I belong to the Sopore area in Jammu and Kashmir, the place where the first-ever gunshot in Kashmir was fired. It was 2013 and there were continuous encounters and firing all over the place. It was a funeral ceremony and some leaders were also attending the event. As we marched to the next town, we saw that the people were crying and protests were getting aggressive. The situation was really getting out of hand. We all started running towards our home. That's when I saw two people on the top floor of a building with something in their hands which I had never seen before. I asked my cousin about who they were and what were they doing? He told me that they were journalists and they were recording the events which would be telecast on TV later in the evening. I was eager to know what they had captured. So I walked home fast. There was only one television in our entire village, I went to their house and sat for hours watching the news with an expectation to see us on the television. Before that, I had never been interested in the news or TV. Unfortunately, the events were not telecast. That day something in me got attracted to this activity (which I later came to know as journalism) because I had never seen such a thing in Sopore before. I had never seen any journalist there before that day.
One of my cousins had a camera phone and I used to take his phone and click pictures of anything I felt was newsworthy. I loved doing it and kept on clicking pictures. Later, my father bought a camera phone so I started clicking pictures regularly. By 2014, I had started getting interested in newspapers and the news overall. I was in 12th standard then. I saw a few email ids on the front page of a newspaper. I started emailing them pictures of all the latest happenings that I had captured and one of the most leading newspapers of our region “Greater Kashmir” published my picture on the front page of their newspaper with my name credit. I was shocked and proud. That's when things started changing for me.
I was informed if any protests were organized so that I could capture the same. People started trusting me. The Armed Forces and the Militants started knowing me which was quite a big deal.
After my 12th, I went to Delhi to learn photography and started attending photojournalism workshops regularly. When I came back from Delhi, I started working with the newspaper Greater Kashmir but they didn’t pay me a single penny for a year but I kept working with them due to my passion for journalism. People started knowing me for my work and they trusted me with their information and that was more important for me than the money.
Talking about protests, there is a huge difference between Delhi and Kashmir. I have covered the protests in both the places. The number of protestors might be more in Delhi but the intensity of a protest is much higher in Kashmir. Things get more serious there. In Delhi, authorities use water to stop people and in Kashmir, a protest never stops unless gunshots are fired.
My family had to go through a lot because of me. They have received many threats from time to time. I have never done anything other than telling the truth but my journalism has affected them.
There are times like these where I think of quitting journalism but the amount of trust people have in me keeps me going. Whenever people get to know about any encounter, my phone never stops ringing. People call me to ask if someone they know is among the militants or not? I cannot answer every single call because sometimes I don’t know who is a part of such encounters. In one such funeral of those killed in an encounter, people came and started beating me for not telling them that their family members were a part of it. Weird things like this keep happening to me from time to time, I have been beaten up by both the authorities and the Citizens. My camera has been broken by people several times. Many Kashmiris also appreciate me for my work and the challenges that I go through.
The most important thing for me is to be mentally strong and be motivated to work every day. There were a lot of times when I thought I should leave journalism and pursue a safer career option but the trust that number of people have bestowed in me, fills me with all the positive vibes to work. They do not go for mainstream media. They wait for my posts for the news updates. I have been forced many times to close my social media handles but I keep coming back because of my audience. Whenever people get any information about an encounter, they call to ask me about the correct updates even when the same news is also telecast on television. That’s what helps me keep coming back and now I have realized that this is who I am and this is who I’m gonna be for a long long time.
The morning of the day when article 370 was passed, every single mode of communication was closed by the government. People had no idea what was happening, my family told me not to go out because there were police patrolling, army patrolling all around. Everyone was scared. I finally went out of my house and had to walk 10kms to the town to find out exactly what happened. I went to a newspaper agency office and got to know that an update about Kashmir was to be released at 11 am that day. Within a few hours of the announcement, there were police all around and nobody was allowed to go out. The whole of Kashmir was shut down. I took the risk and went out. It was the harvest season of apples which is the main source of income for many people in my town. We have Asia’s 2nd largest Wholesale Apple Market. They were crying as the entire harvest would get destroyed. I decided to cover that story. I went to Srinagar in an ambulance and got my plane ticket to Delhi. When I reached my flight, there were only 3 passengers on the whole plane. I reached Delhi and went straight to the news office that I was working for, then. When the video went live, I started getting calls from the police, stating that I was fabricating fake videos. I was forced to write and submit fake testimonials to that effect for fear of my life. Around that time, I went live on Instagram. I shared everything about what was happening there. Later that week, I posted on my story that I will be going to Kashmir for 5 days and come back to Delhi. As I posted that story, I have received thousands of messages on my Instagram from people (mostly students) whose families were in Kashmir. I saved those messages on my Instagram and when I went back I went door to door as a postman to tell them about the well-being of their families/children. I made videos and shared them with both sides as I was the only mode of communication between them. I couldn’t meet everyone’s families but I met as many as I could.
I traveled to and FRO from Kashmir to Delhi 16 times in just 3 months. I had to keep all my memory cards hidden in my shoes as they were thoroughly checking my pockets and bags. People who were in touch with me knew how much I was struggling during that time with the only motive to share the news and help people communicate with their families.
Police and Army were more cooperative during the pandemic. I was the only one to cover the last army funeral in Kashmir and also the only person who covered the 1st covid death of Kashmir.
I haven’t spent a whole day with my family in the last 2 years. I haven’t had a single day off from my work. Initially, my family used to worry about me but they are used to it now. As a journalist, you don’t have a personal life. I keep staying at shoot locations or somewhere near it and I am accustomed to this lifestyle. Whenever I had a relationship, the only reason for breakups was time. I remember that once I was in a hurry as I was going to cover an encounter and was talking to my girlfriend, I cut the call in a hurry and later when I called her back she was mad at me because I didn’t say I love you too before cutting the call. I kind of laughed and felt sad at the same time but these are the things that keep my life interesting and different from regular people.
If you are a journalist or aspiring to be one, try not to make mistakes as many people have an eye on you and they just wait for you to make a mistake. I have been there. I have got a lot of threats but I have never lost hope. Always keep in touch with your community members and people who motivate you. There will be people who will let you down or get jealous of you. I suggest you keep up with your work, focus on the good and keep moving. Good luck to you all.
- Junaid Bhat