Muneeb ul Islam, 29, found himself running short of money as winter began to set in Kashmir. As the only bread-winner in his family, he had to take care of expenses at home. But most importantly, he had to take care of his pregnant wife’s medical expenses. She requires frequent medical check-ups, due to miscarriages she suffered in the past.
Before he went to sleep on December 2, Muneeb mulled over ways to arrange money. The money he had borrowed from friends and relatives had been spent on household expenses. He had tried to work as a salesman once, but with everything shut thanks to India's crackdown in Kashmir, that option was a non-starter.
On the morning of December 3, Muneeb put on his shoes and left his home in Anantnag district. He did not tell his family where he was going.
By that afternoon, Muneeb had found means to earn: carrying bricks at a construction site.
For a day’s work, he was paid around $6.5.
He continued to work as a labourer for several days: carrying bricks to helping carpenters and masons at construction sites in different villages of south Kashmir, Muneeb did everything he could to earn money.
When he managed to make around $25, he took his wife to a doctor and bought her medicines that would last for the next two weeks.
A few days later, a Valley-based weekly magazine printed his photo on the cover at an under-construction site, which was widely circulated, where was pictured carrying bricks.
Muneeb’s profile as a labourer was indeed worth a cover story. For the past four years, he had been working as a photojournalist in Kashmir’s southern region. He has documented dozens of gun battles between militants and Indian forces, protests and other aspects of the conflict that rages in the Kashmir Valley. His work has featured both in international and national publications.
But when the government of India annexed disputed Jammu and Kashmir and revoked its autonomy, it put the entire region under a strict lockdown for several weeks, fearing reprisals for the decision it had taken without consulting Kashmiris, their elected leaders or other stakeholders.
There were no means of communication and no permission for moving around. Even the movement of journalists was restricted. Everything had come to an absolute standstill.
Almost four months passed. With businesses and the internet shut, the money people had saved began to wear thin. For those with medical patients in their families, the financial constraints began to hit sooner, and harder.
Journalists were among those worst hit. In the absence of internet access, media professionals like Muneeb could not research, pitch and file stories.
“There was no way I could carry on with my profession,” says Muneeb.
In the first weeks after August 5, the internet was only available at a government-run media facilitation centre, some 50 kilometres from where Muneeb lived. Since there was no public transport, it would take him a full day just to access the internet — access was given for a few minutes at a time — given the fact that the media facilitation centre only had a few computers for nearly 200 journalists.
By now, Muneeb was running short of cash and was finding it impossible to get his stories published. The local newspaper he worked for had already cut down its circulation. Besides, without filing photos, he was not getting paid either. So he decided to freelance.
A few weeks later, when the internet was made available at a government office in his district, he went there to pitch photos to a Delhi-based news website. But when he reached, he found that only a select crop of journalists, who he says were in the good books of the Indian government, were allowed to access the internet.
But he kept visiting, in hope.
“For a story, you need to research, then find contacts where you can pitch them. And then you again need the internet to send across the photo stories. It takes several days,” Muneeb says.
He says he could not visit Srinagar’s media facilitation centre every time to access the Internet because it cost him more than $6.5 a day to rent a cab – the same amount he earned as a labourer for one day. “If I am to spend so much of money on just accessing internet, how much will I be able to earn from a story?” he asks, adding that with the contacts he had, his photo stories would get him somewhere between $25-50.
The more he tried to work on stories, the more dejected he became.
“At the government office where the internet was available, some low-rung government officials would ask me to show them the photos I had to email. How can a government official judge my photo story?” Muneeb says.
On top of that, Muneeb says, he was not allowed to send photos himself. “They would ask for photos in flash drives, our email ID and passwords. Then they would email our stories on our behalf. That was humiliating and a breach of privacy,” Muneeb says.
Not an isolated case
Muneeb chose to ditch the camera and work as a labourer. So did several other journalists in Muneeb’s vicinity, who asked not to be named for this story.
One of his friends, who has been writing for a Delhi-based newspaper for the last seven years, also worked as a labourer. To his luck, it was autumn, the apple harvesting season, so he was hired by his uncle to pick, carry and pack apples. Since he had no experience in tending to orchards, he was not able to earn much. But he continued anyway. “Anything those days was too much.”
Muneeb’s neighbouring village is home to another journalist, Rashid (name changed). He was in charge of the Kashmir bureau for a Delhi-based publication for the last five years. But when the internet stopped, he could not send any stories across. He also suffered the double-whammy of having his salary withheld since September.
When he faced a cash crunch, he began looking for alternatives. He set up a small shop with a printing machine where he printed brochures, cards, posters etc. But his alternative did not bring him much relief as orders for printing, during this tough time in Kashmir, were rarely placed.
There are others: a photojournalist works at a pharmacy, another helps his brother in his spice business while another sells groceries.
“Shopfronts are the points where everyone comes to discuss politics. Since people around know I am a journalist, they often seek my opinion,” one of the journalists, who is now a salesman, says. “But I am so cut off from the news that I have often nothing to say.”
Most of these journalists, who took up odd jobs to bear the expenses at home, say that if the internet is not restored, they will have to give up the profession forever and start looking for new career options.
“The passion for clicking pictures and telling stories won’t leave me, but the priority is to feed my family,” another journalist said.
But Muneeb does not want to give up his career in journalism. He has earned a name in the field, and people in Kashmir’s media circle know him. But he still has regrets.
“I should have chosen something else for my career. Something more secure. But now it is as it is.”
Internet services in Kashmir have been almost entirely shut since the night of August 4. It has been described as one of the longest shutdowns in a democracy. The government recently 'eased' communication but mobile internet and social media are by and large still blocked with limited broadband service available in parts of the Kashmir Valley.
The fate of Muneeb and the lives and careers of others like him, still hang by a thread.