The Work of Irfan Mehraj, a Fearless Journalist Who Offered Fresh Perspectives on Kashmir

Arrested by the NIA, Mehraj's work always stood out for attention to Kashmir’s politics, history, culture, and most importantly, its people.

Srinagar: Journalist Irfan Mehraj, who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in a terrorism case, started his career in 2013 as an intern at Kashmir Life, a weekly magazine published out of Srinagar, while also pursuing a postgraduate degree in journalism from the University of Kashmir.

In the politically-sensitive border region where journalism and its foot soldiers are routinely overwhelmed in the process of reporting the current situation while the larger picture gets distorted under the fog of contesting narratives, Mehraj initially stood out for his long-form, narrative pieces on Kashmir’s politics, history and culture which, besides Kashmir Life, appeared in the now-defunct Authint Mail, a Srinagar-based news portal, which shut office in the aftermath of the 2014 Kashmir flood.

With a postgraduate degree in English literature from Indira Gandhi National Open University and a great flair for writing, Mehraj doggedly pursued his love for long-form journalism by working with Contributoria, a network of independent journalists run by Guardian Media Group which owns The Guardian, the British national daily. However, Contributoria also shut down in 2015.

By that time, Mehraj had completed his journalism degree at the Kashmir University and began actively looking for a job which landed him as a researcher with Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a Srinagar-based rights advocacy group which is now under the scanner of the NIA in a terrorism case.

“He worked on a comprehensive report (by JKCCS) about the legal status of cases filed in connection with the violence against Kashmiri Pandits in the valley. Although he spent a lot of time investigating the FIRs and court documents, the report was never published,” Junaid Nabi Bazaz, a fellow journalist and longtime friend of Mehraj, told The Wire.

In the meantime, Mehraj also worked part-time as a subeditor at Kashmir Reader, an English daily run by Haji Hayat, a Pampore-based businessman who has been questioned by the NIA and J&K Police in connection with at least two terrorism cases. Mehraj later also worked with English daily Rising Kashmir as a sub-editor.

But the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, changed the atmosphere for media in Kashmir where local newspapers rely on the flow of government advertisements for sustenance. As the administration firmed its grasp on local media, newspapers resorted to massive salary cuts and layoffs to deal with the unprecedented clampdown.

“He felt choked in local media and started pitching to international platforms. With each rejection, he got better. His first big break came around 2019 at Al Jazeera,” Bazaz, who knows Mehraj as a brilliant student from schooldays and an avid book-reader, said.

“He once gave me a book by Edward Said when we were in Class 6. I have read it many times but I am yet to comprehend it fully.”

According to family sources, the deteriorating health condition of his father, Mehraj-ud-Din Bhat, a Kashmir arts trader who has been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, prevented Mehraj, the eldest among two siblings, from moving out of Kashmir to pursue his career. “Owing to his huge financial responsibility at home, he was working at multiple places. He was earning well while freelancing and was satisfied with his work,” a family friend said, requesting anonymity.

Besides his ailing father, mother and wife, who works as a teacher at a private school in Srinagar, Mehraj also has a younger brother who now works as an accountant. At the time of his arrest, Mehraj was working as an editor with TCN Live. Besides, he was also freelancing with Al Jazeera and German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).

Mehraj’s multimedia stories for these two outlets offered refreshing perspectives on Kashmir. Mehraj co-produced at least seven multimedia stories for DW and one for Al Jazeera. They focus on the social situation and communal harmony in Kashmir along with the recent violence against Kashmiri Pandits.

A recent story featured by DW explores the rise of drug abuse in Kashmir where “heroin use has shot up 2000 percent in five years.” One story traces the life of a Kashmiri Muslim as a caretaker of a Hindu shrine near his village. Another story which appeared in Himal Southasian magazine explores the revival of cinema in Kashmir.

One of his recent multimedia stories for DW also takes a critical look at the installation of CCTV cameras in the capital Srinagar by Kashmir police and why “some locals are frightened they are being spied on and unhappy they are having to burden the cost of the operation.”

In 2016, Mehraj also co-founded Wande Magazine, a Srinagar-based online news media platform “devoted to lodging and freezing Kashmir into the imaginations of our readers” with a focus on “multiple features of life in Kashmir; its culture, its humour, its daily travails under an unceasing political conflict,” according to a concept note of the webzine obtained by The Wire.

Khurram Parvez, the convenor of JKCCS and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2022, is on the advisory board of the magazine along with three more people. The webzine is at present on pause, with its last post, ‘2021 in reading: Ten books on Kashmir’, having been published on January 1, 2022.

According to the NIA statement, Mehraj was a “close associate” of Khurram, who was arrested by the agency in 2021, and JKCCS was funding terror activities in Kashmir “under the garb of protection of human rights.” The central agency has said that Mehraj is the first person to be arrested in the “NGO terror funding case” filed in October 2020.