Capturing Kashmir

A woman photojournalist navigates state and patriarchy in the Valley

Mysar was one among many women who sustained injuries during the protests in Kashmir’s Soura area on 30 August 2019. Soura has seen protests on every Friday since 5 August, when the central government abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
Elections 2024
02 September, 2019

On the morning of 5 August 2019, Masrat Zahra, a young Kashmiri photojournalist, woke up confused. Her phone was not working and the street outside her house looked eerily different. Soon, she learnt that the Narendra Modi-led union government had abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and split the state into two union territories. From that day till at least 30 August, Zahra went out almost every day to shoot in Kashmir to document the restrictions on movement and communication that the government had imposed, reactions to the move and its human cost. The photographs featured in the gallery are a selection of her work from this time.

In the last week of August, Zahra visited Delhi for a brief period of time to get her pictures published. During her visit, she spoke to Tanvi Mishra and Shahid Tantray, the creative director and the assistant photo editor of The Caravan, about being a woman photojournalist in Kashmir, and dealing with the shackles of state and patriarchy, especially since 5 August.

I have been working as a photojournalist in Kashmir for three years now. There are few women photojournalists in Kashmir. People react differently to seeing men and women cover the same clashes in Kashmir. The first time I went to cover clashes in Kashmir’s Jamia area on a Friday, a boy came up to me and said, “Didi, didi, aap chale jao, aapko lagegi”—please leave, you will get hurt. He added that it is a man’s job to cover such clashes. When I went back home, I wondered that if a woman can get wounded, can’t men get hurt too? Do men not bleed?

That was the first day that I saw pellets being fired and learnt how the smoke from tear-gas shelling chokes your breath. Even if you are far away, you can smell it and it makes you cough. Boys were pelting stones there. Since it was my first time covering such an event, I did not know on where I should stand to shoot. My journalist friends asked me to follow their steps—stand where they were standing, do what they were doing. The CRPF personnel were staring at me as if wondering, “Who is this girl in a hijaab with Kashmiri journalists?” At that time, my family did not know that I am going to cover such clashes.

Then I started going to these events alone. At funerals of militants, their corpse is kept on a stage. Only the male photographers have access to the stage, the women do not. We cannot take high angle shots. Some people try to unnecessarily direct you about where to go, from where to photograph. Some are sarcastic. They say, “Aa gayi ladki. Haan ladkon ne toh Azaadi laa di Kashmir mein. Ab ladkiyan layengi.” (The girl is here. The boys have brought freedom to Kashmir. Now girls will get it.) Some women are supportive though.

Once, I was taking pictures of a stone-pelting incident. A policeman suddenly came and asked me to leave. I showed him my identity card but he said he cannot accept it. I told him I am doing my work like he was doing his, but no one asked him to leave. He threatened to confiscate my camera if I did not leave.

My family did not allow me to pursue journalism at first. In Kashmir, the mentality is that women can only be doctors, teachers or run a boutique in their homes. In 2016, during the unrest in Kashmir that followed the death of the militant commander Burhan Wani, my teacher came home to convince my parents. He suggested we go visit another professor in my locality, Rashid Maqbool. He told my father: “She will have to cover clashes, go to encounter sites, stay out till late. She will get calls from her office to report in emergency cases. You need to understand that.”

My father agreed, but my mother became worried. She did not want me to do this work. My brother also did not want me to become a journalist. I just convinced them to let me study, saying that we could take a call later. In 2016, my brother had said I should not go to cover the unrest. The effect of his words remains at home. Now, when I am out working, my parents ask me to quit and say this work is not for women. A couple of months back, they forcefully snatched my camera bag from me. My brother is in Saudi Arabia. No one questions him about where he is and what time he will get home. I told them that I cannot keep giving them an explanation of where I am all the time. I told them that my brother is in a different country altogether, whereas I am always in Kashmir, my home. They keep saying, “You do not know what the society is saying.” I am not living for society. In my field, if I cannot do justice to myself, how can I do justice to others?

The restrictions at home have been the same since Article 370 was effectively abrogated. My family does not know that journalists are being detained this time, but they have an idea about how things work. My mother said, “Please don’t do anything like this.”

On 3 August, before the clamp down, I got an email asking me to submit my work for Journalists Under Fire, an exhibition in New York. Organised by United Photo Industries and St Ann’s Warehouse in collaboration with the Committee to Protect Journalists, the exhibition aims to highlight the work of visual journalists who have been killed or are living under threat for delivering news. I was very happy and excited as it is an international-level opportunity. They had asked me to send them a selection of images. The same day, I met journalists from a French magazine who had contacted me for an assignment with Real Kashmir FC, a sports magazine. They said that the team will arrive in the last week of August, and that they will let me know what I have to shoot. After that, the communications blackout was imposed. I was not able to communicate with either of them then.

On 5 August, I woke up at 4 am and saw that my phone was not working. I could not call anyone, so I went back to sleep. I was at a relative’s house at that time, which was located deep inside a lane and not on the main road. Generally, the police does not come to that area but that morning, there was no one on the streets and I could see police personnel.

I was confused. I was trying to figure out how to go out and work. I considered going to a friend’s house who lived nearby and ask him to accompany me. But then I thought he might have gone out already—I had no idea as I could not contact anyone. I told my aunt and uncle that I will go out to work. My relatives were taken aback by this demand. “How will we know you are safe? How will we contact you?” My aunt asked me. I told them I would come back early, but that I have to go.

Around 9–9.30 am, I went to shoot. The streets were completely deserted—I felt like it was 6 am instead and everyone was sleeping. Everything was shut. I reached the bus stop, and there were concertina wires spread out everywhere. Everything was barricaded. Paramilitary forces stopped me and asked where I was heading. I said, “Main patrakar hu, kaam karna hai”—I am a journalist, I have to work. They let me go. The second check post was around three hundred meters away. At one check post, they refused to let me go ahead. I insisted, again, that I am a journalist and I just want to do my job. I was alone. They could have locked me up and my family would not have gotten to know.

I had reached Nowhatta by then and made my way through the by-lanes instead of the main roads. Every visible gate had paramilitary personnel. Some of them came over to two–three women who were walking by, and rudely asked where they were going. I thought at that time that if the women were just walking and the personnel stopped them, what would they do with me? Then they stopped me. When I said I was a journalist, they said, “Oye, yahan pe koi patrakar-vatrakar nahi chalega”—no journalists will work here. “Go home,” they said.

I thought if I shot alone, the authorities could break my camera. I had no idea how they would react. Till I reached Lal Chowk, I did not even touch my camera. There I saw a few journalists. They said they had been there since around 4 am. The landlines were not working, and there was no chance of getting broadband or mobile internet. I wondered how we would file our photos and stories. But then I thought, I should shoot so it could be in my archive. We did not know then that they had effectively abrogated Article 370. But somehow, I could feel that this was big—that it would be big news tomorrow; that we had to document it.

The journalists said that the security personnel would not let us photograph them. They told me that earlier in the day the authorities had taken hold of a senior video journalist by his collar and detained him. Referring to a police official, they said, “He was very dangerous. He will break your camera, don’t go to his area.” We saw people from the Jammu and Kashmir Police with sticks in their hands. We discussed how they would defend themselves if something happened as they did not even have a gun.

We did not see many people from the national media around that day but over the next few days, many journalists from outside came in. It seemed those journalists were very special. They had outside-broadcasting vans that could directly transfer their reportage to their offices. Some of them were travelling in what looked like official government gypsies—maybe of MLAs or some high-level officials.

We were not allowed to go past the concertina wire near the Clock Tower at Lal Chowk. The journalists from national media not only had access, but it was as if everything was being telecast live. A local boy, who was passing by a television journalist when she was shooting her telecast there, shouted at her. “Why are you spreading your propaganda here? Why are you saying everything is normal? Can you see that things are normal? We have been under a lockdown for three days, why are you saying things are normal? You have been shooting in Civil Lines where one–two cars are moving,” the boy said. “Come to our home and shoot from there. Nothing is normal.” The journalist and her team wrapped up quickly and went to a different area in Civil Lines. They chose not to go to the interiors of Srinagar.

Despite there being some movement in Civil Lines, there were so many barricades in its areas such as Lal Chowk, Hyderpora and Jawahar Nagar. These areas were completely deserted. I had to walk there alone every day. Not one day, but every single day—from the first day of the blockade until at least the twentieth day.

Since 5 August, journalists have been working in groups because we do not know what is happening where. Earlier, we used to call up each other and keep each other informed about where a protest or any event was taking place. Now, we cannot do that. We have to wait for two–three hours, at times more, at one place. If something happens there, we can only cover that. We do not take journalists from the national media with us—our group is of local freelance and international journalists—as the Kashmiri people might react. They could accuse us of bringing in these people who show lies about us.

We did not know of the first protest in Soura after the nullification of Article 370, during which many people were injured. That day, our group decided to go Rainawari, where there is a mosque that could have seen protests. But there was a complete shutdown there. We decided to cover the restrictions there instead, but a man who appeared to be a police official in plainclothes said, “Go away from here, what are you doing?” His gaze shifted to me and he said, “Why are you taking pictures? Take your camera. Main joote maar maarke governor ke ghar bhej dunga”—I will hit you with shoes and then send you to the governor’s house. These were his words. We were frightened.

When we went to Soura, we saw boys were patrolling to protect their families. It is not like they have guns. They were patrolling. They make a list everyday of who will guard which lane at night. They said they want to keep their wives and mothers safe. It is very clear what the Indian government wants—they do not want Kashmiri people, they want their land and integrity.

The government is claiming that they have just imposed Section 144, but it is effectively a curfew. I had to visit the Directorate of Information Jammu and Kashmir three or four times a day to check how to get a “curfew pass,” which is helpful in moving across some parts of the city. Technically, it is a movement pass valid for 144 CRPC restrictions. They always told me to come in 30 minutes, and after that they would say, come in two hours. I went to the Divisional Commissioner’s office to get a curfew pass. The authorities there said, “Where is the curfew?” I said, “Okay, give me the movement pass.” They all laughed.

Even to get the pass for the parade in Srinagar’s Sher-I-Kashmir Stadium on 15 August, I had to struggle. Earlier, I used to get it easily every year, much before the parade. But this time, at the directorate of information, the list of those who have got the passes did not have my name. It did, however, have names of journalists from the national media. After a lot of negotiation, they gave me an invitation pass, not a security pass like they usually did.

The Indian government has been talking about a media centre that they have set up for journalists to use during the lockdown. I went there to send pictures for the New York exhibition. They were in high resolution because they were to be printed. At the media centre, there were four computer systems. Of these, one was for the government’s information department itself. Essentially, there were three systems for the entire journalism fraternity—for uploading videos, audios, text, pictures, everything. The internet was worse than 2G—it took 15 minutes for the Gmail homepage to load.

I told my family about the surveillance of journalists—whatever we write or upload or file, whatever we access, they would know. Because of this, my mother told me not to participate in the New York exhibition. “Don’t send anything,” she said. We heard that the authorities have a list of journalists they want to detain. In 2016, I had heard they had a similar list of over hundred journalists. I met a journalist in Press Club who had been picked up for an enquiry. He said the authorities showed him print outs of his personal WhatsApp chats.

There was no chance I could send my pictures from the government media centre. I flew to Delhi only to be able to respond to the email about the exhibition. I did not want to lose this opportunity, and so many days had already passed. I thought I could also get the pictures I had shot since 5 August published. Before the curfew, my brother would call everyday during dinner-time. We had not been able to talk to him since the communications blackout was imposed. When I came to Delhi, my brother called me to check if I took permission from my parents to go away from home. He said, “Why are you doing this?” My grandfather has gone for the Haj pilgrimage. My brother still has friends where he is, but my grandfather has gone alone, is old and requires medication. We do not know how he is. My mother has been worried sick.

Earlier, women did not come out on the roads to protest. There is more pressure on them, more mental stress—they are losing their brothers, their sons. We see higher number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among women. Now, they are speaking their heart and they are also coming out to protest perhaps as an outlet for their frustrations. They are also shouting anti-India slogans.

After the government’s decisions on 5 August, it was being reported that Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, had said brides will be brought to his state from Kashmir. Obviously, a Kashmiri will react if he hears someone saying something like this about their sisters or mothers. If a Muslim said this about a Hindu, they will not be able to tolerate it either. How can they think that Kashmiris will not react? Kashmiris are ready to give their life, but not their integrity.

When it comes to Article 370, there is no divide between Shias and Sunnis. People have levelled accusations that Shias do not support the cause of freedom. And so, Shias are ill-treated because of their identity. In Srinagar, most Shia people live in the area I hail from. They used to tell me how during the 1990s militants used to come and stay over, how people would serve them, wash their clothes. Even speeches during Friday sermons among the Shias discuss the Kashmir issue. There are many from the Shia community who have sacrificed their lives.

This time feels different from the past. People can clearly see the difference between right and wrong. They understand what their rights are. Everyone knows that what the Modi government has done is against our will. The CRPF men stare at us. If you are a woman, they will stop you. They will check your bag. It is not normal. If I am in Delhi, I barely see any police on the roads. But in Kashmir, I feel like I am in a jail.

As told to Tanvi Mishra and Shahid Tantray. This account has been edited and condensed.


Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, had said that brides would be brought from Kashmir to his state from Kashmir to fix the sex ratio. The reference in the article was in fact to news reports, which had misleadingly attributed this comment to him. The Caravan regrets the error.