Et tu, Bhasin!

With every passing day, Kashmiris are coming under attack. If it is not a Constitutional assault, it is judicial apathy. If it is not the Government, it is the political parties. If it is not the bureaucracy, it is the investigating agencies. If it is not the security forces, it is the militants. Kashmiris are the receiving end; either being belittled or berated. It is fast becoming a national past time.

The latest to join the party is the executive editor of Kashmir Times, Ms Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. In an opinion piece, “Kashmiri Editors Can’t Use Fear as an Excuse for Their Continued Silence”, The Wire, 8th September, 2020, Ms Bhasin’s makes the point – straightforward in expression but far reaching in implication – that reportage on Kashmir is not as constrained as it is compromised. The Kashmiri media has capitulated.

The sting, like that of the proverbial scorpion, lies in the tail, as the column ends with suggesting that Kashmiri editors have reduced their newspapers “to a pamphlet fed on advertising”. A pretty damning indictment this, coming as it does from within the fraternity.

Further, making a distinction between “many professionals (who) have struggled to keep the news alive and ward off any attempts to suppress the flow of information”, she accuses the “valley’s leading newspapers” of having “chosen to keep their publications alive by killing news stories and burying all morals of journalism”. That they are unprofessional is an incidental but obvious inference.

Had these observations and judgment not been restricted only to Kashmiri journalists, one could not have but agreed with her contention. Indeed, it is not local journalism which has been in a “state of stupor”, the national media has forever, and more so after August 5th 2019, been either in a state of denial or has displayed unprecedented apathy to the happenings in Kashmir. In being as it has been, the fourth pillar of democracy has colluded and concealed the arrogance of the executive, the disdain of the legislative and indifference of the judiciary.

The problem arises with journalism being defined in terms such as “Kashmiri editors”, or as “Kashmiri media” and singling out “valley’s leading dailies” for castigation. What the leading papers of the Valley have been accused of is precisely what has been pioneered and practiced by most of the biggest newspapers in the country for quite some time now. As the owner of one of India’s largest newspaper once said, “We are in the business of advertisements and news is something that separates advertisements”. While the dismay and outrage of Ms Bhasin could be naivety, hearing the whispers of fear and favors in the Valley amidst the deafening silence of the national media does show a hint of prejudice.

But, for now, that is beside the point.

The “Kashmiri Editors”, hemmed in from all sides as they are, can doubtless respond by listing dozens of failing of Kashmir Times, as also that of Jammu based newspapers, in reporting and editorializing events and happening in Kashmir over the last thirty years thereby questioning the high moral perch that she has taken. True as those will be, the issues raised need to be discussed.

By singling out “Kashmiris editors”, from within local journalism, a clear distinction between them and the “Jammu editors” is being made. This categorization is perilously close to, and indeed reinforces the classification accentuated by the dominant right wing ideology. It is just a shade away from being pigeonholed by those who see J&K, and the world at large, only from the binary of religion. As such, unwittingly, Ms Bhasin, is furthering the ideological agenda that she purportedly stands against. Have these categories become as ingrained and indispensable as analytical tools to understand all behavioral facets of the civil society? In this case, the traits and territories of journalists as well?

Is it that human rights violation or political repression or communication blockade in Kashmir is now the concern only of Kashmiri journalists? Not so long ago these were of universal– national and international — concerns as well.

What adds insult to injury is that all this is coming from the editor of a paper founded and admirably run for close to five decades by the redoubtable Ved Bhasin. An editor whose first newspaper, Naya Samaj was banned by the Government of India in 1954 for opposing the undemocratic dismissal and arrest of Sheikh Abdullah.

Was Ved Bhasin a Jammu editor or a Kashmir editor? Or was the dismissal of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah a local event of significance only for the Kashmiri editors? If indeed he was, it is a matter of great curiosity as to why the paper which he started after his “Jammu paper” was banned for running a Kashmiri story was named “Kashmir Times”?!

What was the response of Ved Bhasin to the banning? Unlike his successor, who downed the shutters on the Srinagar print edition of the paper in the aftermath of August 5th, 2019, he filed the declaration for his new newspaper, Kashmir Times. Guess where? In Srinagar. And that is precisely why, Kashmir Times, which was printed and published in Jammu, and airlifted to Srinagar, became a prime newspaper even as it reached its valley readers only in the afternoon. It used to be sold at a premium (or as they say in local parlance “sold in black”). It is a part of the journalistic folklore that Kashmir Times was sold for 10 times its cover price on the day its Srinagar bureau chief and star reporter Zafar Meraj interviewed Shabir Shah after the then Chief Minister had declared on the floor of the legislative assembly that Shah was in Pakistan.

Rather than ruing the fact that,  “the powerful dailies dictate the kind of journalism that the rest are obliged to follow, unless they choose to be out of sync with the rest and face consequences”, Ms Bhasin, who has inherited her father’s institution, would do well to emulate his commitment to the cause and conviction of the profession too.

In 1991, Ved Bhasin, wrote an editorial, “Murderers in Khaki”, on the killings in Sopore. It not only galvanized public opinion against excesses by the security forces but also motivated local writers, like me, to visit Sopore and write about the heart wrenching episode which was published by national magazine, Frontline.

Which brings to fore the question as to why did Ms Bhasin choose not to publish the column in her own paper? It is significant that the tirade against “Kashmiri editors” was published in a news and opinion portal. Who was being addressed? If it was the civil society of Kashmir in general, or the editors of Kashmir based papers in particular, it would have had a far greater impact were it to be published in the Kashmir Times.

With India being placed at 142 out of the 180 countries evaluated, its worse ever placement ever in the World Press Freedom Index, 2020, these are tough times for journalists. Reality is consistently being distorted by the propaganda war that parallels the pellets and the bullets. Not that journalists have a monopoly on the truth, but only collectively can there be hope to write the first draft of history; what we see as individuals, feel as a community and believe as a people.

At times such as these, summarized evocatively by her – “when democratic spaces vanish, the dangers of a venomous and unstoppable mob are enhanced … and the only thing that can avert such a danger is a responsive media, guided purely by the principle of informing and enriching informed opinion” – what is needed is not pontification but practice.

As a conscientious citizen, Ms Bhasin has done more than her bit by filing a case against the Union of India in the Supreme Court for the restoration of 4G. But as a journalist, one must say she has failed her own cause.