On March 30, two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants – Rayees Ahmad Bhat and Hilal Ahmad Rah – were killed in a gunfight with security forces in Srinagar. The police were quick to point out that a press card was found on 24-year-old Bhat’s body.

Before he joined militant ranks last August, Bhat ran an online news website called Valley News Service from Bijbehara, in South Kashmir. “It indicates a clear case of misuse of media,” Vijay Kumar, inspector general of police, Kashmir, tweeted hours after the gunfight.

A police statement on March 30 said Bhat was “responsible for creating terror among the locals and had been coercing innocent citizens to sympathise with anti-national elements.”

This may be the first case of a journalist taking up arms in Kashmir.

An ordinary day

Nothing seemed out of place on August 6, 2021, the day Bhat left his home in Bijbehara’s Veeri village to become a militant. He had helped his mother gather fodder for cattle. Then he planned to go to a local gym, where he often worked out in the evenings.

“He washed up and told his mother that he would go to the gym and stay the night with his aunts, who live in a neighbouring village,” said 32-year-old Sartaj Ahmad Bhat, his elder brother. “The next morning, we came to know that he hadn’t gone there. We tried his phone but it was switched off.”

The family say they never saw him again. “That phone was never switched on,” sighed Abdul Hamid Bhat, his father. In the months after his son disappeared, he must have tried the number several times.

Three days after Bhat disappeared, the family went to the police to file a missing report. Sensing that he might have joined militant ranks, they also made emotional video appeals asking Bhat to return home.

“The police and army also made visits to our home,” said Abdul Bhat, a farmer. “They assured us that if we convinced him to surrender, they would keep him in custody for some days and then let him go.”

Bhat did not surrender. Before he disappeared, he worked at a gas agency in the Khanabal area of Anantnag town. He had a bachelor in arts degree, earned through distance learning, but that did not help him find a better job. While the gas agency job helped to pay the bills, Bhat also worked as a journalist.

“He was working with a news portal way back in 2016 but then he felt he should start something on his own,” said Sartaj Bhat, who runs a grocery store. “That’s when he started his own website, Valley News Service. He was highly interested in journalism even though he didn’t have a professional degree.”

‘Objective journalism’

The last news story uploaded on Valley News Service was on August 4, two days before Bhat went missing. According to the website, Valley News Service was founded in 2016 to fill the vacuum in “objective journalism” in Kashmir. It featured the story of a 14-year-old Kashmiri girl who was an accomplished mountaineer and painter.

A cursory glance at the website’s content suggests it stayed away from politics and focused on civic issues, army events and the achievements of local youth. Much of the content is pulled from local newswire services. Bhat does not appear to have any pieces under his byline.

A local journalist in Anantnag, says Bhat was not a “regular media professional.” “There are reporters you see daily on the ground, covering events and moving around,” said the journalist, who did not want to be identified. “But he was not like that. He would occasionally be seen at some event. That’s why not everyone in the media fraternity in Anantnag knew him.”

Two explanations have been offered on how Bhat managed the resources to run the website. His family claims he would put the money he earned from his other job into it. Besides, some of the content came from a network of local reporters who worked for multiple outlets, which means he did not have to pay them the salaries of regular staff.

“In many cases, event holders themselves pay journalists for coverage on their pages and portals,” said the local journalist. “That’s how much of the content on social media pages and lesser-known portals is created.”

According to him, Bhat was also trying to generate revenue by drawing online traffic to his website.

Abdul Hamid Bhat show's a photograph of his son. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

‘No police record’

If Bhat’s family is bewildered by his decision to join militancy, so are security officials. Many of the youth who joined militancy had multiple police complaints against them before they finally took up arms. Sometimes, their families said they took the extreme step to avoid harassment by security forces. But Bhat does not fit the pattern.

“There’s no previous police record of any subversive activities in his name,” said a senior police official in Anantnag, speaking off the record. “We came to know he had gone missing after his family approached the local police.”

Another senior police officer, who has years of experience in dealing with militancy in Kashmir, said not every militant came with a police record. “Since 2010, we have seen ordinary boys, with no adverse records, becoming militants,” he said. “Very few of them had a background of previous cases and things like PSAs [orders under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law] in their history.”

It was also unlikely that Bhat was driven by religious reasons. “He wasn’t religious at all,” said Sartaj Bhat. “He was someone who wouldn’t even pray regularly. Sometimes, he would even miss his Friday prayers.”

In some cases, said the senior police officer, ordinary individuals may have links with militant groups that only come to the surface when they finally take up arms.

“I believe anyone who joins militant ranks has some connection or link to militants which may be unknown to his family or even close friends,” he explained. “Militants don’t recruit a person at random. Whenever a new militant joins a group, they ensure that there’s a proper verification and background check on him.”

Journalists in fear

Bhat’s death comes at a time when local journalists are under pressure from the authorities, which several reporters jailed for their work and booked under anti-terror laws.

Recently, a fact-finding committee report by the Press Council of India also found that the functioning of the media in Jammu and Kashmir was being “slowly choked”, primarily because of “extensive curbs” imposed by the local administration. It also pointed out that the Union Territory administration viewed a large number of local Kashmir journalists as militant “sympathisers”.

Bhat may be the only journalist to have taken up arms so far, but other journalists in the Valley fear his case may be used to tarnish the whole press. “The idea is to give the dog a bad name and kill it,” said a Srinagar-based journalist who did not want to be identified.

He pointed out that people from diverse professions had joined militancy over three decades in Kashmir. “They include engineers, pilots, doctors, PhDs, students, members of police and armed forces as well,” he said. “Nadeem Khatib was a pilot. Irfan Kathwari was a millionaire businessman’s son. Naseer Pandit was a policeman. Are their professional or economic backgrounds responsible for their decision to join militancy? No. Recruitment is a complex issue.”