Reporter's Diary: Watching the Media Cover the Ongoing J&K Shootout

Over the last two days, Dudkol has emerged as the new base for media persons covering the operation against a group of militants involved in the killing of two army officers and one from the J&K Police on September 12 in south Kashmir’s Kokernag region.

Dudkol, Kokernag (Jammu and Kashmir): An earth-shaking explosion beneath a cliff threw a plume of smoke and dust into the calm air, blurring a patch of the forest in a greyish-brown haze and sending a flock of birds across the mountain into a terrifying flight.

Then, a string of gunshots cracked through the air followed by two small-intensity blasts in quick succession.

A powerful explosion throws a plume of smoke into the air over the forest in Kokernag where a group of militants are believed to be holed up.

“This is the right time,” a reporter with a Noida-based TV network turned to his cameraperson, emerging from beneath the fruit-laden branches of an apple orchard in Dudkol village of Kokernag, some 93 km from J&K’s capital Srinagar.

“Let’s do a PTC (piece-to-camera),” he said with a tone of urgency.

Over the last two days, Dudkol has emerged as the new base for media persons covering the operation against a group of militants involved in the killing of two army officers and one from the J&K Police on September 12 in south Kashmir’s Kokernag region.

The sleepy village is situated some three kilometres from Kokernag’s Gadol where the operation has been going on for the last six days. According to officials, the militants disappeared into a steep mountain with thick vegetation and forest cover in Gadol village after the attack.

A reporter delivering a piece-to-camera in Dudkol with the site of anti-militant operation in her background while others shield themselves from harsh sunlight under the shade of apple trees.

Several reports in local and national media indicate that the mountain has a network of natural caves under a facade of thick vegetation which are believed to have served as a hideout for militants. A cordon has been thrown around the mountain which was reportedly extended to adjoining areas on Sunday.

The Resistance Front, which officials believe is an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Toiba, has claimed responsibility for what is one of the deadliest attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in terms of the ranks of security officials who lost their lives.

According to J&K Police, one of the militants involved in the attack is a local identified as Uzair Bashir Khan, a resident of Kokernag’s Nagam village. Khan, according to his family, went missing from his residence in July last year when he is believed to have joined militancy.

In the first three days, TV reporters and their crews were stationed right across the mountain in Gadol, hooking viewers across the country with live images from the site of the operation. However, on Saturday morning, a coil of concertina wire was spread out on the Srinagar-Gadol road as it cuts through Dudkol village.

Few metres behind the wire, a bullet-proof police van has been parked on the roadside, doubling as a checkpoint where a few private vehicles on the way to Gadol are stopped. “Only local residents are allowed to come in and out of Gadol. We have orders from higher-ups,” said a policeman manning the checkpoint, who was not wearing his nameplate.

A non-local crew member of a TV network enjoying a game of cricket at Dudkol village, some three kilometres from the site of encounter in Kokernag.

On top of a hillock in Dudkol village, a dense orchard bustling with apple-laden trees offers a panoramic view at the backside of the lush, steep mountain where the militants are believed to be holed up.

A makeshift fence, which separates the orchard from the road, has been torn down at one place, allowing journalists access to hike up and down the hillock.

On the road, speeding official vehicles with security personnel hanging precariously on their sides and an occasional ambulance zip past the stationary OB vans without stopping, attracting the attention of the action-starved reporters and camera crews who have been pushed three kilometres back from the operation site.

“We were able to work without hindrance initially,” said a senior photojournalist who freelances with national and international publications, “But there are rumours that some journalists were broadcasting live images which was perhaps the reason for our eviction from Gadol.”

OB vans and vehicles of media persons parked on the roadside in Dudkol village of Kokernag after they were prevented from going to Gadol where the operation is underway.

As Srinagar is more than 90 kilometres away, many journalists, some of whom have flown in from New Delhi, are putting up in locals hotels of Anantnag district in south Kashmir to cut down the time required to reach Dudkol.

“We have been staying in a hotel in Kokernag for the last five days,” said a cameraperson from Srinagar, who works with another Noida-based TV network. “We run a live show at 6 in the morning. It gets a lot of viewership.”

With the real battle fading into the background, journalists and their crews huddle in groups of threes and fours under the orchard’s fruit-laden trees, some of them eating from their branches while recalling initial days of the operation and memories of similar gun battles between security forces and militants in Kashmir.

In a corner of the orchard, a young reporter giving a PTC lifted his arm, cueing his cameraperson to focus on the mountain behind him where he claimed the operation was underway. In reality, though, the mountain stood in front of him.

“At the moment the situation is calm, as you can see,” the reporter said into the camera with a serious face. “But according to our sources, the operation has entered its final stage.”

Stretched out under the shade of an apple tree, one middle-aged reporter peeking into his mobile phone casually remarked to his cameraperson that their office was asking for fresh video clips. “Let’s send some shots from yesterday. It won’t make any difference. The situation hasn’t changed much,” the cameraperson responded promptly.

A checkpoint has been set up in Dudkol village of Kokernag beyond which only locals are allowed while journalists have been pushed back from the site of the operation in Gadol.

The ongoing operation has cast a spell of fear and gloom in Gadol, Dudkol and adjoining villages in Kokernag where the presence of security personnel has been stepped up. In a state of high alert, a paramilitary trooper, part of a road opening party involved in the operation, was shot in the foot “accidentally” on Sunday.

In Dudkol, all the shops and other business establishments are shut, which has increased the difficulties of both locals as well as journalists, most of whom look forward to unsolicited cups of tea brought out by local residents who refuse to speak to the media on the record.

“On several occasions, they came out with cups of tea without being asked. They are terrified by the situation and our presence perhaps gives them strength to carry on their normal lives,” said Bashir Ahmad, a cameraperson.

Due to the difficulties and dangers of operating in an unknown terrain, security forces have been carrying out the operation with great caution, pounding the suspected hideouts with heavy explosives. High-tech gadgets like Heron drones have been used to target the hideouts. One video showed a suspected militant coming out of the blasted hideout while another showed a portion of the forest catching fire amid massive explosions.

Each thud of explosion in the distant mountain sparks tension and commotion in the apple orchard, sending reporters scrambling with their mics in front of tripod-mounted cameras. “What a beautiful sight,” remarked a Delhi-based journalist who works with a TV network.

The rattle of explosions intensified, prompting a local journalist to correct her: “Dangerously beautiful.”

As the reporter with the Noida-based TV network stood to deliver the PTC, the sound of explosions and gunshots halted abruptly. A semblance of calm returned to the tense air, which made the reporter uncomfortable as he struggled to narrate the ‘fierce’ battle unfolding against the calm background.

“Cut it,” the visibly distraught reporter said to his cameraperson, ending his piece-to-camera midway. He added with an air of dejection: “In the initial days, we had a great viewership. But the public interest is petering out. We may have to report back to the office very soon.”