I have been thinking about writing this story from a little over a year now. The story is not about any disaster or any tragedy but one of the harsh experiences till now in my life. The assault I faced in Kashmir, where I live, which is my homeland and where I perform my professional duty.
I am a photo-journalist from Indian Kashmir. Photojournalists have worked in dangerous places like the war-torn Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Palestine and other countries and Kashmir is no different. Kashmir, which is one of the world’s heaviest militarized zone, has witnessed an armed insurgency since late 1980s, the civil uprisings in 2008 and 2010. The press here has been a silent causality whether it is an armed insurgency or mass civil uprising. Sometimes you are forced to report contrary to the facts; freedom of press is curbed and media-men are often beaten, assaulted, detained without any charge. This is the place, where I work. I have been telling stories of others through photographs, but here I won’t do that. I will tell my own story, that unfolded on November 25, last year.
It was a usual cloudy winter morning. Everything around seemed dull and devoid of life as I set about from my home for the press enclave in the summer capital Srinagar. Perhaps, the only thing unusual about that day was that it was a Friday and it was a shutdown called by a resistance group against the detention of minors. As I left home, roads presented a deserted look while traffic scarily plied.
Soon, I was at the enclave which hosts most of the offices of news and media organizations. The area is usually a hub of activities; the unheard voices of protest often assemble here to be heard as the press people take note and report. But that day it was calm. No protest by people or any organization. It was an unusual calm. As the time went by, I offered Friday congregational prayers in a Mosque situated nearby, and after completing my prayers; I went to Maisuma and clicked some shots of shutdown.
I returned to the enclave along with my friends to sip a cup of tea at a popular stall. We were a group of people siting and enjoying the tea over heated discussions about shutdowns when a phone rang. The person calling informed as that massive stone pelting clashes had erupted in parts of the Old City- considered to be a bastion of anti-government protests. I, quickly along with a colleague left to Saraf Kadal- an Old City locality to cover. We went on a motorcycle and reached there at 3:25 PM. There were heavy clashes going on between stone throwing youth and government forces. We parked our motorcycle and started to capture the clashes. There was chaos. For a moment I was unable to understand. The police and paramilitary had surrounded the stone throwing youth from every side and they started to run for safety. I was clicking from the side of forces.
Suddenly some paramilitary personnel came and started beating me with bamboo sticks. They kicked me with their jackboots, assaulted me with gun-butts. One of the men among them broke my head with a brick. My head started bleeding. As I was being thrashed and assaulted by them, top police officials arrived and they started abusing photo-journalists.
“Now you will see what Nowhatta police station means,” said one of the officials, in an angry voice. I was taken to the Police Station along with minor stone throwers in an armored police vehicle. On that day 53 youths were arrested.
I was thinking within myself that what is the reason behind my detention? And instantly the answer came into my mind. Before a month, I had taken photographs of minors, who were arrested by police on charges of stone throwing. They were presented in a court while handcuffed. I did my professional job by clicking there pictures, which had apparently irked police officials and from that day I was threatened of dire consequences.
When I reached the police station, a top police official asked, “What is your profession,” I answered, “I am a photo journalist.”
“What is your name?” he questioned.
I replied “My name is Shahid Tantray”.
As I told him my name, he became aghast. He went into his room and took out batons and started beating me. He broke my camera and its lenses.
Shahid being detained on this day last year.
“Now you will click the photographs of minors”, he said in a loud angry voice after breaking my camera. They snatched my mobile phone, wallet, belt and other articles. An officer of paramilitary came and said “You people want Azadi (Freedom)?”
I replied “yes I want Azadi in my work and profession’. He asked, “What do you do?
I replied “I am a photojournalist”.
After my reply, he went back in a state of sadness.
My condition was bad. I was unable to stand on my legs because. I had never experienced the kind of situation, which I faced that day. I was in a lock up along with other detainees, mainly minor stone throwers.
One of stone thrower shared tea with me, which his family had brought. I was taking sip from the tea but my ankle and neck was paining. It was unbearable, blood was oozing from my head. I was amazed with the courage of minor boys who were detained there. They were in a same condition. They too were beaten and kicked by police and paramilitary. The blood was oozing from their bodies as well. But these boys were encouraging me; they cleaned the blood on my face and head. They lifted me and put blankets on me. They all were serving me like a guest. I prayed for them.
At 8:15 P.M, a policeman came and said, “Whoever is injured, we will take them to hospital situated in police control room,” while addressing boys who were in lock-up which included me.
A police officer came, he had a long beard and when I saw him, I thought he is will be a good person and will offer sympathy but I was wrong. He ordered his men to handcuff us all.
They handcuffed, and I told the police official, “I am not a criminal. I am a journalist, I have not been booked under article 302 (under 302 one is booked for murder)”. But my words were unbearable to them. The policeman who was standing with him dragged me into a vehicle. He started abusing me and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. It was strange like as if I was an activist of Geelani’s party. I was taken to police control room for treatment. I was given medical treatment. Doctors ordered cops to open my cuffs. They said that he is injured and has multiple injuries.
Then, I was again handcuffed and taken back to the police station. The minor boys were also taken to police control room for the treatment. Their parents had come to see them, but they were detained by police and minor boys were freed. I pleaded to the father of a minor boy for cell phone so that I could contact someone. I called my friend, who said he was coming to get me out.
At 10:25 PM, my friend came. Before his arrival, I was feeling alone,strange and helpless. But as I saw him, the feelings instantly vanished. The top police official told him “you can take him”. I asked for my camera and was given a broken camera and lenses. The official said “you can take, this is your camera”. I told him that it was broken. He replied “Sahab was angry and now take this”. I didn’t agree. I told them that when I was brought to the police station my camera was fine. I want my camera. He replied: “If you want your camera, then you must leave your phone, wallet and other articles here.”
My friend told me to leave these things here and leave.
He then took me for treatment to Bone and Joint hospital, Barzulla, and doctors detected fracture in my neck and ankle. An iron nail was stuck in my right elbow. The nurse told doctor: “Doctor saeb he has puncture.” I was alarmed and asked what was a ‘puncture’?
He said: “It is a medical term we use when there is a hole on someone’s body”. They treated me and then I was shifted for SKIMS hospital till 11.30 PM. Next day, I was discharged from the hospital but I was bed-ridden for a month.
When police broke my professional equipment and other articles, I approached a top police official who assured in return for due compensation and informed that the camera was seized under section 525 and would release after the orders of Tehsildar (magistrate). “You can also claim the benefits of insurance as well”, the official informed and I replied I don’t need compensation I need my camera.
Earlier, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had promised to probe the matter. He, in his speech at Jammu had asked media persons to adopt the uniform code as would help the government forces to differentiate between protesters and media persons. Police, when they attacked me, knew I was a journalist but they still broke my professional equipment and assaulted me.
After what happened, only this thought kept revolving in my mind, what am I? Why was I beaten? Hard to answer, for months I kept thinking. But, only after getting thrashed without any reason I am now aware of what my job is? I now knows who I am?
Yes, I don’t tell stories but as they say a picture is worth a thousand words.