'If you speak against them, then you are going to invite a raid, and if not arrest, then something (else).'
Kashmir Times Executive Editor Anuradha Bhasin's column in The New York Times newspaper last week -- 'Modi's Final Assault on India's Press Feeedom Has Begun' -- came in for sharp criticism from the government as Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur called her column agenda-driven and mischievous.
"This kind of over-reaction saying everything that is critical of the government is agenda-driven and a conspiracy is actually proves my point, which is, there is no press freedom existing in Kashmir and that this government is intolerant towards any kind of criticism," Bhasin, who is currently in the US on a John S Knight Journalism Fellowship, tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com.
Anurag Thakur says your NYT piece is propaganda against India by 'agenda-driven media', is 'spreading lies' and is 'mischievous and fictitious'.
He (Thakur) hasn't enlisted anything to counter whatever I have said (in her NYT column).
If he is saying there is enough press freedom and we don't need to be taught about democracy by anybody, then he should at least enlist what is it that he finds is actually incorrect (in my column), which he doesn't.
And this kind of over-reaction saying everything that is critical of the government is agenda-driven and a conspiracy is actually proves my point, which is, there is no press freedom existing in Kashmir and that this government is intolerant towards any kind of criticism.
This is true not only about Kashmir, but entire India and that is what my article is about.
In Kashmir the silencing of media is absolute. It is complete. And that is exactly what they (the Modi government) are doing with the rest of India today.
While your NYT column talks about how the Narendra Modi government is undermining democracy in Kashmir, why is it that an Anuradha Bhasin who speaks out vociferously against the Modi government's policies in Kashmir is not yet arrested while a young Kashmiri journalist like Sajad Gul has been jailed since last January as you note in your column?
Why this different treatment to two different journalists from Kashmir?
The fact that right now I am not working (as executive editor of Kashmir Times) may be has got something to do with it, but I cannot say that exactly.
But there has been a pick-and-choose in the way that they have targeted people, and they have different ways of targeting different people -- it's not that I haven't not been targeted (Read Anuradha Bhasin's 2020 interview with Rediff.com) as I've written in my (NYT) piece how they closed our offices, slapped us with income tax cases, etc.
(Reason) number two (why I have not yet been arrested) is that I am not a Kashmiri Muslim. Probably there is a different yardstick (used by the Modi government to target journalists in Kashmir).
Do you fear that sooner or later you could head the Sajad Gul way?
(Laughs heartily) You really want to see me there (in prison)? But the way this government is acting I think anybody who is criticising this government is going to be arrested. Or if not arrested, they have different models for everyone.
I am not sure if they will arrest anybody and everybody because at the end of the day they have to keep up some kind of pretense of democracy.
But there is no missing the fact that they are targeting everyone.
If you speak against them, then you are going to invite a raid, and if not arrest, then something (else).
At some point in time, yes (I may also get arrested).
And how mentally and physically are you prepared for such an ordeal if it happens?
(Exclaims after a long pause) Oh, I haven't really thought about it, but yes these are the thoughts that do come to the mind while we are writing, and it makes writing extremely difficult.
Because earlier whenever we did our work, we are writing about something (some issue) or investigating a story, it was always about the story. It was always about how you want to do your best.
Now there are also these things in mind (about arrest) and how you are going to be persecuted for the kind of work you are doing.
These thoughts do come to the mind and it impacts your work (as a journalist).
Despite such pressure, how do you continue to be fearless and speak out against what you think are injustices done to the people of Kashmir?
I think now I haven't been able to do as much work as I was doing earlier (before the clampdown on the media and journalists in Kashmir) in the years before (August 5) 2019 (when Article 370 was abrogated).
(After yet another pause) I am not working with so much regularity.
It is because of the constraints that are created by the government. When you are writing something, it's (the fear of arrest) always at the back of your mind.
How is it that you are going to be persecuted for the kind of work you are doing?
Right now I am taking a break -- this (NYT) piece just came in -- but I felt too strongly about what was happening (in Kashmir) and I thought it was time to write about it.
Do you have more stories to tell about how journalists in Kashmir are being harassed or intimidated by the Modi government?
You could just elaborate the similar kind of stories, but the problem is today it's difficult to even find a story in Kashmir because people are scared to talk. And that includes the journalists.
How are the journalists in Kashmir coping with the gag on press freedom?
Mostly, by self-censorship. Now there are journalists who are operating not in Kashmir, but they are working elsewhere in India. Or they are silent.
Very few journalists continue to do their work, but there are only limited kinds of stories that they are able to do.
When and how do you think the final assault on India's press freedom -- which your column claims has begun -- end?
You see the whole downslide like you have Indian journalists being arrested or being slapped with criminal cases, even under the UAPA, sedition cases, you have newspaper organisations targeted with raids. And the only thing left was a foreign agency being targeted (but that option too has been tick marked with the raid of the BBC offices in Mumbai and Delhi).
If you see the whole trajectory, that is where it is pointing to (final assault on press freedom) step-by-step.
I won't have a timing (as to when this assault will end), but being a student of history I know that this kind of an authoritarian control is always unsustainable.