Covering Kashmir: An outsider's view from the inside - III
Perhaps the darkest period in this regard came in the late 90s and 2000, when militancy driven by the Lashkar-e-Toiba was at a peak. The number of security checks went up, ID cards were a must, everyone, including journalists were suspects. My colleagues would prefer to stay indoors and report with inputs over the telephone, because who wanted to take on the humiliation of being strip searched in the freezing cold by some rude security guard? I remember being held up at one checkpost outside Srinagar for hours in January 2000. The chill went right to my bones, but then I watched a bus load of travelers being screened. Each of them was being checked, and then made to sit in the snow on the roadside. Since many kept warm with coal-fed Kangris inside their phirans, the snow around them melted rapidly, making it even more uncomfortable to sit in the snow. But standing up meant risking a beating, or worse. So they just sat there, the water creeping up their phirans, the humiliation seeping into their eyes. It's those eyes that haunt you as you write about Kashmir. The defeat and hurt in the eyes of the ordinary Kashmiri- too horrified by the idea of joining militant ranks, too terrified to respond to the security guards.
Later that year it was the eyes of a Police officer that seared themselves into my memory. In August 2000, in one of the strangest decisions the central government took on Kashmir, the NDA decided to talk with a faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen, sending up the Home secretary to engage with local commander Abdul Majid Dar. The talks were a disaster from the word go - with little time for preparation, and none for bringing other parties like the Hurriyat, PoK based Hizbul Commanders, and even allies within the government on board with the idea. On the morning the ceasefire was called off, I was one of a group of journalists on Residency Road. There had been a grenade attack, nothing big, but enough to bring us to that spot to investigate it for news-value. Several police officers had also come to the spot including the SP Pankaj a familiar face for us all. At some point the bomb disposal squad came in too, and Pankaj started to shoo us away from an Ambassador car parked there.
The last thing I remember was the Hindustan Times photographer Pradeep Bhatia and me protesting about the police pushing us out. The next second the Ambassador had exploded, boobytrapped with a gas cylinder packed with explosives in its boot. I was pushed down on the ground by my colleague Mukhtar Ahmad, and saw a shower of shrapnel fly over us. Pradeep, still standing after the explosion was hit by a shard of glass. It pierced his heart, and as I opened my eyes, it was his lifeless body that I saw. Hours later, when we made it to the Army hospital ( I had injured my shoulder), it was Pankaj's eyes that startled me. The explosion had left him with severe burns on his face, infact his eyebrows and eyelashes were completely gone. He was in the triage of the hospital's emergency wing, on the bed next to me. By his side, his 2-year-old daughter. He must have been sedated and couldn't move - but he just kept looking at the little girl, willing her to believe everything would be all right. There are many brave men like Pankaj who continue to risk their lives every day in Kashmir as part of our security forces. Men who sit in bunkers, completely outnumbered by the mobs who surround them. Men who guard bridges day and night knowing that a sniper could target them from either end anytime. Men who do unending tours of duty in a hostile land that is ironically part of their own country. It's those men who have most spoken to me about the necessity of political solutions, and of the unending vicious cycle in Kashmir: when there's violence, New Delhi and the world take a keen interest in trying to end it. When the violence dies down, everyone loses interest, thereby setting the stage for the next round of violence.
There were several journalists injured that day, some quite badly. Zee Tv's Irfan lost his right foot, others suffered shrapnel wounds, Mukhtar lost his hearing in one ear permanently. For each one of us, the perils of covering that story had come home. It's slightly easier for those of us who don't live in the danger zone, compared to Valley-based colleagues that brave the perils everyday. Being beaten up by an officious policeman. Being roughed up by a street mob unhappy with your channel or newspaper's coverage of the situation. A bomb blast, a fidayeen attack, a police encounter. Knowing deep inside that the law of averages has a way of catching up with us all.
(This is the third post in a four-part series. Tomorrow: concluding the series)
More about Suhasini HaidarSuhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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