In Bareilly jail, I was the guardian of all Kashmiris, says journalist Qazi Shibli after 9 months of detention under PSA
On 25 April, Qazi Shibli, a south Kashmir-based journalist and editor, returned home after nine month in a prison in Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly
On 25 April, Qazi Shibli, a south Kashmir-based journalist and editor, returned home after nine month in a prison in Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly. It was also the first day of the holy month of Ramzan, bringing much needed joy to the family and to the 28-year-old himself.
Shibli, who runs online news portal The Kashmiriyat, says that he was summoned by a local police station on 27 July last year, after he reported, and later tweeted, a leaked government order on additional troop buildup in the Valley.
The questioning continued for four days, explains Shibli on his website, "I was in the police station and my family was assured that I would be released on [4 August]," he says, "However, then the abrogation [of Article 370] happened, communications were snapped and the rest is history." On 8 August, he was booked under the Public Safety Act and later lodged in a jail hundreds of kilometres away from his home, like hundreds of other Kashmiris — he was among the 412 others also booked under the draconian law.
His PSA charges were revoked on 13 April in an effort to decongest the jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.
His release comes on the heels of news of two Kashmiri journalists — Gowhar Geelani and Masrat Zahra — being booked under the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Committee to Protect Journalists that had reported on Shibli's detention and run a campaign for charges against him to be dropped, welcomed his release and called on authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to release award-winning journalist Asif Sultan and put a stop to the misuse of laws to target journalists.
Following his release, Shibli spoke to this journalist about his ordeal, the future of journalism in the Valley and more. Edited excerpts of the interview follow:
Why were you jailed?
Journalistic freedom in India, especially after the BJP came to power in 2014, has been shrinking a great deal. There are many cases like those of Gauri Lankesh and Prasoon Bajpai — whose journalistic freedom was curtailed. In fact, Gauri was killed for her brave journalism.
You are not given any space or grey areas. The government wants us to follow a certain path and tells us to do only one type of journalism.
How did you react after you learned about the PSA against you?
I have done many stories on the PSA and tried to understand what the Act is all about. So, I always had a sense of watching developments from the outside; however, being booked under the PSA gave me a much better idea of the Act from the inside.
I felt very strange. I couldn't believe I had been booked under the PSA. Initially, I had tears in my eyes, but then there was a minor with me and he was smiling. That's when I felt embarrassed that this kid was smiling and I was crying, so I thought it was best to face whatever has to come.
There was a despair that till the previous day I was writing stories about the PSA, but now, I was being detained under the same Act. But that kid brought me out of the despair.
When were you shifted to the Uttar Pradesh jail?
On the morning of 9 August last year, we were taken to Srinagar airport and we had no idea about where we were being taken. For the first two months, we weren't even told where we were lodged. [Later we learned] it was Bareilly District Jail.
Your imprisonment came at a time when communication was snapped in Kashmir.
My family members did not know where I had been taken; they had come with lunch to the police station and were told that I wasn't there. It was a time when you wanted to call people and seek help, but that was not happening. And the biggest concern was about how the families would know [of our whereabouts], because is the first thing that comes to your mind during these times.
How difficult was it for your family to come to terms with you being jailed for nine months?
To be honest, I cannot tell you how they coped, because only the one who gets burnt feels the pain. However, inside the jail, I knew that the local police would not have told them about my whereabouts, otherwise my family would have travelled to meet me. Since no one turned up, I understood that the police must not have told them.
When was the first time someone familiar came to meet you?
It was after 57 days in the jail when I got to see my brother and sister. That was the first time that I was able to see and meet someone familiar; it was a surreal experience.
How did you spend your time in jail?
I understood the need to be a guardian of all Kashmiris who were with me, as I saw a lot of worried faces. 'Worried' is an understatement. This feeling came right after we had boarded the flight from Srinagar. And it was inside that air force plane that, despite the loud sounds, we sang the Nazms of Faiz, and that helped people a bit.
Describe your cell/jail?
It was a high-security prison. Nobody was allowed either out of their own cell or inside one another's cells. I was in solitary confinement. Twice every day, for a half hour, we were allowed out. Everything was scrutinised.
Initially, voices from outside and from the distance were very haunting. And then there would be silence again, which was even more haunting. There was this curiosity to see the origin of those voices.
All the walls and bars were white. White used to be my favourite colour, but I was so tired of it that I wanted to see something other than white, and it was three months later that my clothes arrived and I finally saw something that was not white.
Also, you could not even see other prisoners. I spent my time imagining the good times, like my college days in Bengaluru or being with my family. And then you open your eyes and you are in the same jail. That cell again starts haunting you.
Were you able to read or write inside jail?
I started reading only after eight days. I had a book by Noam Chomsky and some books by other authors, but they took them away, as they did not allow printed books there. So I sat on hunger strike for two days, following which I was given books. The jail authorities were actually very good and I was later given access to a lot of literature, including some in Hindi.
However, a pen was something I was never allowed, and whenever the police came to me, I would literally beg them to give me a pen. What made it worse was that those cops always carried pens, but I was never given one. It was after three months that I got to touch a pen for the first time.
Did being a journalist help inside the jail?
Yes, it was helpful, because there was a general notion among inmates — that is created by the national media — of Kashmiris being negative. So much so that even a civilian killing in Kashmir is not condemned by people in India.
As a journalist, I had a bit of an idea of how things are in India and how the national media portrays us. Also I had some knowledge about caste politics and politics in general, so this helped me to connect with them in terms of local issues.
And among them the biggest misconception was about Kashmir, so as a journalist I was, to an extent, able to dispel those myths about us. That was evident by the fact that when we reached there, many people were scared of us and there was a special force to manage us. As they did not know about us, there were many assumptions. But when we left, many policemen escorted me and told me that they would visit Kashmir and love to be hosted by me. I can say that, to an extent, I was able to cure the ill of indoctrination.
What kept you going when inside the jail?
For a long time, I thought I was dreaming but there were people who had more haunting stories than me inside the jail. For example, one man was to be married two days after his arrest, and yet, he was jailed. Another man, in his 60s had married late in his life and had little children to look after. Such stories made me stronger.
Then I realised that I had to put on a brave face, as these guys would always cry. And I thought it was my job to keep them motivated and, in fact, alive. That was my first priority, because we were in social isolation for nine months.
People are maintaining social distancing now, however we have been maintaining it for over nine months now.
Tell us about your health, especially your mental health?
My health was fine till the onset of winter, however after winter came, my leg started to hurt and that's something I have carried with me till now. I had just one pair of trousers, a T-shirt and a Rs 10 note in my pocket. I had worn that shirt for 52 days, and when I came out, I counted that it had 119 holes.
My mental health was very much intact, because I was reading a lot, and when I was tired of reading, I would sing a lot and then others would join from their cells. We would usually sing Faiz and many Kashmiri songs. And the policemen would enjoy it. Music was a panacea for affliction. Also music helped bridge the gap with the authorities, and many times we were told, "Aap bhi hamari tarah ho, aap bhi hamare gaane gaate ho (you are also like us, you also sing our songs)."
I had developed a technique to prevent my mental energy from draining. In such places, you don't want your mental strength to drain. I read a lot of Munshi Prem Chand and that's what I would read for people there. Faiz and Chomsky were not allowed though.
Two of your colleagues have been booked under UAPA; what do you make of that?
It is very drastic and unfortunate that such major journalists have been targeted. If journalists like Gowhar Geelani have been targeted, what will happen to minor ones like us? But there is a pattern in this. It is not happening only in Kashmir, journalists like Gauri Lankesh have been targeted in other parts of India.
The State does not want to provide any space for what they call "bad journalism". It doesn't want to provide space for facts.
So how do you see it affecting other journalists?
It will, of course, affect others. There is a feeling of fear that we might be targeted. There is a line that has been drawn to ensure you can only report certain things. It is very unfortunate though that your journalistic freedom is being taken away and you are being scrutinised. Even your social media space is being scrutinised.
Tell us about your plans for the future. Will you restart The Kashmiriyat?
We will start working afresh soon. The web portal will also resume in a very professional and ethical manner. We will be better than what we were. We will carry on with the journalism on which we have focussed.
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