The silence is a lie

When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

In a politically complex and socially fragile place like Kashmir and Jammu, the role of a free and independent media is all the more significant. Media outside Kashmir has weaponized noise and lies about Kashmir. Within Kashmir has descended a near-complete silence. Both these stances defeat the purpose of journalism.

While I still await a constructive debate about issues, the former journalist turned minister turned columnist, Haseeb Drabu, has written an elaborate commentary (‘Et tu Bhasin!’ September 17, 2020) on my opinion piece. However, it turns that the commentary is more about me than my write up. As such, it vindicates my stand on the local media’s self-censorship. He is silent about all my criticism, but his sleight of hand has diverted the debate to me as a person. A person who exists in his head and has no connect with my words, argument or work. Drabu endorses the lacunae that plagues the media and is indefensible. Implicitly, he endorses self-censorship as a virtue and prescribes immunity from introspection and criticism.

Instead of countering my arguments and questions, Drabu has resorted to an ad hominem attack on the writer and questioned my integrity, cherry-picked some facts and exercised his own imagination by inserting imaginings of his own. Sadly, he spent almost 1300 words to flesh out three things: selectively invoke my father’s legacy, charge me with regional and communal bias; and declare me an ‘outcaste’. This is a response to the three erroneous accusations he makes against me and his imagined knowledge about my father.

Drabu’s purpose in comparing my work with that of my father’s is a classic case of weaponizing a familial relationship with Drabu’s own truncated memory. His corrupted memory card forbids him to see that the birth of Kashmir Times after Naya Samaj was banned (forget his inaccurate account) was inspired not by the idea of being an editor but to give voice to the powerless. The crux of that story should have been not that Ved Bhasin started another paper after one was banned; it is that he kept truth alive without caring about financial and other implications. He consciously chose ‘Kashmir’ as the nomenclature not because he understood the importance of the region as identified in the ethno-linguistic terms, but he felt this was an all-encompassing and unifying word defining the state of J&K.

Drabu also uses a flawed prism to accuse me of regional and religious bias. In typical political driftwood style, he pulls out a word from the title of the article, deliberately ignores the crux of my argument and distorts it to suit his attack. Take his objection to the use of word ‘Kashmiri’ in the title of the article; but surely he is aware of the multiple uses of  ‘Kashmir’ as a word that is inter-changeably used to denote both Kashmiri ethnicity and the state of Jammu and Kashmir (as it stood on August 15, 1947) in its entirety. As a journalist, he ought to also know that titles for articles are often chosen by editors of a publication (in this case, thewire.in). Instead, he picks up the word and throws it back in my face to patronizingly question, from the vantage position being an ethnic Kashmiri, my very identity and pronounces me an ‘outcaste’ in Kashmir even as he appropriates my father.

Drabu betrays his ignorance about both my father, who he claims to have drawn inspiration from as a journalist, and me. He insinuates that I have become part of the cacophonous anti-Kashmiri national media – an allegation without any evidence to support it and disconnected from everything that I have written on the subject. The claim that I have been silent to the atrocious conduct of the dominant section of the Indian national media is a brazen lie. The subject of my article was Kashmir’s local newspapers, not over-all media, which can be critiqued for its hundred different ills, and on which I already have a huge body of work. Deluded allegation is no substitute for evidence, fact and, indeed, logic. The oldest trick in the world is to make a line unnoticeable, if you can’t purge it, by drawing a longer line next to it. The national media’s unprofessionalism cannot be used as a prop to excuse the shortcomings of the local media.

He contends that the mere act of publishing a newspaper is sufficient while betraying his admiration for the revenue model of a well-heeled English national daily wherein news has come to be dictated by advertisements. To him this is fine. To me it is not. A newspaper must not only exist, it must be free to speak the truth.

How local newspapers in Kashmir, frozen by communication blockade and no curfew passes amidst massive restrictions, came to a virtual dead-end on August 5, 2019, Kashmir Times’ Srinagar edition included, needs no elaboration. Few of those who did publish perhaps either knew of some magic formula to circumvent these restrictions or were exceptionally brave, a “competence” that we lacked. Such tenacity is admirable but, what worth is a courage whose end goal is a timid silence? As for me, I did not pull-down shutters (as suggested by him), in the face of the impossibility of publishing the Srinagar edition of a newspaper headquartered in Jammu with no communication with its staffers and no knowledge of their well-being. The situation was desperate enough to compel me to move the court.

None of us are above introspection and there is a definite need to reflect when, as journalists, we feel compelled to hide the truth or fear from commenting on something.  Free and independent journalism is not measured by the quotient of fear, nor can it be mapped by religious or regional identity markers. It is identified only by its ability to speak for the powerless. The fear in Kashmir is undeniable but journalists, after all, are warriors and do not have the luxury of clinging on to a victimhood mindset. Jean-Paul Sartre sought to remind us, “We are our choices”. So, whether we choose to be silent or speak out, it is ultimately an act of our own volition.

As Economic Advisor of PDP-Cong government in 2003, in a conversation with me, Drabu accused Kashmir Times of playing into the hands of National Conference for its scathing editorial. After an apology, he asked me to take a “holistic view” and take a look at “analysis of the budget in today’s Excelsior” by a reporter who had interviewed him. The article he referred to was non-existent, I later checked. But it appeared the next day in the same newspaper. In 2016, he was part of the PDP-BJP government’s cabinet, holding the portfolio of finance, when his government cracked down on media, raided newspaper offices and press, detained technical staff, including ours, and banned Kashmir Reader. His defence of media today is, therefore, a pleasant change in position.

Now that he has, he could do better with a lesson or two on ethics and foundational principles of journalism. It may help him to learn how to read the opinions of others without imagining the unwritten.