It's been called many things. A media brawl, a spat, a slanging match, a clash of personalities, everything but what it really is - standing up for freedom and rejecting the sinister intimidation tactics of a classic bully and his embarrassing subversion of journalism.
This week, I wrote a Facebook post saying I am ashamed to belong to the same profession as Arnab Goswami, a former NDTV colleague and now the hugely successful editor at a competitive network, Times Now. Tens of thousands of people have since read and debated what I wrote. Some have wondered what prompted me to react at all. Many in our fraternity have courageously come forward to also call a spade a spade; others have maintained a disappointingly timid and politically correct silence. The worst response however belongs to those who have positioned this as a personal squabble in which they will not take "sides". Take sides? This is not a messy divorce in which friends want to keep relationships intact with both partners.
This is about our fundamental right to report freely and honestly without being conveniently misrepresented as terror sympathizers or enemies of the Indian Army. Above all, it's about an unprecedented moment in India's media history, wherein a leading journalist has actually called upon the government to put other journalists on trial for their nuanced, multi-dimensional reportage on Kashmir.
You heard that right. "I agree, bring them to trial" bellowed the bombastic Mr Goswami in his trademark Newshour style. "I say not bringing them to trial compromises my country further and I don't care if some of those people are in the media. Bring them to trial too," he declared with a self-righteous flourish. There are only two words for this - Demagoguery and McCarthyism. What makes it ominous is that these are typically traits of all authoritarian politicians and characteristics it is the job of a watchdog media to challenge. I cannot think of a single example anywhere in the world where it's an Editor who exhorts the Establishment to shut down sections of the media and treat them as treacherous criminals. So I ask those who are reluctant to "take sides" - What *IS* the other side in this call (by one of our own) to shut down press freedom? Silence, in this instance, is complicity.
Apart from calls for censorship and filing criminal cases against journalists, in his broadcast on "Pro Pakistan Doves", Mr Goswami was also guilty of both falsehood and brazen hypocrisy. First, the untruthful bits - he lumped all of us who have reported the recent unrest in Kashmir (from the ground, not from behind the lazy comfort of a Mumbai studio table like him) as apologists for the recently killed militant Burhan Wani, without explaining the basis of his statement. Similarly, he positioned us as being at some sort of war with the Army - both false and disingenuous. To start with, the violence on the streets of Kashmir has been (save one incident) about clashes between protesters and the police and paramilitary forces, not the Army. So why drag the military into the center of the debate? Second, telling the truth in all its textures - the duty of a journalist - includes reporting all sides of a story, not glossing over the bits that are too awkward and uncomfortable to confront. That would be cowardice, not reportage.
So, yes, I am among the journalists that have chronicled the new phase of militancy in the Valley - educated school-toppers picking up the gun in numbers high enough to make local militants outnumber foreign terrorists last year. I have reported from the hospitals of curfew-bound Srinagar on the horrific consequence of using pellet guns that have partially or permanently blinded almost a 100 young Kashmiris, many of them not even 18 years old. I have argued, as have several parliamentarians, including former Home Minister P Chidambaram, that these mass blindings are eroding the moral authority of the Indian State. And Home Minister Rajanth Singh has ceded that forces must find another way to control mobs, and has set up a committee to look for alternatives.
I have also reported from the city's Army base hospital, interviewing injured CRPF and police men on the difficulty of responding to the new tactics of an increasingly violent crowd: charging at camps with stones, snatching away weapons, using women as the first tier of attacks, and in some instances, even setting entire police stations and apple orchards ablaze. In fact, in the course of covering Kashmir I have found that some of the more compassionate and wise comments have come from soldiers who have served in the valley - General Malik, the former Army Chief has said the issue must be treated as a socio-political one that has no militaristic solution. General Ata Hasnain, former Valley commander has called for greater engagement with a new generation of angry and yes, radicalized, Kashmiris. The serving Army Commander General Satish Dua told me in an interview that "It wrenches my heart when boys who have joined militancy 2-3 months ago get eliminated in an encounter. These are our boys." An injured CRPF soldier at Srinagar's base hospital said it best. "We cannot shoot at them; after all they are our own people."
But by the verdicts that are handed out in Mr Goswami's nightly trial courts, these three soldiers would be "Pro Pakistan Doves". Worse still, they'd be "anti-national" - that new bogey that now provides cowardly cover for prejudice, rabble-rousing and bigotry.
Yes, of course, Pakistan is definitely stoking the Kashmir fire, but the external dimension is only one part of the story. With over 40 civilians dead, we have to ask ourselves where is our imagination, our compassion, our political engagement, our sense of urgency? Is the truthful exploration of why Burhan Wani's death has erupted into rage and mass protests not our fundamental role as reporters? When a fellow television anchor creates patently false meta narratives just to slander his colleagues, that's not journalism - it's not nationalism either - it's just plain and simple intellectual dishonesty.
Now let's come to the hypocrisy. What was not said during the broadcast, in which Mr Goswami asks for journalists to be criminally punished, is just as important as what was. If the absence of belligerence against Pakistan is treason according to the patriot games played by Times Now, then why was there no mention of the BJP-PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir and its many contradictions? The Agenda of Alliance agreement prepared by Ram Madhav of the BJP and Haseeb Drabu of the PDP actually calls for a sustained dialogue with all stakeholders, including the separatist Hurriyat Conference. Ironically, during the recent turmoil, the state government called upon the pro-azaadi separatists to help bring calm. The agreement also seals status quo on Article 370 and commits to a sustained outreach with Pakistan. Personally, I find none of these agreements objectionable.
But we know that Mr Goswami does. So why was he silent in exploring these contradictions?
You could also argue that Prime Minister Modi has been more than a bit of a "dove" on Pakistan - from the secret conversation with Nawaz Sharif in Kathmandu to the surprise visit on Christmas Day to wish the Pakistani Prime Minister on his birthday. Once again, I would - and have - backed these initiatives as statesmanlike. But since we know the views of the Times Now Editor, why was he silent in criticizing them? As I write this, we have a confessional video of a Pakistani terrorist caught alive; we see the Lashkar Terrorist-in-Chief Hafiz Saeed openly claiming Burhan Wani as his own and admitting to his men leading some of the Kashmir protests. But the Home Minister is still headed to Islamabad for a SAARC meet. Admittedly, it's a multilateral forum and not a bilateral meet (and I think he must go), but by the 'nationalism' tests of Times Now, to even attend a literary festival in Karachi is to violate the tenets of your citizenship.
In that case, why not apply the same standards to the government? Or is it that you lack the courage to critique the government and it's far easier and self-serving to ask the government to "pull up" the media? (as the caption shamefully proclaimed on the Times Now broadcast). If the government is "pulling up a section of the media" - though it sounded more like Mr Goswami actually encouraged the I&B Minister to do so - isn't it his job to stand up against that instead of celebrate it? Or is all the bombast and vitriol reserved for intimidating journalists because that's so much easier than questioning the ruling BJP? What about the fact that the J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti suggests that had the forces known that their operation would claim the life of Burhan Wani, "there was a chance" that they may not have chosen this moment to kill him? Or that a PDP MP has openly called the Wani encounter "in violation of Supreme Court law." Have we heard Mr Goswami question the "doves" in the PDP or their partners in the BJP?
Remember the number of times Mr Goswami ranted against other channels for getting an exclusive he hadn't - he would always say it's because he asked the tough questions we didn't. Well, where are his "tough" questions to the government now on Pakistan or Kashmir? Questions I personally think are inane because diplomacy (and crisis management) is way too complex to be reduced to a primetime litmus test. But having set the standard for measuring our patriotism, why is he unable to set the same standard for the government? What happened to his famed anti-establishmentarianism?
Last year, Mr Goswami openly supported the gagging of the Leslee Udwin documentary on the Nirbhaya gang rape scheduled for telecast on NDTV 24x7. Then too he called for an official crackdown on what he called Voyeurs. Earlier this year, during the controversy over 'azaadi' slogans raised at JNU - when journalists showed solidarity and marched in protest against the thugs who assaulted reporters at Patiala House, Mr Goswami and his senior editorial team were conspicuously absent at the protests. Once again, he dubbed the rest of us who questioned whether the government response was disproportionate as traitors to India. As the latest installment of his hysteria shows, there is a clear pattern to his concerted attacks on the rest of the media. If this is not a danger to democracy, what is?
Finally, when Mr Goswami runs out of reasons to whip up narrow-minded frenzy he may, in desperation, fall back on a video in which Hafiz Saeed uses my name - and that of the Congress party - to play propaganda points on Kashmir. While I have already expressed my repulsion at a terrorist (whose impunity and freedom is an abomination and Pakistan's shame) manipulating and misusing my work for his own vile agenda, it's shameful that Mr. Goswami's cohorts on Twitter choose to validate the calculated rantings of a terrorist. That says a lot about them.
What should concern all of us much more is that one of the leading names of Indian media believes in censorship, wants to gag free expression, kill nuance, distort the truth and send journalists to jail. Like I said - and I stand by it - thank you, Mr Goswami for disparaging my journalism. Because a compliment from you would be a deep insult.
(Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and Consulting Editor with NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.