With the demise of Ved Bhasin, Kashmir lost an iconic fighter for secularism, democracy, free speech, liberalism, and justice. But Masood Hussain, who closely worked with him in the most crucial era of Kashmir’s troubled past, says the legendry editor’s fearless battle to remain objective in the darkest days laid the foundation of the narrative that Kashmir flaunts now
Last week, Ved Bhasin, the iconic editor of The Kashmir Times (KT), died at 86. For slightly more than three years, he stayed away from his Residency Road chamber, skipping a formal responsibility in editing the newspaper he nourished for more than 60 years.
Ved Ji lived an interestingly eventful life. He would get distinguished even in routine. For most of his life, he skipped following any diet regime, was a voracious wazwaan eater, and would drink too. A chain-smoker, he would fell asleep in his chair forgetting the blazing cigarettes between his lips. If people would not be around, he would burn his clothes and then laugh at it. He rarely took his doctors seriously till he was limited to the wheelchair.
Nobody in J&K knew the art of decent and fearless defiance as he knew, practiced, and preached. In fact, the birth of KT was an expression of defiance that the situation of J&K required at that point in time.
Ved Ji’s first love was politics but his closeness with politicians pushed him towards journalism. His proximity with the powers helped him understand that all that glitters was not gold. After Sheikh Abdullah, his leader, was deposed in 1953, Ved Ji would write against the undemocratic move in his Naya Samaj. Bakhshi government banned this newspaper under notoriously abused Defence of India Rules in 1954 and expelled him. Then, from Delhi, he started Kashmir Times but its copies would be seized by the state government at its borders. He came to Srinagar and tried for a title and was promised one if he deposited Rs 2000 as security, a huge amount in 1954.
Then, he utilized the services of a contractor friend in Jammu to manage a declaration. The newspaper started from Jammu, was shifted to Srinagar, and later resumed its publication from Jammu again when it became a daily publication in 1971. With the newspaper engaging him totally, he divorced his political ambitions but retained his friends.
“Frank. Have you joined National Conference?” Ved Ji asked me on phone, one cold afternoon in 1997 winter when Dr Farooq Abdullah’s government was around five months old. He would usually address me as Frank Morris!
“Why, Sir? Why should I join NC?” I responded.
“Your reporting says that,” he said.
“It has to be like that. In the new government lot many people see they have many shoulders to cry upon. It has barely taken over, let us give them some time before we start reporting their performance,” I explained.
“OK. How much time, you think, they would require,” prompt came the question.
“A year, or so.”
I received no such calls later. The subsequent years recorded the reportage that events dictated but my editor never regretted being slightly more accommodative towards NC, the party as a member of which he once was expelled. Contrary to the propaganda that a section of NC would frequently resort to between 1998 and 2002 dubbing KT as Mufti Times (Mufti Sayeed and Ved Ji have remained fast friends), the fact is that Ved Ji had more friends in NC than PDP! But the propaganda was so deep-rooted that when my interview with Omar Abdullah, well before his entry into politics, splashed on one full page, even Omar was shocked. As a key KT reporter for a long time, I never heard of a direction that a particular political party must get a preference over any other one. The policy, however, was that nobody should be ignored.
But KT coverage followed a procedure. For more than 15 years, the lead story in KT remained the same: the casualty figure of the day. I am personally witness to dozens of pleas, even by his friends, suggesting that the blood-soaked “boring” headline should pave way for something different. Ved Ji always accepted he would consider. But eventually, it remained unchanged. The logic: no development in a society is as important as the death of a human being, regardless of the circumstances. The policy diluted with his gradual disengagement with the desk coinciding with the fall in violence.
This professional approach to Kashmir situation was fundamental to the narrative that evolved in the last nearly three decades. Ved Ji refused to take advice on reportage from Kashmir. He even accepted to stay away from Kashmir market when JKLF, later Hizb ul Mujahideen and other militant outfits banned KT circulation in Kashmir but refused to follow their dictates.
In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the government and militants wanted to enforce their writ on newspapers forcing a media blackout for a few days. Later in the run-up to assembly elections in the same year, all Kashmir newspapers ceased their publications. The government managed it informally. But KT stayed out because nobody in the government had the courage to negotiate it with Ved Ji. The government had burnt its boats already by stopping publishing its advertisements in KT for many years.
As Kashmir Press remained locked in the run-up to polls, Ved Ji hired a taxi for nearly three weeks (it indicates the investment he would encourage for newsgathering) to get me to travel into the remotest corners of Kashmir to understand the mood on ground zero. That was a rediscovery of Kashmir for me as I went into areas; perhaps no journalist had tried between 1990 and 1996. In routine, journalists would usually go to areas where major militancy-related incidents would take place.
Had Ved Ji given in to the blackmail of the governance structure in 1990 and toed the official line, I believe Kashmir may not have recorded its history to the detail it now boasts of. He set the trend and protected the real narrative from being diluted by the propaganda weaved from Delhi and Raj Bhawan in Srinagar. Any book that skips consulting KT for the 1988-2002 era may not be history, I firmly believe.
A reporter’s editor, Ved Ji had always resource crunch to pay his reporters better. Sometimes, he would also admit that it should be called honorarium rather than the salary. This was key to KT’s failure in retaining the talent it created. But he would support them in their journalistic endeavours and would ensure they are on the right trajectory. For every single story, I have had a response from the editor, good or bad.
One afternoon, I saw an upset editor basking under the autumn sky in the office lawns only to find that he had been invited by the VC and faculty of the University of Kashmir. They had petitioned my editor against my campus reportage. The next morning he told me not to stop. A month later, I learned that the then VC had sought help from JKLF renegade Basharat to discipline me. I considered the situation at the individual level – it was reporting campus at the cost of life. I decided against covering the University of Kashmir. If the VC of a university goes to this extent of getting the life of a reporter, what should be the limit of a lecturer or a peon? Since then I have never written a word on the University!
O N Koul, another illustrious editor who managed KT desk at one point of time had very strong likes and dislikes. Sometimes he would not use particular reports filed from Srinagar. I used to complain to Ved Ji and he would always tell me, “Send this weekend, I will take care of it.” Weekends would be off for Koul Sahab.
To what extent can Ved Ji support his reporter was demonstrated when Iftikhar Gilani was arrested by Delhi Police and slapped with Official Secrets Act. Given the scary charges, editors seldom move an extra mile in protecting their subordinates. He did it because he only could do that.
While the stagnation in his cherished product has partly to do with what it reported in the larger interest of history and ethical journalism (advertisements were initially denied by the state and later by the DAVP), I believe Ved Ji was partly responsible because of his nature. At the peak of militancy, Kashmir’s main newspaper distributor was keen to circulate the KT and was willing to have adequate security deposits. At the last moment, Ved Ji refused. Reason: he worked for most of his life with a particular vendor who died and was survived by his widow. “How can I take this away from her?” he told me, when I insisted he had to take a final call on this. I never raked up the ‘indecent’ proposal later.
Though KT later set up a printing facility in Srinagar, it was caught in the time and space wrap and failed.
During 11 years and in between my salary package of Rs 500 to Rs 7000, I saw the media changing completely. I entered with a typewriter, then used teleprinter, upgraded to telex and then to textel. Finally, I oversaw the computerization of the organization in Srinagar and partly in Jammu. I still remember the call I got when I sent the first photograph of a bomb blast using e-mail. “Frank, photo bi e-mail houta hai?” he said. Then, I would scan the positives and convert it into a data file, record it in a floppy disk and send it from my home on an undisturbed dial-up internet connection. The biggest crisis was when the internet was withdrawn during the Kargil war. After many frustrating days, I somehow discovered an MTNL number in Delhi that I would access from Srinagar (STD line) and then the Jammu office would do the same thing to retrieve it.
The editor who would perpetually be hunting for talent, more in Jammu than Kashmir, barely gave any attention to the business part of his company. Later he got increasingly busy with his social commitments and would normally attend a function a day. An impressive orator with a distinct style of storytelling, he was always in demand. Then his vast friend circle would take over.
Every time I would meet him – the last meeting was in April at his Gandhi Nagar residence when he would use a wheelchair for movement, I would complain about his delay in not writing his interesting rich life. I was keen that this God-fearing atheist would not leave this world without telling us what he knew, confronted, heard, and did. I am told he had planned it at one stage and had even thought of a title. He barely missed writing it. But that is what life is all about. Maybe it starts a series of PhDs thesis on his life and contributions to the field of politics, media and civil liberties.
The man was in love with Kashmir. He would get angry over small things concerning Kashmir. He compromised with his well-being for its sake. Every year, he would spend months in Srinagar, with friends, and in his office. A peace activist and a strong votary of the India-Pakistan friendship, he would meet all leaders across the ideological divide for hours. Once cops prevented him from entering Geelani’s Hyderpora residence, and it created a law and order problem which eventually settled with Geelani coming out and taking his guest in. The day his close friend Abdul Gani Lone was laid to rest, crowds shouted slogans for him. But they did not know his name: the slogan was ‘Ved Mahajan, Zindabad’.
One summer, we spent almost a day trying to locate the name he had inscribed on a Shalimar garden pillar when he had driven his bride to Srinagar on honeymoon. In April, I could feel his urge to fly to Srinagar but the family failed to locate a house having the facility of getting in with a wheelchair. Homes having that facility were flood-soaked. That is how destiny works.