A journalist remembers

Anuradha Bhasin’s first memory: lawns lined with trenches.

Three years old during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 — the third in fewer than 30 years — Bhasin recalled watching people take refuge in the scar-like troughs when violence threatened. 

“(The memory) stayed in my subconscious for many, many years,” she said.

Bhasin is the executive editor of  The Kashmir Times, one of the oldest English dailies in Jammu and Kashmir — a highly disputed region caught in a 70-year tug-of-war between India and Pakistan. Over 30 years, she has both chronicled and lived the vacillating social and political conflicts in her home. 

Yet the loss of internet access and resources following the 2019 Kashmir blackouts, alongside the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 and the retaliatory closure of her office by government officials in October 2020, has led Bhasin to close down operations, temporarily move to the United States, and continue The Kashmir Times online (printing infrequently). 

An outspoken advocate for press freedoms

Now a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, Bhasin has been outspoken about the Modi administration’s restrictions on press freedoms, noting in a New York Times op-ed that her office’s closure was a “punishment for daring to question the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.” 

Her admonitions come amid increasing scrutiny of the Indian government’s attitude towards the press: from 2022 to 2023, India’s rank in the World Press Freedom Index slipped to 161 out of 180, down from 150 out of 180 in 2022 and 140 out of 180 in 2014, when Modi first became Prime Minister. 

Bhasin’s story yields insight into the struggle in Kashmir; provides an inside look into the fractious relationships between India, Pakistan, and Kashmir born of the Partition of 1947; and — importantly — showcases the evolution of animosity towards the press in India.

“(The targeting is) very systematic, it’s very controlled, and it’s continuous — without a break, without a stop,” she said. “We lost 19 colleagues in the last 30 years.” 

An interwar childhood

Bhasin grew up in Jammu and Kashmir, the daughter of journalist and Kashmir Times founder Ved Bhasin. She was not yet five years old when Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the Simla Accord of 1972, ending the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War and ushering in an era of relative peace.

“That was probably the best time in Jammu and Kashmir, where the conflict did exist, but it had receded,” she said. “By the mid-seventies, things were looking up.”

In those years, Bhasin spent most of her time in the city of Jammu, the Hindu-majority winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, but moved to Srinagar, the Muslim-majority summer capital, for a couple of months every year. Kashmiris visited Jammu in the winter, leading to cultural and religious intermingling.

By the 1980s, though, the quiet began to crumble. Rising separatist militancy in Punjab fueled discussions in Kashmir about azaadi, or freedom. In the wake of 1984’s Operation Blue Star, Jammu was riddled by blasts and arson, and Indira Gandhi’s subsequent assassination created rifts between Hindus and Sikhs in the region. 

“My best friend was a Sikh friend, and she and I were walking, and we met another friend from school — this was a few days after Indira Gandhi was assassinated,” Bhasin said. “(The other friend) asked my Sikh friend, ‘Why did you people kill Indira Gandhi?’” 

A father hugs his daughter
Anuradha Bhasin and her father Ved Bhasin, the founder of the Kashmir Times ( image courtesy: Twitter)

A trail of communal conflict

These events opened Bhasin’s eyes to the history of religious conflict, born of Britain’s divide-and-conquer strategy. The scars of Partition lay all around her: Jammu was the site of a major massacre of Muslims in 1947, and there were houses in her neighborhood whose original occupants had been killed during the violence.

Bhasin remembers a distraught young woman who was psychologically impacted by the conflict. “(When) she was four years old, her entire family (was) killed in 1947 in front of her. She and her mother were the only survivors in the family. (It was) supposedly a very rich family and all she did was just roam around the streets like a mad woman, collecting sticks,” Bhasin said.

The presence of these historical ghosts, alongside the real and tangible communal fractures around her — including a physical attack on her journalist father by right-wing Hindus in 1983 — marked the end of the peace that had characterized her early years. 

“That whole thing (was) demolished right then and there,” she said. 

Reporting amidst insurgency

By the late 1980s, Jammu and Kashmir was once again embroiled in violence. Following rigged elections in 1987 in favor of a pro-India party, Pakistan launched Operation Topac, a covert operation militarizing youths disillusioned by Indian governance in Kashmir. Pakistani intelligence services took them in, armed them, and sent them back over the Line of Control. 

Bhasin began her career as a journalist in 1989, right in the middle of the conflict. At first drawn to writing about art and culture — considering travel logs or architecture — she shifted course when she observed the events around her. 

“(The insurgency) drew my interest more in — ‘Okay, let me find out what the history of this place is. Why is this happening?’” 

She began reporting on borders from Jammu to Poonch, unable to travel to Srinagar because she feared her father’s high-profile advocacy might put her in danger. 

“Growing up the way we did, the proximity with borders was my earliest memory,” she said. “The earliest memories were always also stories of Partition that were all around me. And so that interested me.”

The start of press restrictions

During this time, although she was a trainee reporter, Bhasin did see instances of press restrictions by the Indian government. In a region like Jammu and Kashmir, where little private advertising was available, publications had to rely heavily on the government for advertising. Central and state governments would use this power as leverage, granting advertisements to publications they deemed “favorites” and withholding it from others. 

The violence in the area also made journalism dangerous: in Kashmir, after the onset of insurgency, journalists found it hard to operate with so many guns around. There were kidnappings, killings, tortures, and arrests.

Still, according to Bhasin, the extent to which journalists were stifled wasn’t nearly as daunting as it is now. Restrictions didn’t last long, and papers could bounce back quickly. Even if there were missteps, “at least there was a communication channel open with the government,” Bhasin said. 

Modi’s India: Controlling the narrative

When 2014 rolled around and Modi was elected as Prime Minister, Bhasin and the rest of The Kashmir Times anticipated a change in attitude towards the press. 

“This (would be) in line with Modi’s ideology of promoting a singular kind of politics which is based on breaking communities,” she said. “I came to realize the first thing that you do is you control the media so that you can control the entire narrative and further polarize people.” 

Modi’s rise to power coincided with Ved Bhasin’s death. Distressed by the loss of her father, Bhasin nevertheless felt the timing of his death might have given him more peace than if he had passed later on. 

“When I think of what’s happening to the country to which my father tried to make a contribution in his own way, with his liberal ideas, infusing it with democratic ideas — he talked about egalitarian society — it’s the complete antithesis of what he stood for,” she said. “I’m just glad that he didn’t live to see this day.”

A brewing storm: Article 370

Bhasin continued with The Kashmir Times as executive editor. In August 2019, though, she noticed something was amiss: Her husband, journalist Prabodh Jamwal, came back early from Kashmir because of rumors of a brewing storm. Whispers abounded about the government ending Article 370 — the provision of the Indian Constitution granting special status to Jammu and Kashmir based on its terms of accession to India in 1947. Tourists and pilgrims were sent back home. 

These suspicions were confirmed on Aug. 5, 2019, when the Indian Parliament abrogated Article 370. The same day, it shut down internet access across Jammu and Kashmir. Bhasin had anticipated the end of Article 370, but not this early on — and not accompanied by an internet blackout. 

“Constitutionally and legally, it couldn’t have been done,” she said. “Experts had pointed (that) out…but it’s still shocking. Every step of it has been shocking. It’s been numbing, in fact.”

The birth of a dismantled state

Five days later, Bhasin filed a writ at the Supreme Court of India challenging the government’s decision to restrict internet access in Jammu and Kashmir. As the case remained in court, journalism in Kashmir languished: The Kashmir Times could not communicate with reporters and lost access to resources. Journalists had to line up to file stories on a single site with internet access. 

This blow, followed by the closure of her office, finally led Bhasin to move to the United States. During this time, Bhasin set to work on a book: A Dismantled State: The Untold Story of Kashmir After Article 370, which came out in December 2022, is an account of these tumultuous 2019 events. Writing the book gave her a sense of catharsis and control as she struggled to deal with the recent events’ ramifications.

“Writing (it) was extremely satisfying,” she said. “Now I want to kind of move to long-form writing — maybe long-form journalism, long-form writing — because it has a longer shelf life. It can be more detailed and it can carry all the many, many layers of any story. And I think that’s important.”

The future of the press

Bhasin, despite her struggles, remains one of the lucky ones: In Kashmir, journalists continue to be jailed, and some who wish to leave cannot — the government has put journalists on no-fly lists, issuing travel bans with shaky legal explanations. Many who wish to stay have capitulated, running government press releases and avoiding critical reports or investigative pieces. As the government cracks down on religious minorities, investigation of government abuses becomes more imperative because of the ripple effect of restrictions on other nations. 

“Journalism, or even democracy, if it is impacted in one part of the world, it’s going to be affecting the other part of the world,” she said. “Unfortunately, world leaders learn from each other, and sometimes learn for the worse, not for the better.” 

The spread of misinformation over social media, and the proliferation of generative AI, further imperils the industry: By the time fact-checking agencies get ahold of misleading messages, “the lie has spread by multiples across the world,” she said.  

To Bhasin, a self-proclaimed optimist, the answer lies in greater dialogue and communication. 

“In a democracy, you have faith in your government,” she said. “You may criticize it, you may attack it, but you believe that they would be responsive (to dialogue).”

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Amann Mahajan is a rising senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Gunn's newspaper, The Oracle, as well as the incoming co-Editor-in-Chief of its arts and culture...