In the first week of October came news from Jammu that the government-allotted apartment where Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of Kashmir Times has lived for twenty years, had been ransacked. The act was allegedly perpetrated by the relative of a former member of the Legislative Council. The intruders tried not to be photographed in the act by Bhasin, but later she published them and wrote on social media about how her “jewellery, silverware and other valuables” were taken by them in “connivance with the [Jammu and Kashmir] Estates Deptt and some police personnel”. Bhasin had not been served a show-cause notice to vacate the flat.
Soon after the office of her newspaper, located in the Press Enclave area in Srinagar, was also sealed, again without giving its legal owner or editor any reason. “Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation & eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu, where my belongings including valuables were handed over to ‘new allottee’,” Bhasin wrote.
One is suddenly reminded of the various storms the oldest and most-circulated newspaper published from Jammu and Kashmir has faced all these years. In 1983, some 200 Hindu right-wing lumpen, armed with batons and sharp weapons, barged into the offices of Kashmir Times in Jammu and attacked the editor at the time, Ved Bhasin. This attack followed a news report published by the then forty-year-old newspaper, which had apparently “hurt” their sentiments. The grand old man of English journalism, as Ved Bhasin was known in Jammu and Kashmir, survived the attack and continued his work with renewed vigour.
What are these attacks but vendetta for speaking out, and how peevish is it for a government to dispense with due process in order to settle scores? The scenes at Kashmir Times are reminiscent of media censorship in countries that have witnessed military coups, if not worse. For instance, when officials of the Estate Department entered the office of Kashmir Times on 19th October, they simply asked everyone to immediately clear out, not even giving them an opportunity to collect their personal belongings or office equipment. Thereafter, the office was sealed.
These actions of agencies of the government of Jammu and Kashmir may appear shocking, but they are not surprising. After the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, and the bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories last year in August, media in the region has faced tremendous restrictions. From lack of internet access to being hounded and allegedly intimidated by security forces, Kashmir Times has spoken out against all of these. That put the newspaper and its editor at the forefront of fighting restrictions on communications and press freedom.
When large sections of the press, in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir alike, chose silence or have acquiesced instead of speaking truth to power, Bhasin approached the Supreme Court to challenge the increasing curbs on media.
When viewing events from outside the former state, it is difficult to imagine the courage required to take on a mighty state whose unilateral dissolution of a state—effectively invisibilising 9 million of its people—was met with jubilation everywhere except in the region.
For example, in April three journalists from the region—Masrat Zahra, a young freelance photographer, Peerzada Ashiq, a reporter working for The Hindu newspaper, and author-journalist Gowhar Geelani, were booked under the stringent provisions of UAPA for “unlawful activities”.
Perhaps to normalise this state of affairs, merely two months later, the Jammu and Kashmir administration released a new media policy which talks about creating “a sustained narrative on the functioning of the government”. What has irked newspaper editors and journalists is that it empowers the officials or clerks in the government’s Information Department to determine what is “anti-social and anti-national”.
Apart from undertaking a background check of the owners, editors and reporters of media establishment before empanelling it for government advertisements, it empowers them to take punitive action in the form of stopping advertisements and even booking journalists and editors for transgressing any conditions. The growing opacity in the bureaucracy can be gauged from the fact that Anuradha Bhasin’s queries vis-a-vis implementation of this controversial policy implementation remained unanswered.
Merely three days before the closure of Bhasin’s office, the Estates Department had also locked the Kashmir News Service (KNS) offices, located in Magarmal Bagh, Srinagar. KNS, too, has said it was not served any cancellation notice of its allotment, nor a show-cause notice to vacate the premises. The reputed news agency of Kashmir had for years reported events from the ground.
Arbitrary actions of the state with respect to Kashmir Times and Bhasin have received widespread condemnation from all sides, ranging from Opposition parties to media organisations. The Editors Guild of India called the action reprehensible, and said it would have “disturbing implications” for media in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Though Kashmir Times’ Srinagar office now stands sealed, many have offered their places for the smooth continuation of its publication. In this way, it is clear that the government’s actions have generated a groundswell of support for the press. A solidarity campaign has also been launched by a group of journalists from Jammu and Kashmir, which has asked for volunteers to “work for free to keep Kashmir Times going”. More than twenty journalists had signed this “letter of solidarity”, as part of which they have offered to “...devoting some work hours, for free, every day to support the Kashmir Times editorial team which can somewhat help sustain the paper in these difficult times.”
In its long history—now more than six decades—the newspaper has weathered many storms. The founder-editor Ved Bhasin, who is Anuradha’s father, had told Kathy Arlyn Sokol, an American journalist based in Japan, author and social activist, that the “Kashmir problem is not a territorial problem, it is a people’s problem...”. Sokol’s long series of conversations, excerpted as an interview, were published in Kashmir Times in 2015, with the following introductory lines: “In 1954 when I was supporting Abdullah and criticizing his arrest, the state government banned my newspaper. I started another newspaper in Delhi but copies were confiscated before going to J&K. So, I started filing from Srinagar and in 1955 I started the Kashmir Times in Jammu under another's sponsorship. I was then forced to join the paper owned by Prime Minister Bakshi, the Kashmir Post, which I edited for five years, although thrice I resigned.”
During the late eighties and early nineties, when Jammu and Kashmir was in tremendous turmoil, the newspaper also faced challenges from non-state actors such as militant groups and, at different times, from Hindutva fanatics as well. On some occasions, several militant groups had banned the newspaper’s circulation for days in 1989. Its hawkers and agents would also came under attack. In 1992, a fringe Hindutva group banned the newspaper and those who associated themselves with the newspaper faced intimidation.
These attacks have became more sophisticated, more subtle, over time. For instance, stopping advertisements to a newspaper has become a well-honed skill of the powers that be. According to Anuradha Bhasin, it did not take much time for the government to stop advertisements once Kashmir Times approached the Supreme Court with its petition last year.
Remember the dominant narrative around the “Kashmir problem”, that it is a “Muslim problem”? The Kashmir Times has not only refused to buy this divisive, polarising logic, but always questioned, challenged and resisted attempts to paint it as such. It punctures or subverts the deliberately constructed ruling class narrative of the “Kashmir problem”.
Yet Kashmir Times has always risen like a phoenix from the problems it faces. Salaam, Kashmir Times. This battle also you will win.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal