Qazi Shibli was at his home in July 2019 when Jammu and Kashmir Police summoned him. A story in his news website followed by a thread of tweets with information about a government order of additional troop movement in Kashmir had landed him in Police Station, Anantnag, on 27 July, he says.
Left with a few hundred bucks and in pajama, Shibli didn’t know that it would be before nine months he could return home. A week later, the Central government clamped down in Kashmir and broke the erstwhile state into two federally-governed territories. It also put strict restrictions on civilian movement and snapped all lines of communication.
In late August, Shibli’s younger brother told me that he fears, “since, India was running out of prison space in Kashmir, Shibli might be flown outside.” That summer, the government booked at least 412 people under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) — Shibli was one of them.
In December, TIME magazine listed Shibli on fifth spot in “10 ‘Most Urgent’ Threats to Press Freedom”. The Committee to Protect Journalist, an international organisation that defends the rights of journalists, also reported about Shibli’s detention and ran an online campaign for the withdrawal of charges against him.
This week, the J-K police booked two journalists under India’s anti-terror law — Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani — for their posts on social media, which the police claimed were “anti-national”. The police also filed an FIR against a story published in The Hindu, reported by Peerzada Ashiq. For more than 20 months, Asif Sultan, who is booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act — the same law as Zahra and Geelani — remains under detention.
Shibli’s PSA was, however, revoked on 13 April. Nearly after nine months, he returned home on the first day of the month of Ramzan. The Kashmir Walla spoke to him about his detention period and journalism in Kashmir.
Where were you lodged after the arrest? When and how did you come to know about the PSA against you?
I was summoned to the police station on 27 July in connection with a story regarding the heightened troop deployment and movement and a thread of tweet on the same. Later, I was questioned for three consecutive days for my other tweets and the financial aspect of my news-website, The Kashmiriyat. After two days, I was shifted to Central Jail [Srinagar].
On 8 August, I was told that I was detained under the PSA and got the dossier.
Where were you on 5 August and how did you come to know about abrogation of the special status?
I was detained at a local police station in Sher Bagh, Anantnag. I recall the total chaos in the police station — nobody slept on the night of 4 August. I saw policemen locking up more people that they presumably arrested that night. Next morning was more chaotic.
I was angry. I was worried. As a Kashmiri, I think no one knew exactly how to express himself or the feelings. But only one thing was certain: it was unbelievable.
Who was the last person you spoke to before communications were snapped? What did you talk — anything specific that you remember?
I spoke to my friend Fahad Shah and we spoke regarding our work. We spoke of various challenges to the media fraternity in Kashmir and the possible ways to cure the ill.
When were you moved outside Kashmir? Did the thought of going away scare you?
On the morning of 9 August, we were flown outside in a military aircraft. I didn’t know where we were being taken. In the plane, the only thing I could see were unknown faces.
A young boy from Kupwara was sitting next to me. We knew we had nothing more to lose, so we started reciting poems. He had a really nice voice. Better than me. We recited Hum Dekhenge of Faiz [Ahmed Faiz]. There were policemen guarding us and the plane was very loud. We recited louder.
Your family wasn’t able to trace you for several weeks after your arrest. Did you ask authorities to facilitate communication?
I was locked up in Bareilly District Jail [in Uttar Pradesh]. And mashallah, I had faith in J-K police that they won’t tell my family of my whereabouts.
I tried tooth and nail to speak to my family — my mother, but I was disallowed.
What was your cell like?
That cell haunts every breath of yours. It was a cage. And it did to me what a cage does to the bird.
How often were you reminded of your identity as a journalist?
At times I was aware of my identity as a journalist and at times I wasn’t. As a journalist, I couldn’t see policemen guarding me deprived of facts in the context of Kashmir. They had many notions. And I was reminded of my job to tell them facts.
But that also provoked me: being a journalist locked up with all sorts of criminals.
However, when I would hear other prisoner’s accounts, their pains and sufferings — I would forget about mine.
Were you able to read and write?
Stationary was disallowed. I was really craving to write a word. I used to beg policemen to give me a pen — I would beg to just write my name and return it. They won’t give me.
I sat on a hunger strike demanding a pen and a paper — they didn’t give me that but allowed books. And I went on to read a vast deal of literature, including [Sigmund] Frued, George Elliot, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, [Mirza] Ghalib, and others.
When was the first time you got to speak to any familiar voice after your detention?
In the jail, all I saw the whole day were bars. On all of my sides. So, when I was told after fifty-seven days in imprisonment that someone had come to meet me, I felt like a blind could finally see all the colors.
It felt beautiful. Won’t it? It was beautiful.
I had to cross four gates before reaching them. And they were crying. I couldn’t have displayed the weakness; I told them, “Koi tension nahi, Sab theek hai.” (Don’t worry. Everything is fine) I lied that we play cricket and stuff.
Were there any nightmares?
Yes, one was recurrent: some ghosts haunted me, it was like they were constantly snatching books and pens from me.
Did you make friends inside? Are you planning to write to anyone of them?
Yes, I made many friends, who are mostly lower-caste Hindu policemen. I plan to be in touch with them, but let’s see. And one thing that connected us was their wrong notion of Kashmiris as terror-sympathizers.
I was successful in abolishing that notion. During my release, they walked me to the gate and told me that if they would come to Kashmir – I had to host them. I told them that I would love to.
Since communications were snapped in Kashmir while you were in jail, did you try to write to anyone and did anyone write to you?
Yes, I tried writing to my friend who was a classmate in Bangalore. I managed to write letters to Fahad but the letters never reached him. I didn’t receive any letter either because we were not allowed to receive letters.
Did you bring anything from the jail?
I didn’t change clothes for the first fifty-seven days. I had no clothes — I had left my home in a t-shirt and pajama. I washed and re-washed the same t-shirt. By the time I got new ones, my t-shirt had 119 holes.
When I was released, I walked out of the jail in the same t-shirt. I wanted to tell everyone in the world what they did to me. It was a story of subjugation. And it is not just me — there are many more still locked up.
I brought that t-shirt with me.
You must be following the recent charges against Kashmiri journalists by the police. What do you think of that?
I feel the government wants to create an image of good and bad journalism. Then they will divide the media fraternity in Kashmir — one would get advantages and others won’t.
These FIRs and arrests, including my imprisonment, are just like small threads. Ultimately it will become a web, and we’ll get stuck into it like insects. Before the web gets strong — we need to speak against it.
Young journalists in Kashmir are scared to death after a senior journalist like Gowhar Geelani was booked. As responsible journalists, we should raise our voice. It has to be called out. In India, the media is denied space. The government is trapping journalistic freedom.
(Yashraj Sharma is an Assistant Editor at The Kashmir Walla).