Fayaz Ahmad Latha, a video journalist, saw death up close when he was caught in the crossfire between the army and militants in Badami Bagh cantonment in 1999 in the first fidayeen attack in Srinagar. Seventeen years down the line, he narrates his story
Journalism is always a tough job. It becomes tougher in a conflict-ridden place like Kashmir. When uncertainty hangs in air, journalists need to be on their toes. Video journalists and photojournalists have to be at the right place at the right time to grab the frames. But sometimes, you are at the right place but at the wrong time.
This is what I felt on the afternoon of 3 November 1999 when I and my two colleagues were caught in the crossfire between militants and army inside the Badami Bagh cantonment.
It was the first fidayeen attack by militants in Srinagar where they struck at the heartland of Indian army in the city – the headquarters of the 15 Corps.
My colleague Sheikh Tariq, who was then working with Asian News International (ANI) news agency, told me to accompany him to Badami Bagh camp to meet the army’s Public Relations Officer (PRO) Major Pramod Purushottam for some professional work.
Tariq asked Habib Naqash, photojournalist with Greater Kashmir and Asian Age, to drive them to the camp, since we both didn’t know driving. I was then working as a stringer with NDTV.
We knocked at the main gate of cantonment area from Batwara side and were let in when we disclosed our identities as media persons.
In the ‘90s, the PRO office was just close to the main gate of the Badami Bagh camp, towards the left side. The whole PRO office staff used to don civil clothes. In fact, I had never seen Major Purushottam in army fatigues. He was a regular visitor to the Srinagar press colony where he would interact with journalists and editors.
He would always come to help to journalists whenever we needed him. He was really a nice person.
Let me narrate an incident that will give you some idea about this man. On a chilling December morning in the late ‘90s, the army had cordoned off the Regal Chowk. Senior journalists were made to sit in the nearby Pratap Park and weren’t allowed to move. I was coming from my home, Khayam Chowk, towards my office, and Sheikh Tariq was coming from the opposite direction. He told me that there is an army crackdown and they aren’t letting even journalists to pass that area.
In the meanwhile, I spotted Major Purushottam and rushed towards him. I told him that the army isn’t letting the journalists to their offices and that some senior journalists have been forced to sit in the park in this chilling cold. Major, who was in civil clothes, approached the army officer who was in-charge there and told him to let the journalists perform their duties. But the army officer seemed arrogant and ignored Major Purshottam.
We teased Major and told him that he has no say in the army. He told us to stay there and give him some time to settle the matter. Within five minutes, he came with a Brigadier who then ordered the army officer to let the journalists perform their professional duties.
Major Purshottam was always on the side of the journalist. When I recall the day we were caught inside his office in the militant attack, I without hesitation feel I owe my life to him.
On that afternoon, as we were sipping coffee in the PRO’s office, we suddenly heard gunshots. We got terrified. I said to the Major, “Major Sahib, I heard some gunshots.” The Major calmed our fears. “Diwali hai na, patakhay phod rahay hain loog.” (It is Diwali and people are bursting firecrackers).
Hardly had we put our coffee cups down on the table that a barrage of gunfire rattled everything. We fell to the ground and asked Major what was happening.
In the meantime, an army officer came running towards PRO office moaning in pain: Major Sahib, mujhay goli lagi hai. (A bullet has hit me).
In the midst of what was a life and death situation, Major Purushottam showed us how good a man he was. He told us to get in the adjacent bathroom along with another army official who was in civvies. As we huddled in the bathroom, chanting all the invocations we could remember, we heard a burst of fire.
And then it was all silence.
After an hour, we tried to venture out. We mustered all our courage to step outside the bathroom. As we did, we saw Major Purushottam along with his five staff members dead on the floor. That day the death toll was nine — eight army men and one militant.
Later on reports said that there were three fidayeen attackers, belonging to Lashkar-e-Toiba outfit, out of which one died in the gunfight while two others managed to escape. They had reportedly come in a boat, scaled the walls of the cantonment and then left by the same route.
After this we obviously were frightened. We had no idea what would happen to us. We feared the army commandoes will come in and kill us mistaking us for militants. We didn’t have any cameras with us to prove our identity.
Later, the commander of 15 Corps, Lieutenant General Krishan Pal came in and we were taken to a room in the emergency fire service. When we were heading towards that building we were murmuring to each other that sooner or later the army would finish us off in a staged encounter. We were isolated in a room where we were interrogated. The interrogators asked us unsettling questions. “Why did you kill Major Sahib?” one officer asked. We were terrified and didn’t utter a word. Some officers asked as to what were we doing in the office at that time. But I must say we weren’t mistreated, much to our surprise.
Then the PRO staff member whom Major Purushottam had asked to hide in the washroom along with us was asked to identify us. “Yes, they are journalists with whom Major sahib was talking to before the attack took place,” he told the officer. That was like coming back from a death row. The officer then told us we will be handed over to our senior colleagues in the press.
We spent the night at the cantonment. Next day, Lt Gen Krishan Pal called a press conference. After briefing the press about the attack, the army let us go and we joined our colleagues.
As a journalist I have had several close shaves with death. This was the closest. And by all means a miracle. Thank you Major Purushottam.
The death of Major Purushottam shattered us within. He was a thorough gentleman and true public relations professional. At that time the army was involved in large-scale operations across Kashmir and there were human rights violations being reported from almost everywhere. But it goes to Major Purushottam’s credit that he handled it all so well with the press in Srinagar. All army PROs who succeeded him have failed to strike such good relations with the media fraternity in Kashmir to this day.
—As told to Aasif Sultan
The piece appeared in January issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy, contact [email protected] for details