Press freedom and National Conference

History belies Sheikh Nazir’s claim of offering sacrifices for upholding freedom of press in Jammu Kashmir

When Sheikh Nazir told a gathering Tuesday that his organisation (National Conference) had offered sacrifices for freedom of press, I missed a beat. I could not utter a single word for quite some time. Then I smiled and finally laughed. Only yesterday I was reading from my Bouquet: A tribute to unsung heroes of Kashmir, about Ghulam Muhammad Kashfi, JN Sathu and Prem Nath Bazaz. All of them were persecuted by none other than Sher-e-Kashmir and his National Conference. I also read how this organisation prostituted the second oldest profession.

Ghulam Muhammad Kashfi was a renowned journalist and created a niche for himself in early 40s.  According to Mir Ghulam Rasool Nazki, Kashfi became Khidmat’s editor in 1943. His unique style of writing and presenting news added new dimensions to the newspaper. His column “Confessions of Kashfi” became very popular. Through this column he came to be known as Kashfi.

Notwithstanding Kashfi’s indefatigable efforts to popularise National Conference, Moulana Masoodi and Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah were not happy with him. One day Masoodi stepped into his office and gave Kashfi a scornful look. A shattered, scared and shocked Kashfi asked reasons for his anger. “You do not prefix Quaid-e-Azam to the name of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah,” Masoodi retorted. Kashfi had a handy answer. “I know only one Quaid-e-Azam and he is Muhammad Ali Jinnah.”

The incident was reported to Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah who beat him up to pulp with a hockey stick. In 1947, when state came under Indian rule, going got tough for Kashfi for a host of reasons. Several people, including Moulana Masoodi, started conspiring against him. He wanted to join Radio Kashmir but Masoodi sabotaged it. According to Haji Muhammad Akber of Wachigam, when the leaders were released in 1947, people started hatching conspiracies against Kashfi. “One evening he left his bicycle and worn-out bedding in a room of Kashmir Guest House, Lal Chowk and crossed the boundary. He joined Radio Azad Kashmir and retired from there.”

Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz and JN Sathu also suffered for their fearless reporting. When Sheikh Abdullah assumed power in 1947, Hamdard was subjected to censorship. The censorship was strictly enforced after the 1947 war. Prem Nath Bazaz was arrested on October 21, 1947 later on he was exiled. During this period (1947-50) Sathu ran the Hamdard. In that same year, the Hamdard published Sir Zaffarullah Khan’s speech at the UN. It created a storm in the Valley. Sathu narrated, “Sheikh Abdullah was the emergency administrator. Shayam Lal Want, a close aide of Sheikh Abdullah, beat up a Hamdard hawker and threatened him to stop selling the newspaper or face dire consequences.”

Next day the Hamdard carried the incident and Sathu wrote a letter to Sheikh Abdullah. The letter read, “If the government is determined to suppress and muzzle the voice of press as is evident from the attitude of Shyanm Lal Want, I can assure you we will resist to our last breath.”

There was some more trouble with the government. Ultimately the newspaper was closed down. In 1950, Sathu too was exiled. He went to New Delhi and stayed with Prem Nath Bazaz.

During Dr Farooq’s regime, a local English daily launched a campaign against custodial disappearance. Around thirty cases of enforced disappearance were highlighted in one month. The authorities responded by urging the editor to stop the campaign. The editor first resisted but had to give in when government advertisements were stopped. The campaign was abandoned. Surprisingly the authorities did not contest the authenticity of the reports. Instead covert means were employed to force the editor into submission.

Today a third generation Abdullah is ruling the state and press freedom still seems a distant dream. The annual press freedom report for South Asia, which was released on the World Press Freedom day (May 3) says: “Jammu and Kashmir, long the arena of an armed confrontation between Mujahideen and Indian troops, continued to pose serious challenges for journalism through the year.”

The report mentioned that in January 2010, a photojournalist in Srinagar was shot injured by Indian police while covering the aftermath of an armed encounter between troops and two Mujahideen.

The report said that the incident occurred when a group of journalists entered a hotel in Srinagar that had been seized and held for close to 24 hours by two militants. “Amaan Farooq, a cameraman of a local English newspaper was shot injured by the police,” the report stated.

A tendency to blame the messenger was evident in a case in mid 2009 when authorities held responsible the local news channels and print media for an escalation in public tensions following the deaths of two women of Shopian  Asiya Jan, 17, and Neelofer Jan, 22, by uniformed men.

Numerous independent news channels in Kashmir stepped up their coverage as Shopian residents came out on streets to protest what they believed was a case of rape and murder involving troops. While police failed to file a First Information Report (FIR) to initiate a full investigation, senior home department officials said it was the media that had fuelled the tensions by going beyond reasonable limits in reporting on the women’s deaths. Curbs were placed on them to kill the truth.

Sheikh Nazir’s claim about National Conference’s sacrifices for press freedom is belied by history. On important occasions National Conference has always employed overt and covert means to muzzle the press. And, other governments have not been any different.

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