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A Conflict Zone, a Global Pandemic and an Educational Magazine

A Conflict Zone, a Global Pandemic and an Educational Magazine

Photo: A few isssues of Zaanvun Lokchaar laid out. (Sameer Mushtaq for StoriesAsia)

How a magazine doubled down on its efforts to survive in Kashmir

How do you run an educational magazine in a conflict zone like Kashmir during a global pandemic? I would have said it was impossible had I not come across the story of Zaanvun Lokchaar.

It’s a Kashmiri name meaning “discerning childhood.” The magazine has been trying to “bridge the gap between the knowledge from the cultural centres of the world and that which is tailor-made for the local population,” as Khalid Fayaz Mir said in his TED talk, titled “Native Tongue: A Caged Bird.”Mir is the editor of the magazine.

 Last year, the magazine’s team suffered from multiple directions. The troubles, unsurprisingly, started with the state’s red-tape when it launched in March 2018.

Zaanvun Lokchaar is a monthly, educational magazine in English published in the Kashmir valley. Thanks to the bureaucracy, it took the team a year to get the magazine registered with the Registrar for Newspapers of India (RNI), instead of what it usually takes – a month at the local District Magistrate’s office and a month at the RNI, said Assistant Editor Basheer Ahmad Dar.

But their struggle had just begun. 

Once they finished the paperwork and were ready to get to work, Kashmir saw an outrageously long communication and internet shutdown. A longer one was yet to come after August 5, 2019 when the state was turned into a Union Territory. The move by the central government stripped the state of the partial autonomy it had enjoyed since India’s independence from British rule in 1947.

Yasir Altaf Zargar, the online editor of the magazine, was unable to get in touch with the rest of his team for three months because of the blackout. They were also unable to publish anything online. We’ll get to that in a minute.

The deserted offices of Lockchaar. (Sameer Mushtaq for StoriesAsia)

“It was only in November 2019, when the ban on communication was partially lifted, that we could navigate through the alleys and meet at our office. We hadn’t published anything for three months. So it was decided that the November issue has to be out,” Zargar said.

But that would require an internet connection which did not look like a possibility at the time. The team compiled the issue but the real task was to send the content in a file to the printer at Budgam, about 80 km from the closest Zaanvun Lokchaar office.

The magazine’s Graphic designer Rayees Ahmad Haqani said, “The problem was not just sending a 98 MB file, which was already impossible from the district office’s media facilitation centre (a small facility set up by the government exclusively for journalists in Srinagar to access the internet). The real challenge was how the printer at Budgam [80 km from Anantnag district where Zaanvun Lokchaar has an office] would be able to download it since printers were counted out of the permission at media facilitation centres.”

The team would avoid highways, which had been blocked by security forces, and take detours just to deliver the flash drive at the office with a printer.

“We drove together and left everything else to fate. The highways were closed because the state had to move the convoys. It would take us half a day to get to the office and another half a day to get back home,” said Zargar.

But their problems didn’t end there. An employee at the office with the printer spoke on the condition of anonymity and said: “Lokchaar is the only magazine we publish in bulk. Due to the communication gap, we couldn’t order the paper from New Delhi. Because of that, they had to come personally to know the status of their magazine. Printing the magazine used to take us two days earlier. Now it takes two weeks.”

Now for the trashy-internet-connection part of the story. Working without the internet is unimaginable for any media organisation in the 21st century. Even more so if you are a small magazine like Zaanvun Lokchaar. After the August 5 lockdown last year, the team was not only forced to skip three issues but also couldn’t publish anything online for about six months due to the lack of internet.

The team was able to get back to work online only in January. Once they had partial internet and phone services, they faced complaints from contributors about the delay in publishing their pieces. That inspired Fayaz to publish an elaborate post on Facebook about working from home during COVID-19 on a throttled internet speed. 

Khalid Fayaz Mir, editor of Zaanvun Lockchaar, working from home. (Sameer Mushtaq for StoriesAsia)

A part of it read: “… Imagine running a website on a 20 kb/s speed via mobile phone, since you can’t connect it to your laptop. Imagine downloading the documents on your phone, then transferring the same to the laptop for editing purposes. After that, sending it back to the phone and then playing back to your columnists and contributors. Then, repeating the process until the write-up is finalised. Also imagine downloading the photographs, of printable quality which take hours at times. After all these things and many others, hoping that it will not show any errors. Work from home is a shitty concept in an occupation …”

While I was travelling to meet Fayaz, I checked with officials of the BSNL, the government-owned internet service provider. They said the village where Fayaz lives was not “feasible for a broadband connection.” And they had no access to the office at the time where they did have broadband.

“The world is under lockdown but Kashmir is in lockdown under lockdown,” Fayaz said. “Even if the restrictions are relaxed, it will be the same for us. As it has been for all these years. This is how they annihilate us, slowly.”

Since March 2020, Zaanvun Lokchaar has not printed any issue because distribution was halted for the fear of spreading coronavirus.

“Armed forces, especially the Special Operations Group, do not let us through even after we show them our press cards and permissions. We are niche media; they don’t understand the nature of our work. Running an educational magazine in a conflict zone seems stupid to everyone,” Fayaz added.

Haqani has the same story. 

He said that survival is the prime focus of people living in a conflict zone. “Everything else is secondary. Developing countries are in a race to increase their literacy rate. Education is a divine phenomenon, but here, the State goes against its own ideals. They have locked (restricted the movement of) the students for over eight months and then there was this pandemic where they have to learn through online classes. Tell me, which video calling service works on 2G?”

Dr Showkat Ahmad Tali, a contributor, wrote a few columns and also did a video interview with the magazine’s health slug during COVID-19. It evoked a great deal of positive response on Zaanvun Lokchaar’s Facebook page. But it is a fact that those who watched it had to tolerate the constant buffering during the 17-minute video.

“The interview was too informative for me to skip. It was worth tolerating all the throttling in between. Had the internet been working properly, I am sure it could have crossed the million mark,” said Majid Khan, a Facebook user who watched the interview. 

Zargar went to a friend’s place at night to access his broadband connection and upload that video.

“After it failed continuously from my phone, I called a friend and went to his place at around 8 PM and uploaded it there. The second part of the interview took hours. It was only 68 MB but sometimes broadband is as bad as 2G. We completed uploading it around midnight.”

Tali learned about the magazine a few months ago and has been a regular reader and contributor ever since. He is also a poet who writes in Kashmiri. He has written a poem, titled “Lokchaar,” in which he reminisces about his childhood. He filed the poem for publication last month. Tali is waiting for the “lockdown to end so that they could publish it.”

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Readers and Contributors

The only thing that keeps the magazine going despite skipping three issues and struggling during COVID-19 is its quality. Ather Zia, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado in the United States, is a regular reader and contributor. “What I like Zaanvun Lokchaar most for is its content on Kashmiri culture, language and art and it is growing,” she said.

Sabreena Mushtaq, an intermediary’s student in Kashmir, subscribes to the magazine. To avoid postal delay, she visits the post office every month and gets her copy.

“I anxiously wait for it every month,” she said. “Whenever I see an update about the latest issue on their Facebook page, I call the post office for my copy. I want to read it overnight. It is filled with so much content that just half the magazine gives me more than my money’s worth.”

After the printing of the magazine was stopped, people have continued reading it, often on patchy internet connections. (Sameer Mushtaq for StoriesAsia)

For Ifham Mushtaq, a Class IX student, Lokchaar is the only platform for him to publish his short stories and poems. It’s the same for Iram Javed, a Class V student, and Umaisa Manzoor, a high school student.

Not only that, for young artists and photographers, it is also one of the few avenues to get their work published and stay motivated.

Mushtaq said, “I had lost interest in writing because I couldn’t get it published in local newspapers. They always wanted something related to the conflict. My cousin showed this magazine to my father who passed it on to me. I sent my submission and got a response from them in a week or so. It was like a dream come true.”

The magazine also conducts a monthly kids contest. Iram, who writes poems on solitude and classwork, won the contest in November 2018. “When I received the gift, I was on cloud nine. My parents were so happy. I took the gift to school the next day and showed it to my friends and teachers. They appreciated it a lot.” 

Aamina Fajr is another young artist who paints on acrylic. Her paintings were printed in Zaanvun Lokchaar’s July 2019 edition. “The magazine,” Aamina said, “helped me showcase my talent. After that happened, I got many calls of appreciation and encouragement about my work.”

There are almost 30 slugs in the magazine. It covers a varied range of topics, fiction and non-fiction. There’s environment, history, culture, health, travel, food, religion and whatnot.

“I love the mythology section,” Nisar Ahmad, who is a government employee in the valley, said. “I always worried about who will tell us these stories after our grandmothers leave this world. But Lokchaar compiled most of them and I hope they will succeed in compiling everything that is currently just oral history.”

The schools have always welcomed Zaanvun Lokchaar. Some call to advertise and some others want them to give lectures on writing and help the schools develop a culture of reading among students. Thanks to these calls, the magazine has been able to reach almost all the big schools in the valley from Welkins School in northern Kashmir to Foundation World School in central Kashmir to Rainbow School in southern Kashmir. 

To encourage students to write and showcase their talent, the magazine would pay their contributing writers one rupee per word and 500 rupees for a poem. It also paid 50 rupees for each photograph or painting published in the print edition.

However, the advertising crunch after the August 2019 lockdown forced them to stop paying their contributors.

“If it was not for our other businesses,” Fayaz said, “we would have died a long ago. We run this magazine just because we all want to do something for the children who have been born and brought up in conflict. They have read nothing but stories of war and hopelessness. They have been conditioned into misery and helplessness. We don’t want them to see themselves as victims because they are warriors.”

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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