When Kashmiri journalist went to former torture centre for an ‘exclusive’

Hilal Mir

On rare occasions, a story itself lands in the lap of a reporter. Kashmiri journalist Naseer Ganai thought such an opportunity had come knocking at his door when a police officer called him to his office on February 8. Discreetly though, keeping in view the good rapport both shared.

So tempting was the expectation of an exclusive, which is to journalism what white truffles are to gastronomy, that Naseer hired an auto-rickshaw to reach his destination that otherwise is a walking distance from where he was.

That the call could have some other motive never crossed his mind. Neither was he alarmed by the fact that he had been called to Cargo, a police centre whose only rival in notoriety is a Gulag. (He had been there earlier once in connection with a story.)

Besides, Naseer’s reputation as an affable, non-controversial, hard-working professional journalist left little room for misgivings.

The thought of something was amiss, however, soon dawned on him when the guard at the gate ordered him to deposit his iPhone, but let him keep it after Naseer said the officer had called him.

After exchanging pleasantries, the officer, Tahir Ashraf, straightway told Naseer, “Why did you write this story?” The tone, Naseer said, was that of mildly peevish concern, not aggression.

Naseer had reworked a press release of the banned pro-independence organisation Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front into a routine news report that was published the same day by his organisation, Outlook, India’s preeminent newsmagazine.

“I slumped at this sudden twist. I sensed that my imaginary scoop was to be a police interrogation,” said Naseer, 45, who has 20 years’ experience in journalism.

In the run-up to August 5, thousands of people were arrested and jailed in prisons far away from their homes. Qazi Shibli, a journalist, was called to a police station on July 25 in Anantnag district. Only after more than a month did his family learn that he had been flown out of Kashmir to a jail in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He was released last week. Asif Sultan, a magazine journalist, was the first to be booked under a stringent anti-terror law. He is in jail since August 2018.

Since then several journalists have been questioned by counterinsurgency police—one was asked to reveal the source of his story—and about four beaten up while covering incidents.

Recently, international media watchdogs expressed outrage when journalists Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani were booked under an anti-terror law for social media posts. Another journalist, Peerzada Ashiq, was questioned about a story at a police station 50km away from his home.

Indian authorities have said no journalist is being targeted but have been questioned lawfully.

While Naseer was getting prepared for questioning, another journalist, Haroon Nabi stepped in. Haroon, who works for a local news agency and had been called, like Naseer, for questioning arrived a little later. On his WhatsApp group, most of whose members he said were government officials; he had merely copy-pasted the news/views what some Indian journalists and publications had published about the controversial press release.

From here, a slew of other officials of different ranks took over. Haroon showed them the screenshot of the post.

“They said ‘you are in Kashmir, they in Delhi. You shouldn’t have shared it,’ ” he said.

After their phones were taken away, Naseer and Haroon were subjected to a formatted interrogation by two officials in another room.

“I could see ‘militant/OGW’ written on the form on which they were noting down our replies,” said Naseer. Haroon concurred. 

The acronym OGW means ‘Over Ground Worker’, the police descriptor for a person who helps militants in logistics or other means. Of late, OGWs are being called as ‘militant associates’. Indian forces killed two such persons in the past 10 days reportedly during gunfights with insurgents.

By now flustered, Naseer and Haroon were asked to furnish these details—names, age, education, names of educational institutions they went to; siblings’ names, their spouses and addresses; parents’ names, their occupations; names and addresses and other details of aunts, uncles and cousins; name of spouse (Haroon is not married) and particulars of her family; passport details, bank account number, PAN number and Aadhaar (Unique Identification) card details; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin details (Haroon had to share username of a Facebook account he had deactivated); names of a few closest neighbours; phone numbers of fathers and brothers; illness, if any and details of property whose rough market value was calculated by the interrogators at the spot.

Though unprecedentedly exhaustive, Naseer said, the questioning appeared familiar because the CID had inventoried many journalists in the past by inquiring about some of these details in what was called the “BG (background) Note”. But what came next was shocking.

“They took our front and side mug shots. Not once but four times. It was like a blitz. People kept coming and took our photos. Each of them said they were from a different department and needed these for record,” said Naseer.

Then, an unexpected query.

“The policeman asked me ‘why are you here?’” said Naseer.

“I was tempted to believe they must be asking this in jest. But I quickly realised that this could be part of the interrogation. So I quickly said ‘because we had published JKLF’s press release,’” said Naseer.

Phones were returned and tea served. Relief finally? Not yet. Naseer was asked to switch on his laptop and open his mail account so that the policemen could see the source of the press release, or, as he quipped, to check “whether I didn’t manufacture it myself”.

Naseer called a few journalist friends who worked their rapport with higher police officials. After about five and a half hours later, Haroon and Naseer walked out.

Haroon is new to the chaotic world of Kashmiri journalism. Naseer has been its stoic citizen for 20 years, avoiding confrontation with the state and its men while maintaining a low profile. He once went to meet a bureaucrat who introduced him to a colleague, saying: “This is Naseer. Like me, he sometimes writes articles for Greater Kashmir.” Naseer had been averaging story a day for years at Kashmir’s largest newspaper, Greater Kashmir. The bureaucrat had contributed a few melodramatic articles.

His classmates at journalism school fondly recall an incident to emphasize his genial personality. During a study tour to the southern Indian city of Mysore, one of his classmates tricked him into keeping his eyes wide open for a close up shot. He was blinded for a couple of minutes when the classmate flashed camera into his eyes. He expressed his outrage at this dangerous prank thus: “If he thinks I can be treated like a dog, let him treat me like a dog.” More or less, his expression after the questioning had been the same.

His self-deprecatory wit has endeared him to all, from wily politicians, ex-university crushes and stern police officers. His favorite literary character is Prince Myshkin, a character in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Idiot.

Naseer  tendency to use humour even in his serious critiques of politicians and political developments of far-reaching consequences. By now, all his friends on social media know his cinema crush is a legendary Bengali actress of the 60s and 70s who has a penchant for romantic Urdu poetry. Until his dramatic interrogation, none of his stories had been rebutted.

That is why his Cargo treatment shocked journalists like never before. The gist of their concern being: “If it can happen to Naseer, who is safe?”

For Naseer, however, the episode was more than a professional hazard.

“Ominous calls from police or even arrest of journalists are nothing new in this place,” said Naseer, “What pained me the most was that they took my phone, briefly though, and scanned it in another room. A phone is a very personal thing. There are pictures of your spouse, kids, family. These are intimate things.”

“Once again I regretted choosing journalism as profession,” said Naseer.

He and Haroon do not know yet what became of the questioning. Have they been booked? A formal investigation has begun against the banned separatist organisation Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Although there is no specific provision related to the publication of press releases of a banned organisation, its other provisions could be invoked for the same and those convicted jailed for up to five years. Passport can also be impounded.

Naseer and Haroon have not figured out whether they are part of that investigation or a separate one? What do they stand accused of? TRT World’s attempts to know this didn’t fructify either but a police official said on the condition of anonymity that “FIRs (formal investigations) are usually for a formality. None has been arrested”.

Technically, TRT World learnt, an FIR (if any) has been registered at the Cyber Police Station but Naseer and Haroon were questioned at the Cargo because Tahir Ashraf heads both at present. So, a call to Cargo is to be construed as a call to the Cyber Police Station. But for journalists, who are intimately aware of Cargo’s history, this distinction makes little difference. Why does Cargo, an erstwhile air cargo warehouse, arouse revulsion? Stran-gely, Naseer’s story for the Daily Mail in February 2012 offers answers.

Headlined “Jammu and Kashmir torture hubs shed horror Cargo: Makeover for Sringar’s dreadful interrogation centres”, the story begins, “Cargo, Harinawas and Papa-2—words that frightened the heart out of Kashmiris during the height of insurgency in the mid-90s.”

It adds: “These were ‘open secret’ torture-houses run by the establishment where Kashmiri youth, and sometimes old men, were interrogated to force out information from their guts. Those who have managed to come out alive from Cargo, Harinawas and Papa-2, have narrated harrowing tales of third-degree torture—electric shocks to their genitals, big logs rolled over legs and being thrashed naked with oil-smeared bamboo sticks till their buttocks turned blue.”

When faced with many indignities of life in Kashmir, Naseer often says ‘waen kya karav’, the most common Kashmiri expression for helplessness, meaning ‘what can one do’.