Life of a journalist in Kashmir, tells Yusuf Jameel

A parcel bomb blast in Srinagar office of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) changed the life of its then correspondent, Yusuf Jameel. He still sits in the same office but never dares to sit in the same room where he lost his friend in the blast.

Jameel was born in 1958, started his career as a writer when he was in college. He used to write for his college magazine Aabshaar (in Urdu), of which he later became an editor. He was a regular contributor to Khaleej Times, Blitz (Bombay) and Munsif (Hyderabad) before joining a local daily Aftaab as a staffer.

Presently, Jameel is working as a Special Correspondent with The Asian Age Newspaper, and he is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Time magazine and the Voice of America. On one chilly afternoon, The Kashmir Walla’s Senior Reporter, Saima Bhat went to the office where Jameel was attacked and talked to him about his experiences as journalist and how he looks to the current state of journalism in the Valley.

Yusuf Jameel at his office in Srinagar.

You started your journalism career before 1983 that is pre-militancy period (pre-1989), what was the role of press then?

Formally, I started my career as a journalist from Srinagar Urdu daily ‘Aftab’ and then joined The Telegraph in 1983. Before the start of insurgency, I, like most other working journalists, would on a normal day do stories on tourism, culture, political statements and developments and related issues. Though people like Geelani Sahib, Shabir Shah, Mirwaiz Farooq apart from a host of politicians from the mainstream camp were active with their different agendas, nothing extraordinary was unfolding and to be reported about. Hence it was somewhat a tedious pastime yet we would try to make our copy interesting.

How did the start of militancy change the role of press in Kashmir? And what problems did you face while reporting in early 90s?

It became a difficult job to handle particularly in the initial phase of militancy. We were working virtually under two guns. A third one arrived soon. There were invisible guns there too. Every newly formed militant group wanted to have a share of space in the media; both local and international. Those who were already there and, on the other hand, the other party to the dispute as well wanted us to toe their line. Each party [government and militants] accused us [journalists] of being supportive of, or even hand in glove with, the other party. I was personally targeted many a times but I survived. Thank God. Yet I believed, and still do, the life of a journalist is supposed to be like that in conflict zones. Even worst has befallen on our colleagues in other conflict zones of the world. I was targeted mainly because of my association with the BBC for its high profile and huge listenership in the South Asian region including Jammu and Kashmir. Every one used to hear my reports keenly and I would be put on trial on daily basis with each individual and each group trying to gauge my work using his/its own yardstick. Sometimes a report would be liked by someone but disliked by another. As vested interest was an overriding factor, most reports would fall short of their penchant. So, that is why I was an easy and favored target.

Local media had to suffer worse than I did. At least, if I used to miss any of statements from any of the party to the dispute or my report would not have been to their liking, I would say, and it was true, that editorial decisions are taken by my seniors in Delhi and London but local media did not have any such excuse to offer.

You were abducted in 1990 and were kept somewhere near to LOC, what was going on in your mind?

Not really abducted. Army came and told me I had to go with them. I did not know what was going on but I asked them if they had come to arrest me. The guy who was heading the party, Major Hawa Singh, replied in Hindi “kuch aisa he samj leejiyai”. I thought I’ve been detained for whatever reason but later, in my absence, the army and senior government officials including the Union Home Secretary had told my family and colleagues that I was not with the army and that militants masquerading as army personnel may have seized me which, for obvious reasons, was felt by my well-wishers to be very fishy and dangerous too. That’s why people are not sure whether I was arrested, detained or abducted.

I was caught in a difficult situation. I spent nearly 30 hours with them without knowing any reason behind my detention. I had kept my fingers crossed and one of the senior officers Lt. Col. Bhanwar Singh who had ordered my arrest, questioned me at his office-shelter near the LoC. Although I was blind folded and my hands were tied behind, the questioning was done politely. He appeared to be a civilized officer.  He repeatedly asked me as to ‘How many times have I crossed over to Pakistan.’ I told him I’ve been to that country but on passport and visa. He then asked about Zafar Meraj, another journalist. I said as far as I know he has visited Pakistan twice; first alone and on a second occasion with his mother, again on valid travel documents. The officer said he was talking about our crossing the de facto border ‘illegally and clandestinely’. I said I don’t know about Zafar but can speak only about myself. And finally he, in front of me, talked over phone to someone, may be his senior, saying ‘The Srinagar party is with me and I think he is innocent.’ A few hours later, I was informed that he was going to release me and then announced ‘you are free to move now.’ But I asked him if he could drop me somewhere I could find a vehicle to return to Srinagar. He escorted me up to Khanpora in Baramulla where I boarded a bus for Srinagar.

Earlier on way, the officer informed me about the reason behind his ordering my arrest. What had happened was; they had seized a group of 12 or 13 boys while returning from across the LoC during a clash in which three boys had been killed and the rest were arrested. During their interrogation, the ringleader, one Muhammad Ayub who was from Baramulla, had reportedly told the army officer that while on the other side they were instructed by the ISI people that in case they do face any problem after they had returned to the Valley they should get in touch with Yusuf Jameel or Zafar Meraj. Zafar had moved out and was operating from Delhi, so he was not picked up.

Then after a year or so, I came to know that Ayub had told one of his friends that while coming back from the other side, ‘Three from among us were killed and we feared we too might face the same fate. Suddenly it came into my mind that I should involve Yusuf Jameel as I had heard him on the BBC on numerous occasions and I also knew Zafar Meraj too was a well-known journalist…because if I do that the army will think twice before killing us and would obviously like to arrest them too and once that happens our death would, at least, get delayed’. It worked well. Ayub not only saved his life but was freed after some time and got married.

Shuba Singh, my friend and colleague at The Telegraph had filled a Habeas Corpus against the army when they were insisting I was not with them. It was, on my release, changed into a writ petition and the army was charged with detaining me illegally. Disturbed Area Act and AFSPA had not been enforced then. Army separately set up a ‘Court of Inquiry’ and I was told that all the three officers involved in my arrest have been awarded “suitable punishment” which included debarring them from promotion for six years. But later while covering the 1996 Assembly elections, a colleague of Major Hawa Singh told me nothing adverse was done to him. It turned out to be a major case of infringement but more serious incidents followed.

Did Militants also kidnap you?

I had had six attacks on me, carried out by both sides but I was not kidnapped by militants. They tried but never succeeded. They once issued a death warrant (Wajb-ul-Qatal decree) against me and I was ordered to report before their leadership. I refused and then one of their seniors contacted me and apologized. Another militant group issued a statement that Yusuf Jameel should leave Kashmir in 48 hours. My response to that was; I’m a Kashmiri so why should I leave my place.

In one case of attempted arm-twisting, I was accused of being involved in some ‘political process’ with Rajesh Pilot whom I had met only once in a press conference held at Raj Bhawan following the release of Indian Oil Corporation official Durai Swamy from militant captivity. Their grudge apparently was over a statement issued by them some time ago not having been used by the BBC.

How did you manage to be un-biased and objective?

Somebody has rightly pointed out that while reporting own conflict it becomes very difficult to maintain balance. For me too, it became difficult on number of occasions but I as a reporter tried my best to be objective and candid.

In those days, I would be openly accused of being an ‘IB agent’. For some people, I was on ISI pay role. Paradoxically, a colleague -actually a journalist by compulsion and a politician by choice-spread the rumour that I had received a bribe of Rs. 5 crore from the ISI, which he himself denied later. But now, I think, there is a realization in concerned quarters that those were the most difficult days and whatever was possible we in the Kashmir press corps did it in an honest fashion. It is also a fact and an open secret that, unfortunately, some of us succumbed and failed to carry out our responsibility as journalists for varied reasons.

In the parcel blast in your office, you lost your friend, photojournalist Mushtaq Ali. How did that incident affect you? 

Mushtaq Ali

Mushtaq Ali

We suffered a major and un-repairable loss in his death. I also lost my job with the BBC and Reuters. My whole life changed after that incident. On the 4th day of Mushtaq’s death, my father had a heart attack while coming out of his (Mushtaq’s) house and I didn’t know about his spending more than three weeks at the ICU of SKIMS, Srinagar as I had relocated to London after the incident. He died in 1999, four years after we had lost Mushtaq.

My facial appearance changed. You can see, I don’t have any eyebrows or eye lashes on me. I suffered perforation on my right eardrum in the impact of that blast apart from the psychological and emotional ordeal I have been through. But all said, the biggest loss was Mushtaq’s departure. He had nothing to do with my job, what I was doing, whether I was wrong or right, whether my reporting was of the liking of A or B or not. He was not involved with that, he was working as a cameraman and, unfortunately, received the brunt full of that blast and fell victim for no fault of his. His father also died after some time and his mother is not keeping well since that incident and has almost lost her eye sight.

Do you think your arrest and blast were result of reporting for BBC?

Yes, I told you my troubles were mainly because of the reporting I would do for the BBC. That became evident also when I returned to Kashmir as The Asian Age journalist. While working for them in Delhi, I asked my editor M.J.Akbar if I could return to my favorite beat and resume my work as a correspondent. He agreed but told me to go on the trail basis only. He too was concerned about my safety. Elections were being held and I came back to cover them. I travelled a lot and did not face any kind of problems. After the elections were over in which Farooq Abdullah was voted to power again I returned to Delhi to tell my editor that I want to go back permanently.

I worked with the BBC from Summer 1984 till I was thrown out towards the end of 1996. Minor incidents have been there but I did not face any serious threat after I had left the BBC. The change of tide, the ground situation, too has played a positive role not only in my case alone but other colleagues also feel relaxed now.

No case was registered by police in connection with the parcel bomb attack and, if it was, no investigations were done or, at least, taken to logical conclusion. Soon after the bloody incident, I came to know the sophisticated parcel bomb was fabricated by the army and renegades were asked to deliver it at my doorstep. Investigations also revealed that the army had tried to involve some more people to kill me who later admitted. 

Can we say your organization; BBC for whom you faced such trouble did not support you after the incident?

It is an acknowledged fact that they didn’t support me. When I was given International Press Freedom Award (1996) in New York, Barbara Crossett, a former South Asia Bureau Chief of New York Times, said in her brief speech that “BBC abandoned him when he needed their support the most”.

This is also a fact that when that incident happened Alexander Tomson and Andrew Whitehead came here with a personal letter from BBC’s Director General saying ‘We are with you; it has happened because of your fair and objective reporting.’ It also informed me that they had decided to take me along with my wife out of Kashmir for some time (that letter is still with me). They told me to shift temporarily to London for about six months to avoid any further attack. I was reluctant for two reasons; one because my parents were in distress and I did not want to leave them alone. Secondly, I thought whoever was behind the gory act would feel to be successful once I moved out. I was told I had no option but to leave and someone who benefited from my exit too played a role.

After spending about six months in London, I asked the BBC bosses if I could return to my beat but they didn’t agree. I gave them three options; (1) allow me to return to Srinagar to resume my work (2) assign me a job within the Bush House either with the Urdu/ Hindi service or Eastern Topical Unit and (3) send me anywhere in the world except Pakistan. I told them if I am given Pakistan assignment, those who were after my blood back in Kashmir would say ‘look we knew Yusuf Jameel is a Pakistani and that’s why he has opted for Pakistan’ and I don’t think I would be then able to go back to Kashmir and work as an independent journalist again.

A week or so later, BBC’s Eastern Service chief Barry Langridge announced ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’ for me. The ‘good news’ was; ‘we would be paying you 20,000 sterling pounds from the BBC Beneficiary Fund as you have suffered financially too.’ The ‘bad news’ was: ‘we don’t have a job to offer you at the Bush House (It is different that merely a couple of weeks after my leaving London, the Hindi service advertised several posts in the Indian Express). ‘He also told me that they don’t want to send you back to Srinagar as ‘your life is still in danger there’. However, I was instructed to work for six months in Delhi to supplement the BBC’s news effort out of India except Kashmir. I was strictly debarred from reporting on Kashmir. In September 1996, I was told ‘whatever we could do for you we have done that. Now you can find out your own way.’

Then I decided to move to court of law in Srinagar. Though legal notices were served on the BBC managers through my lawyer, the case couldn’t be pursued for the reasons discussed in my forthcoming book.

How do you see the restrictions on journalists during last year protests?

I told you how difficult it was to report during the heyday of insurgency and how things have calmed down. You have lesser number of militants around; hence security forces are not as active physically as they used to be although politically they are. So there is lesser number of problems now and in nature they are not as serious. I mean the situation has eased, but still we do face difficulties. For instance, if there is a protest going on somewhere, a photojournalist in particular has to be on the spot. But we have seen they are not only prevented from discharging their professional responsibility, there equipment is seized or damaged; they are thrashed and even detained. Photojournalists and reporters become soft target because they don’t carry gun or a stone in their hands but cameras, notebooks and pens.

The flow of information is still very poor although the security forces- Army, BSF, CRPF- have initiated certain measures for better interaction with journalists. Yet when you seek inputs from them on a certain incident you will find they are not very open. Similarly, government still tries to hide things or sell half truths.

I think reporters, other journalists, camerapersons- we all have to learn lessons from what we have seen and what we have gone through. We should change our tactics and modify our strategy in a given situation. What I have seen in young photographers is; when a typical street battle is underway they straightaway place themselves in the middle-between policemen and stone throwers-in such a fashion that they will either be hit by a bullet or a stone. So they have to change their strategy, they have to learn from their experiences how to go about it, how to do their work without allowing themselves to be harmed. They should know that ‘no story is worth your life’. Your all problems may not be solved but, at least, there will be some change in what happens on daily basis.

Should journalists expect anything from governments?

Governments are like this. They do commit mistakes and people can never be happy with what governments do. The Opposition is there to criticize whether there is a reason or not. Sometimes perceptions differ. I think it will be foolish on our part if we expect only enjoyable things from any government or to do things only to our liking or suit our situation.

How do you see future of journalism in Kashmir?

Very bright for varied reasons including the readership being on the increase with the rise in the literacy rate and growing interest in public, not only in newspapers but Television, Radio and Internet too. Social media is also playing a big role. But the important thing is whether you as journalists do stick to the principles this noble profession is rooted in, what our position or standing demands from us. If you produce quality newspapers and give out good stuff to your viewers and listeners you have really delivered. If you don’t, you are gone.

What do you think about the new generation who are joining journalism?

The new generation as a whole is more poignant. But, I think, they should keep in mind that we can’t express and we can’t let our emotions overcome our professional duties. It is quite obvious about this generation because this is a conflict generation which has grown up under the barrel of gun and seeing bloodshed and mayhem taking place around. They are not afraid of anything or, at least, you don’t see fear writ on their faces. That’s why they are more emotional. If they can overcome these emotions only then they are and can prove themselves as much better journalists than we people are.

Journalism is a field where students have to decide whether he/she really wants to be there to face the odds. Some people have joined only because of the glamour.

…any message for them?

Be courageous, objective and dedicated to your profession, have control over your emotions. Try to be honest, pragmatic and remain away from glamour and sleaze. You ought to win over the hurdles which are there to ruin and suppress our voice because this is a noble profession started by very noble people in Kashmir and rest of the South Asian region. Peep into the freedom struggles of India and Pakistan and the role played by journalists and writers. They should remain away from un-professional journalism.

Did your family ever tell you to leave this profession after that attack?

No, never. My father, brother and my spouse- they never asked me to leave my profession even when some groups had visited our home only to threaten my family. I’ve three daughters and all of them seem to be so inspired that they too want to become journalists.

Some months ago you posted on facebook that, “In these years I never wished to leave journalism but now I feel like leaving this journalism”. Why do you felt that? Do you think Kashmiri news organizations are playing their role or not?

That is because of corruption that has crept in our profession. My statement was essentially based on moral high ground doctrine. Recently, a Tehelka journalist sought my opinion about the gloomy situation our profession has been caught in as a result of the maneuvering by some unscrupulous elements masquerading as journalists. I told her; “I did not once think of quitting my profession when I was being attacked over and over again in the 1990s but when I see the corruption in the media today, I want to leave.” I strongly believe in calling a spade a spade in the open than to go in for back malevolence. I’ve written in somewhere and I reiterate today that the profession of journalism has virtually been overwhelmed by thugs, exploiters and blackmailers to say the least. Rather the breed with such instincts has penetrated in our profession and is ruling the roost. The voice of sanity has been silenced as those who still try to raise it have been reduced into a microscopic minority. What is more shocking is; some of the ‘big names’ we have in there and which are almost being worshipped by many innocent people are actually big swindlers. The stories emanating from their chambers or being narrated by those in close proximity or in contact stand testimony to the fiddling.

You won’t believe, a 4th-class employee with LAWDA (Lakes and Waterways Development Authority) and a part-time co-worker at a local glass-store asked me at my home what do I do and when I told him I’m a journalist he straightway said ‘you journalists are thieves’ I was shocked and then he narrated his story of being in LAWDA as an employee where he had some bitter experiences of journalists visiting the department to demand bribes. Recently, I got a call from an officer of JKTDC (Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation) who named a so-called journalist who was blackmailing its MD over the phone and asking for Rs. 5 lakh in lieu of holding back a story about a huge sum of money having been spent on interiors against the set norms. This guy had the cheek to tell the officer that he had all the documents in support of the ‘scandal’ and if he was obliged by paying the bribe money he won’t publish the story. Finally when I intervened and told the so-called journalist to publish that story if based on facts or be ready for being exposed before sensible people within our tribe he withdrew. And that journalist was also asking the MD to stop a transfer order of an employee within the corporation. These are only small instances and tip of the iceberg.

Ours is a noble profession which leaves tremendous impact on the society so I personally feel corruption is something which is running our standing and should not have been there. Corruption is not in local media only, it is there in outside media also as they also publish planted stories. What is, however, heartening is there are such journalists there who chose to leave their jobs than to act as ghost writers or file planted stories as their editors would want them to do. A glaring example is that of a Srinagar-based correspondent with a Mumbai newspaper. Luckily I never had to work under such editors or with the organizations where I was asked to give to such trend.

Photo: Muhabit-ul-Haq

7 comments

  1. Qazi Sami says:

    Impeccable Journalist of Kashmir..nobody doubts about that…from 1989-1996 each every word you spoke on BBC was truth, truth, truth.

  2. Han says:

    Mushtaq Ali was my neighbour and it was a shock to learn of his death. I cannot believe that the bomb blast in Yusuf’s office which resulted in Mushtaq’s death was carried out by the army. This is why we need more honest and hardworking journalists. We need to know the truth.

    Well done Saima.

  3. Arun Joshi says:

    Must read for journalists,

  4. syed ikhlaq says:

    Good one!

  5. Fasil Dar says:

    No doubt we don’t have journalists like Mr. Jameel now a days in the valley who would sacrifice all of what is mentioned but certainly we can learn from his experiences & inculcate his teachings within ourselves for our better future.
    Thanks for everything Yusuf sahab
    blessings !
    -fasil

  6. What's in a name says:

    So when is his book coming out?

  7. Dave says:

    Mr. Jameel’s reporting was primarily responsible for several violent reactions in the Valley and the separatists would take cues from his reports and plan their activities the next day. Mr. Jameel had a total lopesided view on J&K. He had no remorse that he did not raise the ethnic cleansing issue of Kashmiri Pundits in his reports.

    Over all, he was an average reported.

Leave a comment

Comment form

All fields marked (*) are required

Content Protected Using Blog Protector By: PcDrome.