Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Srinagar: Sometime in August 2020, I was assigned a story by the editor of Article 14. I accepted and in the course of my research, I found that some active Twitter users, who often posted tweets about contentious issues in Kashmir, had gone quiet.
The facts were not new. The Kashmir Walla, a Kashmir-based website, had reported extensively on the issue, as had others, within and outside India (here and here). The facts were that the police had probed 300 social-media accounts, calling them a “cyber-bullying group”.
I tracked down some of these users, who on condition of anonymity said they had been questioned, hectored by police and left off only after promising not to issue posts against the government and its policies. The specific tweets the police objected to related to, the users said, the abrogation of Article 370—the constitutional provision that merged the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir with India—restriction on Internet use, now on for more than a year, and the recent killing of three alleged “terrorists”, whom the army has now acknowledged were porters.
In order to put the police version of events on record, I called the Superintendent of Police (SP) of the Cyber Wing, Tahir Ashraf Bhatii, for more than 11 minutes on 20 August after 5 pm.
The SP spoke politely and denied the claims of users summoned by his officers to Srinagar’s Cyber Police Station for “political tweets”.
"We are living in a democratic country, and people have every right to criticise the government and that is how democracy works,” said Bhatii, who I quoted extensively in the story.
I also spoke to politicians, one of them a retired judge and some lawyers. In short, I did whatever was required for a professionally and fairly reported news story, recording the views of everyone involved.
The story, with the headline, “The Real Cyber Bully: Police In Kashmir Question Twitter Users”, was published with a 2012 picture—with due credit from dailymail.co.uk—of what is popularly known as “Cargo”, a former police interrogation centre, which previously housed the cyber police.
There is only one picture of the cyber police station available on Google. Due to security reasons, it is impossible in Kashmir to take a picture of a police station.
My friends and colleagues called me after the story was published, warning me that the issue was sensitive to the police and I should stay alert. I made sure my editor carried the comments of the SP cyber prominently and in their entirety.
On 18 September at around 5 pm, I received a call from the Cyber Police Station. The caller confirmed my name and told me to be present at the Cyber Police Station the next day. When I asked why, he said it was about a story that I had written for Article 14. Since I was very satisfied that my previous work for the website was balanced and fair, I agreed, informing colleagues at the Kashmir Press Club and the editors of Article 14. The summons was verbal. There was nothing in writing.
The next day, with no fear, I traveled 66 km to Srinagar from my home in Bandipora. Two colleagues from the Kashmir Press Club were waiting for me near the Cargo centre in Srinagar. We went in but were informed that the Cyber Police Station was on the top floor of the Shergadi police station, a stone’s throw from the Cargo centre, which, however, contains within it the office of the SP of the cyber police.
We went to the Cyber Police Station, Shergadi, and at 11:15 am, I met the official who had verbally summoned me. He spoke politely. “This is the cyber police station,” he said. “You have wrongly reported that it’s in the Cargo Centre.” I told him most people did not know it had moved to Shergadi Police Station, including many of my Srinagar-based colleagues. He asked me to go to the Cargo Centre and meet SP Bhatii, who heads the cyber police and leads counterinsurgency operations in the Valley.
As we entered the Cargo Centre, our phones were taken. We were frisked and allowed in. We were asked to wait in a room. After some time, a policeman asked me to accompany him. My colleagues were told to wait in the room.
I was now anxious. I could feel something was wrong. As I started walking inside the corridor, my heart beat faster.
I prayed for my safety, as I approached a room, which was the SP’s. The accompanying policeman went inside.
I heard the sounds of boots approaching, and as I turned to see who it was, a masked policeman slapped me hard on my left cheek. He did sound like a local. “Kis liye aaya hai tu (why have you come?),” he demanded. Once I recovered from the shock of the slap, I said, “SP saab has called me.” He slapped me hard again and left.
It was the first time I had ever been hit. As I stood there in a fog of shock, I somehow and vaguely rationalised this assault as the cost of doing journalism in Kashmir. I was not the first to be intimidated. Others have had cases filed against them.
Another policeman told me to enter the SP’s room. I went inside shaken, with a hand on my still-stinging left cheek. The thought went over and over in my mind: “How could he do it to me?”
As I entered, SP Bhatii asked: “Who are you?”
I told him, slowly, “Mai Auqib hou, apane bulaya (I am Auqib, you called me).” He got up from his chair and said: “How could you write that cyber police are bullying people?” He demanded to know why I had used a picture of the Cargo center, when it was not the cyber police station, and why I had written a “concocted” story.
He started abusing my mother and sister and kept up the shouting. “Ab mai tujhe dikhavu ga saalay (Now I will teach you a lesson),” he said.
“Bulava city police ko (call the city police),” he told a policeman standing by the door.
I told SP Bhatii that the story was based on fact, but the picture and headline were not up to me but the editors.
''No, this is a fake and baseless story,” he said. “Kashmir is burning because of people like you who spread fake narratives.” He said I had maligned the image of the cyber police, and he threatened to book me under various sections of law.
I was in deep shock, still wondering what was going on. I recall remembering how absurd it would be for me to attempt maligning the image of the police—such a powerful institution in Kashmir.
I belong to a middle-class family. We never discuss Kashmir politics at home because my family prefers not to. I believed I had simply done my job as a journalist and written the story in the most balanced fashion, adhering to everything I had learned about good and fair journalism.
I felt myself starting to shiver, as the SP continued his verbal assault. I told him again that the story was fair and based on facts and that decisions about headline and photographs were taken by the editor.
“Call the editor right now,” said Bhatii, returning my phone to me.
Meanwhile, my two colleagues were called in. The SP told them what his problems with the story were. The conversation went on for about 20 minutes. My colleagues also told him that reporters had nothing to do with decisions about headlines and photographs.
I called Samar Halarnkar, editor and co-founder of Article 14. He spoke to the SP, and there appeared to be some argument over the story.
[Editor’s note: The SP first said the photo was wrong and photoshopped. He was told if there was a problem with the photo, we would be happy to correct ourselves and acknowledge the error. He then said the story was fake and my colleague had admitted it. He said this three times in the course of the conversation. While telling Bhatii that he had been quoted extensively in the story and that we would nevertheless be happy to carry what he perceived as fake, he hung up.]
After disconnecting the call with the editor, the SP said he was going to give us five minutes to decide about the story.
I told my colleagues it appeared he had issues with the headline, the photograph and the story saying the cyber police station was at the Cargo centre. There was no problem, I reiterated, with the story. They told me that they would stand by any decision I took.
I told Bhatii we would request the editor to change the heading and remove the picture of the Cargo centre. He demanded a note about the photo and the note tweeted from the Article 14 account. “Do it immediately,” he ordered.
I called the editor, who quickly put out the note and tweet about the photograph. He was reluctant about the headline change, but given my situation, he agreed. We refused to accept that the story itself was “fake and baseless”, as the SP insisted it was.
My phone was taken away by a policeman, with no reason given.
The SP then told me he had given his “blood and sweat to this institution” and he would not let anyone malign it.
I had no such intention, I said, and I apologised if he was hurt. I kept apologising in the course of the conversation to calm him. I was scared, and I could only think of getting out as soon as possible. My colleagues urged me to be strong.
After a five-hour ordeal, I was asked to sign a letter that my phone was returned to me. They took my press identity card, probably to get a photocopy, and returned it.
I noticed two white adhesive tapes on the front and back of my phone later and realised most apps were not opening. The whatsapp was now without a password, as was the phone. While I was at the police station, the policeman who took my phone asked me to show me the contact details of the SP in my address book, which I did. Later, I found the call record of my 20 August conversation with SP Bhatii deleted.
We were told to go to the Cyber Police Station again, and we met the same officer who had summoned me.
“It was really disappointing to see your story,” he said politely. “You should come, some day, and see how much we work for the people; then you will realise what you did.”
I said I had done nothing wrong. I had just done my job. We were allowed to go. It was around 4 pm.
The experience has left me traumatised, anxious and nervous. I was awake most of that night, haunted by the physical assault and their abuse.
Many of my friends suggested that I speak out immediately. I did not. For a while, I thought I would bury it within my heart and stay silent. But later, I realised my silence would set a precedent and embolden the police to treat other journalists similarly. So I write this, for myself and for my colleagues who often work on the razor’s edge that is journalism in Kashmir.
I know this will make the SP angry again, but I cannot live with the humiliation and the fact that I was pointlessly and illegally made a punching bag.
I want to ask the SP of the Cyber Police: under what law was I summoned, verbally abused and slapped? And what did it have to do with my mother and sister? I spoke to you and quoted you extensively. If you disagreed with any of it, you could have sent a rebuttal. Is that not how your relationship should be with the media?
I am uncertain about what will happen. I write this in great fear. I could be called in again, beaten or worse. Anything is possible in Kashmir. But I am certain about one thing: I stand by my story.
(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist.)