The Kashmir despatch before the Internet

Communication links were open even in the worst days of militancy in J&K

February 14, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:42 am IST

Drawing of Retro Telephone in watercolour style on ruled paper. Elements are grouped.contains eps10 and high resolution jpeg.

Drawing of Retro Telephone in watercolour style on ruled paper. Elements are grouped.contains eps10 and high resolution jpeg.

On October 31 last year, after many years I waited in queue to email a news story to The Hindu . The place was a government-designated media centre in Srinagar and it was on the day the State of Jammu and Kashmir was formally reduced to a Union Territory.

Scores of reporters thronged the Information Department’s media centre on Residency Road, hoping that one of the dozen-odd computers would be free. It had almost become a habit given that nearly three months had passed since Internet services had been snapped in the Valley.

For me, there was a sense of déjà vu with a twist. It took me back to the scary days of December 1989, when I first travelled to the Kashmir Valley to cover the turmoil and violence in the region as a young reporter for The Hindu and Frontline .

In those days, the fax machine was pretty revolutionary technology. You even got a ‘transmission’ report once the pages were received on the other side. But it was a tough job to dial and connect to Madras, as Chennai was called then, or to Delhi.

The telex machine was more reliable and, when all else failed, there were alert ‘teleprinter operators’ of the newspaper who would take down our stories on the telephone. It was part of their job.

Most of my visits (1989-1995) to Srinagar began with navigating the curfew and hiring a vehicle to move around, a task in itself. The only good thing was that Kashmiri leaders not in detention were always to be found at home.

After a day of newsgathering, I would go to the Central Telegraph Office and begin the arduous task of sending my story for the day, which was written on a typewriter either at Ahdoos Hotel or the Broadway Hotel when they were open during the early days of militancy.

One day is etched in my memory. I entered the Central Telegraph Office, said hello to the heavily armed BSF guards outside, managed to fax my story, and then heard a loud bang outside. One of the BSF men I had spoken to had been hit by a militant bullet. It was tragic and surreal.

There were days when one page went by fax, the other on telex, and the third by telephone. Every day was an experience and, post-transmission, I would make a landline call to my News Editor, K. Narayanan, or Mr. KN, to confirm that the story had reached his desk.

There were other occasions when we went to a friendly police officer’s house to file copy if there was a big rush at the Central Telegraph Office. I am ever grateful to those friendly civil servants. The day only ended when I was able to send my story.

Even in the worst days of militancy and curfew, the Central Telegraph Office was open to all journalists who could access it. The administration never shut it down; it was one mode of communication available to all. Landline services were not shut down either, in Srinagar or the rest of the Valley. The fact that in the worst period of militancy communication links were open is testimony to the commitment of previous governments to the freedom of press. Today’s frequent Internet shutdowns are a blot on our democracy.

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