The story of J&K’s first TV journalist

Ashwani Kumar, one of most credible voices on Jammu and Kashmir, began his journalistic career at 20 years by starting a Hindi monthly newspaper and was the first one from J&K to hop on to the television news bandwagon when he began contributing for AajTak, then a 20-minute news bulletin on DD Metro

Ashwani Kumar got attracted to journalism during his college days when he once heard his landlord, a journalist, in old Jammu city howling at Sheikh Abdullah, the first Prime Minister of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, on the telephone. The journalist had written a piece on him, which did not go down well with the politician. Abdullah called the journalist on the telephone to express his displeasure. The journalist lashed out at him and said he will continue to write the truth.

After the journalist put the phone down, Ashwani walked up to him and asked, “Ki hoya uncle (What happened, uncle?)”

“He can’t tell me what to write,” the journalist said brusquely. He was still seething with anger.

Ashwani walked out of his room but kept thinking – Are journalists so powerful that they can lash out even at politicians?

This incident, he recalls, sowed the first seeds of journalism in him.

Son of a Jammu and Kashmir police officer, Ashwani did shift to Jammu with his elder sister and two younger siblings to become a journalist. They had come to Jammu to study and get government jobs, like their father. But Ashwani’s growing interactions with his landlord at Jullaka Mohalla drew him to journalism.

“We were tenants in the house of DD Abrol, who ran an Urdu newspaper,” he remembers. “I would sit in his room and observe him work. Gradually, he started talking to me about his work and my attraction for journalism only grew.”

Once when his father visited Ashwani in Jammu, Abrol told the police officer about Ashwani’s interest in newspapers. “Let him start a newspaper. I can see that he is meant to be a journalist,” he said. The father said he didn’t have the money for starting a newspaper. Abrol said if he could spend 15 rupees a month, that should be enough. The father agreed. Abrol did the handholding. And, at the age of 20, Ashwani started a monthly Hindi newspaper, Bharti Paigam, in 1979.

It was a four-page newspaper. The print order was 100 copies. After sending copies to the Information department and Press Information Bureau, the newspaper was circulated among his relatives and friends. Ashwani ran the newspaper for six years. In 1984, during his visit to Delhi, where his younger brother had gone for his doctorate, he once visited the Press Club of India, where he met the editor of International Meridien, a monthly English magazine published from Nehru Place in Delhi. The editor offered him a job for 500 rupees a month to be the Jammu correspondent for the magazine. M K Bangroo, who later became the Bureau Chief of Press Trust of India in J&K, was its Kashmir correspondent.

“Delhi called me for a reaction of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was visiting Jammu, on the death of poet Neelam Kumar. My cameraman and I managed to get into the airport with the help of the then BJP president Chaman Lal Gupta. When Vajpayee landed, Gupta introduced me to him and I requested him for a reaction. He (Vajpayee) was pleasantly surprised to find an AajTak mic in Jammu.”

Ashwani worked with International Meridien for four years (1984 to 1987) before shifting to Chauthi Duniya, a Hindi weekly broadsheet. It was here that he met senior journalist Qamar Waheed Naqvi, who later became a member of the launching team of AajTak in 1995 when it was a 20-minute news capsule on DD Metro – the two would have probably not realized that their journalistic paths would meet again a few years later. He worked in Chauthi Duniya for four years before he bumped into Gayandra Pandey during an evening at the Press Club of India. Pandey took him to Trilok Deep, executive editor of Sunday Mail Saptahik, a weekly Hindi newspaper, edited by Kanhaiya Lal Nandan, a famous poet, lyricist, and journalist, who had earlier edited Hindi magazines Parag, Sarika, and Dinman. Trilok Deep got impressed with Ashwani’s work in Chauthi Duniya and offered him a job. In Sunday Mail, Ashwani did several stories about terrorism, which was beginning to rear its ugly head in the Jammu region, especially in the Doda area. During this time, he also wrote for The Tribune and worked as a freelancer for the French news agency, AFP.

One day in April 1995, Sunday Mail Saptahik closed down abruptly.

“I was trying to fax a story to Delhi but the numbers didn’t answer. I tried all numbers and there was no reply. I couldn’t believe that all telephones of a newspaper office could be dead together. Then I called Trilok Deep’s house. When I asked him why the numbers weren’t answered, he told me about the closure. I couldn’t believe it,” says the Jammu-based journalist.

Ashwani was getting 6,500 rupees a month as a salary from Sunday Mail. In the early 1990s, this was a handsome amount. Suddenly, he felt helpless. “I had been married in 1990 and even had a daughter by the time the newspaper shut down. My biggest worry was – how do I look after my wife and daughter without a job.”

He says, “I would often go to Delhi during those days to scout for jobs. It was Ajay Chaudhary, the launching team of AajTak, who got me my next job. He had joined AajTak under the iconic television journalist SP Singh and Naqvi Ji. When he leant that I was jobless, he called me to the AajTak office in Connaught Place the next morning.”

The next day, Ajay Chaudhary organized a meeting, first with Naqvi and then with SP Singh. SP Singh asked Ashwani to suggest 10 story ideas from J&K. “When I went back to him with the ideas, he ticked seven with a red pen and called Sunil Saini on the intercom to explain to me how television works,” Ashwani recalls. “It didn’t take me long to understand that television was a medium of visuals and TV scripts are to string words with pictures.”

Ashwani was taken on board the AajTak team.

First TV journalist

When Ashwani returned to Jammu, his first job was to look for a camera. For his first TV assignment in 1995, he rented a Hi8 Video camera for Rs 500 a day. Ashwani says, “Delhi called me for a reaction of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was visiting Jammu, on the death of poet Neelam Kumar. My cameraman and I managed to get into the airport with the help of the then BJP president Chaman Lal Gupta. When Vajpayee landed, Gupta introduced me to him and I requested him for a reaction. He (Vajpayee) was pleasantly surprised to find an AajTak mic in Jammu.”

During those days, the videotape had to be sent to Delhi by air. There was only half an hour left for the next Delhi flight. Incidentally, SSP Jammu airport knew Ashwani Kumar. The police officer helped get the videotape to the pilot of the plane. (This happened only once – after that the tapes went through the cargo after formalities.)

“After successfully getting the tape on the flight, I called Sunil Saini from the SSP’s landline to tell him about it. He also wanted a script before the tape landed in Delhi. I quickly wrote whatever I remembered of the byte and sent it by fax. In the evening, the death of Neelam Kumar was the first headline on the AajTak bulletin and it had the soundbyte of Vajpayee sent by me. I can still feel the thrill of seeing it on air,” he says.

Ashwani got 4,500 rupees for the story on AajTak. The cameraman charged 500 rupees for the shoot. His engagement with AajTak was on a per-story basis.

“There was a lot of work for a television journalist in J&K and I worked my hide off. Apart from AajTak, I was contributing stories for Bazm-e-Kashmir shows on Doordarshan and sending visuals to APTN, a Canadian television network. I earned enough to buy a camera for 51,000 rupees and also made money by selling tapes to other TV journalists in the state,” says Ashwani. He bought tapes from Delhi and sold them to videographers and other television journalists in the state for a premium.

For the next couple of years, Ashwani says he worked very hard and earned a lot of money and a name for himself. There were months when his monthly bill ran into 80-90,000 rupees. This was too much for AajTak to pay to a freelancer so, in 1995, the company offered him a regular job for 11,000 rupees a month. And when AajTak launched a 24-hour news channel in 2000, the salary was raised to 30,000 a month.

Ashwani covered the Jammu region, comprising ten districts, for AajTak for 22 long years. As a Kashmiri Pandit, he had not only reported about the genocide of the 1990s but had also seen the wounds of the exodus in his own family. During his AajTak years, he covered terror attacks, often covering treacherous mountainous regions of Poonch, Rajori, Doda, Kishtwar, and Ramban on foot, lugging the heavy tripod on his shoulders, and political developments of the state.

He retired from AajTak in 2018 but the channel gave him an extension for a year for his loyalty – during early 2000 when many other news channels launched in India, many of the AajTak journalists switched jobs for greener pastures but Ashwani stayed with the channel all his service.

Own venture

Ashwani served as the President of the Jammu Press Club for seven years (2015 to 2022). After his innings at AajTak came to an end in 2019, he started JK News WIRE, a YouTube channel, to follow his passion. Besides being the editor-in-chief of JK News Wire, he is also the Chairman of the Himalayan Media Foundation, a nonprofit for the promotion of ethical journalism.

Ashwani is associated with the Central University of Jammu as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Mass Communication and New Media. He was given the state award for journalism in the year 2018. The award carries citation, medal and cash reward of 51,000 rupees.

Considered to be one of the most credible voices on Jammu and Kashmir, Ashwani writes opinion pieces for Hindi daily, Hindustan, and routinely appears on television and AIR shows on debates related to J&K.

He says, “In journalism, one never retires. You may retire from a regular job but once a journalist is always a journalist. I try to keep my passion alive through the JK News Wire.”

Ashwani lives in Jammu with his father and wife. His two daughters are working in Pune and Delhi, respectively.

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