Crackdown amid corona: Kashmir police book photojournalist Masrat Zahra under UAPA to send a message

20 April 2020
Courtesy Sharafat Ali
Courtesy Sharafat Ali

On 20 April, Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photojournalist from Kashmir, woke up to learn that the cyber police had booked her under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. A press release by the Cyber Police Station, Kashmir Zone, was doing rounds on social media that morning, which referred to Zahra’s Facebook account, stated, “The facebook user is … believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke the public to disturb law and order.” Zahra questioned why the press release identified her in that manner. “I don’t understand,” she said. “It is like I don’t have an identity as a journalist.”

The press release accused Zahra of “uploading anti national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquility.” It continued, “The user is also uploading posts that tantamount to glorify the anti-national activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.” But according to Zahra, she has only uploaded photos she had taken while reporting from the ground. “I’m just uploading my professional work, that I have covered since years and witnessed in Kashmir,” Zahra said. She added that some of these photos had already been published internationally. “I’m a photojournalist, what else am I supposed to upload?”

Zahra’s timeline on Facebook echoes her words. Many of her photos document the daily excesses committed by the Indian security forces in Kashmir, such as photos of family members who lost their kin or their property during police firing. Several others capture the ongoing resistance in the region. For instance, on 18 April, Zahra uploaded a photo showing a piece of clothing, some documents and loose change. In the caption, she wrote, “Arifa Jan keeps newspaper clippings and the blood-stained notes of her husband, Abdul Qadir Sheikh, was carrying when he was gunned down by Indian army suspected being a militant. ‘I couldn’t come to terms with the agony and pain inflicted on me,’ she said.” Another photo, published on 6 April, showed a woman standing in front of a demolished house and had the caption, “‘Pehlay yeh ghar meray liaye bus ik makaan tha, ab yeh jagah meray liaye eik astaan hai (First, this house was just a home for me. Now, this place is a shrine for me),’ said Madhosh Balhami, the poet who lost his 30-years of poetry when his house was destroyed by armed forces in a gun battle.”

The cyber police booked Zahra under Section 13 of the UAPA, which prescribes a punishment of up to seven years for committing or participating in any unlawful activity. The act defines unlawful activity in generic terms, and includes any activity against the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” and that “causes or is intended to cause disaffection against India.” Going by the cyber police’s decision to apply this act and its definition to Zahra’s work, it appears that the division considers the act of journalism to be unlawful.

The press release states that a first information report bearing number “10/2020” and “dated 18-04-2020 stands registered in Cyber Police Station, Kashmir Zone, Srinagar and investigation set into motion.” Zahra told me that she had received a call from the cyber police on 18 April asking her to come to the station for questioning. The police did not tell her at the time that an FIR had been registered against her. Zahra said she informed the police that she would not be able to come because she did not have a curfew pass, but the police officials told her to call them from any check post that prohibited her from moving forward. She then spoke to members of the Kashmir Press Club, or KPC, to inform them about the call, who contacted Kashmir’s inspector general of police and Syed Sehrish Asgar, the director of Jammu and Kashmir’s department of information and public relations.

Arshu John is an assistant web editor at The Caravan. He was previously an advocate practicing criminal law in Delhi.

Keywords: Kashmir Valley Jammu and Kashmir Police media freedom press freedom