Early on Tuesday morning, photojournalist Nissar Ul Haq, who lives in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, received a call from his photo editor in Srinagar about a gunfight between militants and Indian security forces in neighbouring Shopian. He would pick up Haq from his home, the editor said, and they would travel to Shopian together. They left at around 9.45 am, along with a few other local photojournalists.

“When we got close to the spot in Heff Shirmal village, we saw protestors pelting stones on the security forces,” Haq, who works with the local daily Rising Kashmir, recalled. “The security forces had put up a barricade around the gunfight spot. The protestors stopped pelting stones and made way for us to move towards the side of the security forces. To disclose our identities, we lifted our cameras above our heads and started moving towards that side. All of a sudden there was a loud bang and all six of us fell down.”

Once they stood up to ascertain what had happened, they were in for a shock. “I saw Waseem Andrabi of Hindustan Times, blood was oozing from his face,” said Haq, who has covered South Kashmir for his newspaper since 2008. “I told him to check his face. He looked at me and said the same. My eyes were watery and I was bleeding from my face as well.”

Haq and Andrabi were among four photojournalists wounded by pellets fired by the security forces in Shopian on Tuesday. The others were Mir Burhan, who works with the news agency Asia News Network, and Junaid Gulzar of the Kashmir Essence News website. A local resident was injured as well. They were taken for treatment to a local pharmacy by a group of protestors and later to the Pulwama District Hospital.

“We were not carrying guns but cameras. Yet, they fired pellets at us directly,” Haq said. “The security forces even fired pellets at the boys who were trying to help us.”

The police refuted the allegation that the journalists were deliberately targeted. “They were not direct targets,” said a senior police official in South Kashmir who only spoke anonymously. “If the security forces knew journalists were present among the crowd, they would not have used any force against them.”

In a statement after the gunfight ended, the police said three militants of Hizbul Mujahideen were killed in it. It added, without referring directly to the firing of pellets on the journalists, that “five cases of injuries were reported and three of them were discharged after preliminary medical attention”. The statement did not mention if the police had ordered an inquiry.

‘I can’t see properly’

At the Pulwama District Hospital, doctors said the journalists were hit in their “heads, foreheads and facial areas”, but escaped serious injuries. “They were discharged after treatment,” said Dr Abdul Rashid Para, the medical superintendent. “Fortunately, none of them had serious injuries.”

The journalists said they feel lucky to have escaped grave injuries. “I was hit by eight pellets around my temple, but fortunately my eyes were saved,” Andrabi said. “I was wearing a pheran and it acted as a shield against the pellets. I removed the pellets from my body myself.” The pheran is a cloak-like garment worn by people in Kashmir, mostly in winter.

Waseem Andrabi was hit by eight pellets around his temple. Photo via Facebook/Daanish Bin Nabi

Haq was advised to visit the hospital again after few days. “I was hit by five-eight pellets in my left eyelid,” he explained. “One pellet penetrated the eyelid and slightly scratched the sclera. There are still five pellets inside my eyelid.”

It seems to have hurt his vision, at least for now. “I can’t see properly and have blurred vision in my left eye,” Haq, a father of two, said. “I had three painkillers at once before entering home. I don’t want my family to be worried.”

‘We never see anyone punished’

In Srinagar, the Kashmir Press Photographers Association described the attack on the journalists as an indication of the tactics employed by the security forces to prevent the flow of information. “A journalist’s identity is a camera and a notebook,” Mukhtar Khan, the association’s president, said. “Even when two cameras were hanging from the shoulders of each of these journalists, the security forces fired pellets on them.”

The association urged Governor Satya Pal Malik and Director General of Police Dilbag Singh to “look into the matter and order a magisterial enquiry into the incident followed by strict action against the erring cops”.

Kashmir’s journalists are no strangers to violence. At least 19 journalists have been killed since militancy erupted in 1989. Just last year, the editor Shujaat Bukhari was shot dead by unidentified gunmen outside his office in Srinagar along with his two bodyguards.

The security forces have often been accused of beating up journalists and preventing them from doing their work, while the state government has banned the publication of newspapers as recently as two years ago.

Khan said journalist associations have repeatedly raised the issue of the harassment and violence faced by media personnel from the security forces with the government as well as security officials. “But every time, all we hear is that ‘we’ll investigate’,” he added. “We never see anyone getting punished or see attacks on media stopping.”

‘Wanton use of pellets’

Aside from journalist bodies, the attack drew criticism from Kashmir’s mainstream political parties as well as the separatists.

The Peoples Democratic Party described it as “an attack on the fundamental right of the freedom of speech and expression” of the media. “The photojournalists are on the opposite side of the crowd while covering the protests and if pellets can hit them, they can hit anybody,” senior party leader Naeem Akhtar said in a statement. “It indicates a very wanton and indiscriminate use of the weapon.”

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference tweeted his condemnation as well.

Commenting on the attack as well as the killing of six militants in Kashmir since Monday, senior Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said there is “no let up in killings and persecution of Kashmiris especially the young by Indian forces”.