It has been nearly a week since Kashmir erupted in protest against allegations that an army man molested a minor in Handwara, in the northern district of Kupwara. Five people have been killed in fire by the security forces. Amidst the turmoil, journalists reporting on Handwara and its aftermath say they are facing the most severe media clampdown in Kashmir since the stone-pelting incidents of 2010.
Matters came to a head on Saturday morning in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area, home to the offices of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. The mother of the alleged victim was to hold a press conference at the premises of the human rights organisation when the police surrounded the area, cordoned off the road and entered the offices, locking the main door. Journalists arriving for the press conference were stalled outside.
“Around 10 o'clock we started calling media people for a press conference at 11,” Khurram Parvez, programme coordinator of the JKCCS. “Within half an hour, there were police personnel in our office as well as an official from the CID [Crime Investigation Branch]. At first the DSP put it as a request, saying we all had a responsibility to society, we cannot allow violence to occur and the press conference would incite trouble. Then he said we could not hold it as Section 144 had been imposed on the area. How is it a request, then, I asked. Later I called up the DIG, Central Kashmir, Ghulam Hassan Bhat, who said it was a decision taken at the highest levels.”
When they tried to hold an audio conference, the police threatened to confiscate their phones, said Parvez. The police personnel remained on the premises till 3.30 pm, he said, and only agreed to leave once they were assured that the family would not proceed with the planned press meet. Members of the JKCCS claimed the police followed the girl’s mother and uncle up to a certain point to make sure they returned home. The police have denied this.
The mystery of the curfew
There is some confusion about the restrictions that were in place at the time of the press conference. “There was a curfew declared three days in advance," said Javaid Mujtaba Gilani, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir. “Some movement of traffic had been allowed on the clock tower road as it leads to other key roads. But there were curfew-like restrictions in the clock tower area and the assembly of people in a curfewed area is not allowed.”
DSP Fahad Tak, who had visited the JKCCS office on Saturday, said a notice declaring Section 144 had gone up in the local district magistrate’s office. But five journalists from Srinagar with whom Scroll.in spoke said it was an undeclared curfew. They had been informed, they said, of restrictions in six police station areas across Srinagar. But the Lal Chowk area was not one of them.
The restrictions became clear once they reached Lal Chowk. “By quarter to 11, the police had cordoned off the area and closed it to traffic,” said Basharat Masood, a reporter for The Indian Express. “The SP, who was there, said this is a curfewed area, you cannot be here.”
Peerzada Ashiq, who was reporting for the Hindu, said Section 144 was an inadequate explanation for the curbs that were imposed. “If it was just Section 144, you would not cordon off the area,” he said. “You would not stop ordinary people from walking on the streets.”
The curbs that were in place, they said, were in keeping with a tradition of undeclared curfews in the Valley. “They say ‘restrictions’, they do not use the word curfew,” said one journalist. “Because they do not want it to be recorded how often there is curfew. ‘Restrictions’ are imposed every other Friday.”
However, curfew was declared in Kupwara district, and Handwara town is wrapped in layers of restrictions. Journalists on the ground said there was heavy police presence, backed by the army.
“We are three kilometres outside Handwara and they are not letting anybody in beyond a point,” said Masood on Sunday afternoon. “I want to meet the families of those who have been killed.”
Said another journalist: "I was lucky, I reached early. The police deployment was not that intense then so I wasn’t caught. You have to take permission to meet the families of the victims. They are saying that there will be law and order problems if the media goes in. As if we are creating trouble, not reporting it. The truth has been a casualty here. There were two or three incidents of police firing. In some cases in Handwara town, I saw stone pelting. But in Natnusa, where a 15-year-old was killed, not a single stone was thrown.”
By Sunday, the minor who was allegedly molested has been in police custody for five days, along with her father and aunt. She has reportedly not been allowed access to lawyers. And now the press have been stopped from meeting her mother, though some were able to speak to her on the phone. In spite of the aborted press conference at the JKCCS office, members of the organisation were able to tape her statement and pass it around to media channels.
In the video, the woman says her daughter screamed when she saw an army man enter a washroom in Handwara on Tuesday. Her subsequent statement, recorded in a video passed around by the army and claiming she had not been assaulted by a soldier, was made under duress, her mother said. The police custody was a case of detention and not protection, she added.
The police have a different version. The girl had recorded her statement before the chief judicial magistrate on Saturday, they said, and repeated her old story. Earlier, the police had claimed that the girl and her father had willingly entered protective custody.
Much like 2010
Mobile and internet services have also been suspended in parts of the Valley, in order to prevent protests from escalating, said police officials. Such restrictions, coupled with curfews, are not new. They have been deployed frequently to quell popular unrest in the Valley. But they are usually directed at mobs, said journalists, not reporters trying to report on the curfew.
“Even in such a situation, your identity card is supposed to act as a curfew pass,” said Ashiq. “I was able to enter Kupwara but have not been able to get into Handwara town after Wednesday.”
All the journalists agree that this was the most serious media clampdown since the summer of 2010, when mass demonstrations broke out in the streets and angry crowds threw stones at the police and security forces. The authorities responded with rubber bullets, teargas as well as live bullets, killing over 100 protesters, some of them teenagers. As the army conducted flag marches across Srinagar, the government cancelled curfew passes given to media outlets and local newspapers could not be published on some days.
After 2010, the situation in the Valley had seen about three years of calm. But curbs on the media returned after Afzal Guru’s hanging in 2013, recalled one journalist. This week’s situation is at least as serious, he said.