George Joseph's determined reportage from J&K is testimony to the importance of a journalist's role in a conflict situation.
My dearest husband, friend and colleague George Joseph passed away on February 27. While our daughter and I are in deep mourning, I feel compelled to narrate the story of an extraordinary journalist, with whom I shared my life with for 21 years. George had risked his life to uphold professional values. His reporting from Kashmir during the most turbulent years of militancy gave glory to the the profession of journalism; even today it is testimony to the importance of a journalist's role in a conflict situation.
George Joseph arrived in Srinagar in the autumn of 1989 to the deathly sound of Kalashnikovs in a situation that was to soon to turn into a full-fledged insurgency. The pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen was rising as a gang of ruthless killers. The Hizb had nearly wiped out the ideologically moderate Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). In Srinagar, the word “India” was anathema to the proponents of the so-called (freedom) movement. “Hindustani kutta”(Indian dog) was the choicest abuse. However, in surcharged and communally polarised Kashmir, George's religion and his South Indian ethnicity were seen as a neutral factor by militant supporters.
George reported extensively on the dramatic news events of that time. Be it Rubaiya Sayeed's abduction or the Gaw Kadal massacre, he was out there covering it. In February, Lassa Kaul, Director, Doordarshan Kendra, was killed. George was shocked to realise the complicity of the people around him. “There is treachery in everything around us,” he would say later. He was aghast that no Kashmiri priest came forward to perform Kaul's last rites. It was eventually done by an army priest. A month later, militants had killed P.L. Handoo, an assistant director in the Information Department.
That was when Governor Jagmohan advised three journalists working for national dailies — Hindustan Times, Indian Express and Times of India — to leave the Valley as he feared they would be the next targets. Overnight they had to leave for Jammu. However, George defied Jagmohan's diktat. He returned to Srinagar, much to the dislike of those in power and even some of his colleagues.
Series of abductions
After our marriage in February 1991, I shifted to Srinagar, from where I worked for the Tribune. During our first summer, there were a number of abductions: Indian Oil executive K. Doraiswamy, Bihar MLA S.P. Sinha, REC Principal R.L. Wakhloo are some of those that I remember spent months as captives of militants. One day, militants deposited a human finger in the PTI office, which was next to George's. That day we could feel the danger around us. If it was a finger today, tomorrow it could be a severed head.
A year later, on a cold March afternoon, we received a call from the Hizbul Mujahideen spokesperson. The caller told George that the Hizb had split. The Hizb leader, Master Ahsan Dar, had been charged with embezzlement of funds and expelled after a brief imprisonment by his own cronies. George asked him to provide proof. The caller told us that the Hizb had issued a formal press release to the local media about it a day before. However, on the advice of their Pakistani handlers, they had instructed the media to black out the news. The caller arranged to drop the original handout in our letter box. The Hizbul Mujahideen split was the turning point in the history of the insurgency, and George and I were the only ones to report it.
Next morning we had to fly to Jammu where my grandmother had passed away. At about 10 p.m., the police were at my parents' home. DIG Jammu Gopal Sharma had sent for George. Sharma told George that his report had created a massive backlash. The Hizb were livid and had issued a 48-hour deadline to him to leave Kashmir. Sharma made George speak with Governor Girish Saxena on the telephone. Saxena advised George to stay out of Kashmir for at least a few weeks till he assessed the situation. Next day, Hizb's threat to George was the banner headline in all newspapers. George issued a rejoinder explaining he had merely done his duty by reporting a fact.
We returned to Srinagar after the 13 days of formal mourning for my grandmother. It was the beginning of an ordeal and a test of our professional stamina. We advised all our friends against visiting us, since militants could target them. Police posted a pistol-holding plainclothesman for our security; we encouraged stories about having fool-proof security. I even pretended that I carried a pistol in my handbag. I wondered how long we could live with this isolation. “Madam Aasha Khosa,” I vividly remember George telling me, “if we seek a posting out of Kashmir on the diktats of Hizbul Mujahideen, then newspapers would have to post a new correspondent here every week.”
George was eventually transferred by the Indian Express to Lucknow. The Hizb were jubilant. Newspapers were more eager to protect their circulation in the Valley than stand up to the militants. The Hizb presumed that I would also leave with my husband. But it was George who advised me to stay on, despite my fears of continuing in Kashmir on my own.
“It's time for you to prove yourself. Get absorbed in work and show them the power of the pen,'' I followed his advice. I hope I lived up to expectations of this man who was an idol for many.
(Aasha Khosa is a New Delhi-based journalist.)