Qazi Shibli was at his home on 27 July 2019 when Jammu and Kashmir police summoned him to the station in Anantnag for questioning regarding his tweets about a government order of additional troop movement in Kashmir, as well as a story he’d published on his news website, The Kashmiriyat. He left home with a few hundred bucks and in pajamas; Shibli didn’t know that it would be nine months before he could return home.
On August 5th, a week after he was detained, the central government clamped down in Kashmir and broke the former state into two federally-governed territories, put strict restrictions on civilian movement and snapped all lines of communication.
In late August, Shibli’s younger brother told me that he feared, since prison space was running short in Kashmir during the crackdown, that Qazi might be flown outside. That summer, the government had booked at least 412 people under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), Qazi Shibli being one of them.
In December, TIME magazine listed Shibli on the fifth spot in “10 ‘Most Urgent’ Threats to Press Freedom.” The Committee to Protect Journalists also reported on Shibli’s detention, and ran an online campaign for the withdrawal of charges against him.
Today, on World Press Freedom Day, Reporters Without Borders issued its annual press freedom rankings; India dropped two places, standing at 142nd out of 180 countries in the world according to the level of freedom available to journalists.
Last week, the J-K police booked two journalists under India’s anti-terror law. Police claimed Masrat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani’s posts on social media were “anti-national.” The police also filed a First Information Report (FIR) against a story published in The Hindu, reported by Peerzada Ashiq. Asif Sultan, who was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act—the same law as Zahra and Geelani—has been in detention for more than 20 months,.
Shibli’s PSA charge, however, was revoked on 13 April. After nearly nine months’ detention, 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 charges 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 series of tweets on the same subject. Later, I was questioned for three consecutive days about my tweets and about the financial aspects 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 the 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, whom they’d presumably arrested that night. The next morning was even more chaotic.
I was angry. I was worried. As a Kashmiri, I think no one knew exactly how to express himself. Only one thing was certain: it was unbelievable.
Who was the last person you spoke to before communications were snapped? What did you talk about?
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 ills.
When were you moved outside Kashmir, did the thought of going away scare you?
On the morning of 9 August, we were flown out in a military aircraft. I didn’t know where we were being taken. In the plane, I could see only 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 wouldn’t tell my family of my whereabouts.
I fought tooth and nail to speak to my family—my mother—but I was denied.
What was your cell like?
That cell haunts your every breath. 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 prisoners’ accounts, their pain and suffering, I would forget about my own.
Were you able to read and write?
Stationery was forbidden. I was really craving to write, and would beg policemen to give me a pen—I would beg to just write my name and return it. They denied me.
I went on a hunger strike, demanding pen and paper—which they didn’t give me. But I was allowed books. I read a lot: Freud, George Eliot, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, [Mirza] Ghalib, and others.
When was the first time you got to speak to any familiar voice after your detention?
When I was told after fifty-seven days in imprisonment that someone had come to meet me, I felt like a blind man who could finally see all the colors.
It felt beautiful. Wouldn’t it? It was beautiful.
I had to cross four gates before reaching them. And they were crying. I couldn’t show weakness; I told them, “Koi tension nahi, Sab theek hai.” (Don’t worry. Everything is fine.) I lied that we played cricket and stuff.
Were there any nightmares?
Yes, and one was recurrent: 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 them?
Yes, I made many friends, mostly Hindu policemen. I plan to stay in touch with them, but we’ll see. 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 came 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 they never reached him. We were not allowed to receive letters.
Did you bring anything from 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 pajamas. I washed and re-washed the same t-shirt. By the time I got new clothes, my t-shirt had 119 holes. When I was released, I walked out of the jail in that same t-shirt.
You must be following the recent charges against Kashmiri journalists by the police. What do you think of that?
The government wants to create an image of good and bad journalism. Then they will divide the media fraternity in Kashmir—one group would get advantages, and the 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 in it like insects. Before the web gets strong—we need to speak out 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 voices. It has to be called out. In India, the media is denied space. The government is suffocating journalistic freedom.
Published by arrangement with The Kashmir Walla.