Quiet Chronicler of Kashmir

  • Zahir-ud-Din
  • Publish Date: Apr 30 2018 2:00AM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 30 2018 2:00AM
Quiet Chronicler of Kashmir

Meet Habib Naqash, the photojournalist who has captured the horror of the Kashmir conflict like few other.

 

Habib is a Naqash in truest sense of the term. He is unlettered but his camera has done the talking for beleaguered Kashmir for the past 40 years. Having captured the Mashali Mohallah, Hawal, massacre of 1990, the firing on Mirwaiz Farooq’s funeral procession, the Sopore carnage of 1993 and the Pandit exodus, Habib has made it to TIME magazine, BBC online and a number of prestigious publications across the world.

“I have seen and understood life in its right perspectives,” he often says. But people close to him hold a contrary view. They sayd Habib has seen death more closely than he has life.

Habib was injured when a parcel bomb went off in the then BBC correspondent Yusuf Jameel’s office in Srinagar on September 7, 1995. The explosion claimed Mushtq Ali, a videographer with the news agency ANI, and left Jameel seriously wounded. The deadly parcel had been delivered by a veiled lady for Jameel.

The injuries did not deter Habib. The “risky job” continued and, he saw life and death ever more closely in the coming years. In November 1999, militants attacked the Indian army’s 15 Corps headquarters at Badami Bagh, Srinagar. Habib happened to be there. “A colleague and I were accompanying a friend who was in need of some permit from the army. We waited outside as our friend went in. After some time, public relations officer Major Purshottam came out and told us to wait in his office. Soon, militants came and shot the major and some soldiers. We hid in the washroom. The gunfight turned intense after sunset. We were scared to death. We came out around 2 in the morning.”

Habib had another close shave with death on August 10, 2000, when a car bomb went off at Lal Chowk, killing 10 people, including the Delhi-based photojournalist Pradeep Bhatia. The explosion came five minutes after a grenade attack at around 12.30 pm. Many of the security personnel and journalists who had rushed to the site of the attack were then caught in the blast. “We were being briefed by policemen when there was a big bang and I felt my eyes were blinded,” a journalist who witnessed the incident recalled. “Then I saw people running helter-skelter and I saw colleagues bleeding.”

Habib survived to tell his story, “It was a huge flame. I only remember some security men who were burning in flames running towards me. I heard several gunshots after that I fell unconscious.”

He came to a terrifying scene. “My pants were tattered and shirt had no buttons. I saw my camera was fortunately intact. I dragged myself a few meters and saw my colleagues lying in a pool of their own blood. I thought they had died. I was picked up by a motorcyclist who took me to the Press Enclave. I was rushed to the hospital where I saw my colleagues. Thank God, they were fine.”

Death does not scare Habib, not anymore. “It comes when it’s destined to come. After having close encounters with death, one moves beyond fear,” he reasons. 

Habib has covered the Kashmir conflict extensively and believes that it has greatly shaped journalism and journalists. “But for the conflict, journalism would not have progressed so much in Kashmir,” he says. 

Habib has trained his lens on other aspects of life in Kashmir as well – his landscape photography, for one, is breathtaking – but it’s his depiction of the conflict that has won him international acclaim. His picture of a woman trying to breastfeed her grandson who had been killed in custody by the Indian troops in 1990s was widely hailed, as was another of an old man looking at the debris of the devastated Sopore town.

It has, of course, not been easy. “It affects your head. At times you feel depressed and detached,” he explains. “In such moments I desperately feel the need for counselling.”

One way of coping he has found is falling in love with nature and all the beauty it has to offer. He keeps a variety of flowerpots at his home which offer him the much-needed solace when he feels lonely and depressed.

Habib won’t disclose his age for “obvious reasons”, but given he has spent nearly 40 years in the profession, it can easily be guessed. But he remains unmarried. Many efforts by his family and friends to get him to marry have come to nought. Why? “Yeh kahani phir sahi,” he replies, smiling. Some other time. 

He is shy “by nature”, Habib says, and often finds it difficult to express himself. He lives alone in his Press Colony flat where friends are always welcome. The master photographer is a master cook as well.

Habib was born in Malaratta area of Old Srinagar. He quit school in Class 6, much to the disappointment of his parents, who locked him in a room for three days in order to persuade him to rethink his decision. Two years later, when he was only 14, he left for Delhi and stayed a month. The aimless wandering finally took him to a dazzling photo studio. “This is what I shall do,” he says he whispered to himself. His brother, who was studying engineering, took him to his friend who ran a studio. That is where he learnt the art. He joined Aftaab, then Nawa-e- Subah. In the 1990s, he joined the Asian Age and finally Greater Kashmir, where he’s now the photo editor.

Although Habib believes one must have an “eye for it” to become a good photographer, he is often seen giving valuable tips to youngsters. He says only a “braveheart” should pursue photojournalism as a career. “It is adventurous,” he says, “but also demanding and involves a lot of risk, especially if you are in a conflict zone.”