SRINAGAR – When veteran separatist figure Syed Ali Shah Geelani passed away last week, the first sign for many in the Kashmir Valley that something had happened was a sudden increase in police and a loss of internet and phone service.
With communications suspended and the road to where Geelani lived in Srinagar closed, journalists say they have struggled to report on his death.
Some saw the restrictions as part of India’s scheme to remove coverage of events that could trigger protests. Others believed the authorities were trying to restrict information that called into question the state’s discourse.
FILE – Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the hard faction of the Kashmir Hurriyat (Freedom) conference, speaks at a press conference in Srinagar, August 7, 2010.
Fahad Shah, editor of the news magazine The Kashmir Walla, told VOA that internet and telephone lines had been “cut” or suspended in the middle of the night, leaving no means of communication. Journalists were ordered to leave the area where Geelani lived.
Many in the region viewed Geelani as an icon of challenge against India. The region has been the center of tension for decades, with India and Pakistan both claiming it.
Geelani was known to draw large crowds to the area, and false reports of his death had caused unrest in Kashmir. Journalists and analysts who spoke to VOA said they believed the restrictions were part of India’s efforts to block massive attendance at its funeral.
The Jammu and Kashmir Home Office, which is responsible for security and other matters in the region, did not respond to emails from VOA seeking comment.
Geelani began his political career in the city of Sopore, which he represented in the Legislative Assembly for three terms. But he resigned after activism erupted in Kashmir in the late 1980s.
He was a founding member of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a collective of separatist parties opposed to the Delhi regime in Jammu and Kashmir, and later led the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party. But for most of the past 11 years, he had been under house arrest.
Many Indian officials, as well as some Hindus and Muslims living in Kashmir, believed Geelani was working at Pakistan’s request. He was known to oppose any discussion with India, instead favoring Kashmir’s alignment with Pakistan. But in the 2000s, he opposed a solution proposed by then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
FILE – Members of the Indian security forces walk past the grave of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a veteran separatist politician from Kashmir, in a cemetery in Srinagar on September 3, 2021.
Geelani’s family had wanted him to be buried in the Srinagar Martyrs’ Cemetery, but the leader’s son told The Associated Press that authorities buried him in a local cemetery in the absence of his relatives.
“No one from the family was present for his funeral,” the son, Naseem, told The Associated Press.
“[Geelani’s] the burial took place in detention, ”journalist Shah told VOA. “He was detained alive and also dead, he remained in detention. Now his grave is in custody … as we are witnessing. “
Police issued a statement refuting claims about the circumstances of the burial as “baseless rumors,” the AP reported. The police statement said the allegations were made to incite violence and that the police had “facilitated the transport of the corpse from the house to the cemetery as there were apprehensions of wrongdoers taking undue advantage”.
Barriers to reporting
On September 2, the day after Geelani’s death, the Indian government of Jammu and Kashmir issued an order suspending telecommunications services in the region. The orders cited “provocative social media material” from Pakistan and called for protests as the reason for cutting services.
Initially in effect until September 4, the ban was extended until September 6 by Indian authorities. The restrictions still affected parts of Srinagar and Budgam districts on Tuesday evening.
For journalists like freelance writer Quratulain Rehbar, the lack of internet has made it difficult to meet deadlines. “I haven’t been able to submit articles on time. I don’t know what to say, but restrictions on movement and the internet affect us like everything. Imagine journalists working in such an environment,” Rehbar said to VOA.
Aakash Hassan, a Kashmir-based freelance journalist, compared the restrictions to those that lasted more than 550 days when India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy status in August 2019.
“It appears from the type of restrictions that have been put in place, or as is generally the case, that authorities are trying to restrict coverage of critical events they deem [challenging to] the state narrative, ”Hassan told VOA. “It clearly aims to put a veil on the realities on the ground. “
But others see the police response as measured for a region that has seen tensions and clashes.
FILE – Kashmiri protesters throw stones at Indian security forces during a clash after the death of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a veteran separatist politician from Kashmir, in Srinagar on September 2, 2021.
Manoj Joshi, a member of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, told VOA he believed the police saw the communications cut as a way to prevent people from staging protests.
“The police cannot be blamed for having anticipated the trouble. Geelani was a very important and major leader of the separatist cause. His death could have been the occasion to organize protests,” said Joshi, who writes on terrorism in Kashmir and was part of a security working group.
About four days after Geelani’s death, armed personnel restricted transportation. In some places, police said a curfew was in place, but in other places people and vehicles were able to move freely.
Troops were stationed at Geelani’s home, with only those close to the chief being allowed in after verification, journalists said.
“I tried to approach the place twice. I was pulled out and kept more than 500 meters away,” Shah told VOA.
Kashmir Observer correspondent Auqib Javeed said he quickly visited the leader’s home when he learned that Geelani had died. But the roads were already paved.
“Security forces had installed barbed wire and barricades on the roads leading to Geelani’s house,” Javeed told VOA. “Dozens of armored vehicles and trucks patrolled the main roads in the area. I was arrested in three places and was not allowed to continue despite showing my press ID.
Kashmiri journalist Hassan said local newspapers had limited coverage of Geelani’s death, “suggesting a form of censorship”.
The region’s press has already come under pressure not to cover sensitive issues, including through cuts in government advertising revenue or the threat of eviction. Raids and arbitrary arrests are frequent; Police questioned four journalists on Wednesday and searched their homes, the AP reported.
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Joshi, of the Observer Research Foundation, said such restrictions are a short-sighted measure. “A free press is the best instrument through which a government can keep abreast of what is happening on the ground,” he told VOA.
A political worker from the National Conference of Jammu and Kashmir, a pro-Indian regional political party, who declined to be nominated, told VOA he believed the authorities’ reaction suggested India was trying prevent protests.
Authorities say the region has been more stable since August 2019, but, the politician said, “If this is indeed the case, why would they deny a decent and respectful burial to a former lawmaker, which turns out to be a fundamental right [for everyone] under the Indian Constitution? “
The lack of a public funeral “makes it clear to us that the government is aware that there is an underlying anger among the population,” said the party employee.
Still, politicians in India and Pakistan have expressed their condolences, with former Kashmiri chief minister and leader of the People’s Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti, declaring: “We may not agree on most. things, but I respect [Geelani] for his tenacity and for his convictions. “
Saddened by the news of the death of Geelani sahabs. We may not agree on most things, but I respect him for his tenacity and for his beliefs. May Allah Taaala grant him jannat and condolences to his family and supporters.
Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) September 1, 2021
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a period of official mourning and said Geelani had fought “all his life for his people and their right to self-determination”.
Deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Kashmiri freedom fighter Syed Ali Geelani who fought all his life for his people and their right to self-determination. He suffered incarceration and torture by the occupying Indian state, but remained determined.
Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) September 1, 2021
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