On the night of January 21, 1990, over two dozen unarmed civilian demonstrators were shot dead by Indian paramilitary forces during mass protests in Srinagar, inflaming separatist passions across the Valley and transforming Kashmir’s fledgling independence movement into a popular armed struggle practically overnight. After a stint as a journalist in India and abroad I returned home to find a living hell. Gone were the days when I could retreat to verdant side valleys and spend idyllic days with friends and family. The common man had become a suspect with soldiers licensed to shoot on suspicion. Summing up the pervasive paranoia, graffiti on a makeshift paramilitary force camp near my home made my mind wobble. It read, "Respect all, suspect all."
By the mid-90’s journalism had become a dangerous business and as Kashmir slipped further into chaos so did its media. News content was regularly replaced by rival statements and over a dozen local newspapers were reduced to propaganda tools by the conflicting sides. The Indian government attempted to lure Delhi-based media to fill the vacuum, tarring Kashmiri publications as ‘broadsheets of militancy,’ perhaps because over three dozen separatist and government-backed armed groups prodded these newspapers to highlight their activities, preferably on the front page.
Living and working in a place US President Bill Clinton called "the most dangerous place on earth," journalists in Kashmir became a closely knit lot. We would often gather to share gossip and discuss our work, weighing the risks involved in following a particular story or lamenting a lack of interest in the more powerful and controversial stories on the part of the mainstream Indian media, where ‘national interest’ was paramount. During one such meeting in late 1997 a few colleagues and I conceived the idea of creating a new English daily, one that would cater both to a nervous population hungry for the latest information and, via the Internet, to the rest of the world. News was the Valley’s most saleable commodity, and the people craved a real newspaper, one they could trust to deliver the news as it happened and opinion free from separatist and state influence. Worried colleagues discouraged me, arguing that armed groups that disliked an article or news report would straight-a-way issue a death threat rather than pen a thoughtful letter to the editor. They made a good point, but we wanted to buck the trend. So several of my colleagues, acknowledged names in the field, joined hands, and after some initial hiccups Kashmir Observer hit the stands on March 2, 1998. It was an instant hit.
We devised several methods to avoid the ire of armed groups. We announced in the inaugural issue that we would adhere strictly to hard news and relegate statements and press releases to interior pages. We re-started the trend of editorial writing, which others had given up since they found it safer to keep their opinions to themselves. When we splashed the front page with a banner picture of hard-line Hindu leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee after he became India’s first prime minister to head a right-wing government, we were flooded with calls, most of them threatening violence for such blatant "Indian-izing" of the Kashmiri media. The same news had received a single column in the largest vernacular daily. Fearing for their lives, many employees departed in those first few months. Thankfully, the threats never translated into action, and a positive popular response encouraged others to stay onboard.
But our problems had just begun. On 30th Oct 2001, for instance, a source called with news of a confrontation and I began jotting down the names of the deceased, which included one of our staff, a man in charge of distribution. Work at the paper did not stop, however, and the next day with tearful eyes we went from distributing the paper straight to his funeral. Lack of resources in terms of men and material are proving to be the Achilles heel of the Kashmir press; as journalism holds little promise and other opportunities appear, talented people are slipping away, often out of the state. The lone printing house caters to the needs of over 20 newspapers and is owned by the ruling political party, which loves to play favorites. Umpteen times our work has gone to waste when officials, for imaginary or trivial reasons, halted the day’s printing. Besides the conflict-related turmoil we face the usual hurdles of Third World operations: regular power failures, unreliable Internet connectivity, newsprint shortages, cramped and cluttered office space, and aging computers and limited access to new technologies.
Ten years on the situation has eased somewhat but we have not been able to maintain financial stability. With an economy based on agriculture, Kashmir does not have a vibrant private sector and most newspapers depend on the advertising dollars of the government, which, more often than not, come with strings. Since falling in line means compromising our independence, we often refuse to do so, and as a result our paper has remained more modest than some of our competitors.
Next month Kashmir Observer will complete 11th year of publication. In that span we have navigated a sea of political instability, logistical nightmares and misplaced perceptions without the compass of proper training and adequate resources. Steadfast in the face of these considerable pressures, Kashmir Observer has in return earned a loyal readership and a reputation for integrity.