a norm since August last year.
Days after Jammu and Kashmir lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood in August last year, special correspondent of The Hindu Peerzada Ashiq was summoned by Kothi Bagh police station and asked to reveal his source of a story he had done on detentions.
In November, journalists Basharat Masood of The Indian Express and Irfan Hakeem of The Economic Times were summoned by the Srinagar-based counter-insurgency headquarters, aka Cargo, and questioned for several hours about their stories. Similarly, in February this year, Special Correspondent of The Outlook Naseer Ganai too was questioned by the same agency.
Earlier, Aquib Javed of The Kashmir Observer was taken to New Delhi by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) concerning an interview he had done with Asiya Andrabi, a pro-Pakistan woman leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM), and a photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was also questioned by the same agency.