A Pune university chose Kashmiri journalist Safina Nabi for a journalism award – and then cancelled the decision two days before the award ceremony.

The Maharashtra Institute of Technology-World Peace University had decided to honour her for a story she had written for Scroll – “The half widows of Kashmir” – and invited her to attend the award ceremony in Pune on October 18. A day before she was about to travel, she was asked by university officials not to come as they had “cancelled” her award, allegedly due to political pressure. The members of the jury that had decided on the winners refused to attend the event in protest.

In this interview, Nabi, an independent journalist who writes on gender, health and human rights, spoke about her disappointment at the university’s decision.

When did you apply for this award?
I never applied for the award. I did not know about this university in the first place.

Basically, seven members of a jury chosen by the university individually take up pieces they have liked in the year and select the winners in three categories.

How did the university contact you?
On October 10, I received an email from the office of Dhiraj Singh, who is the director of the department of media and communication at MIT-WPU, asking for my contact number.

On the same day, I received a call from the university informing me that I have been chosen as the winner of the award. Since I did not know about this university and was a bit suspicious, I asked the official to send the announcement officially via email.

The next morning, I received an invitation letter on the university’s letterhead and an email informing me about my award. They also put me in touch with Dr Rajeesh Kumar, an assistant professor from the mass communication department. He was my point of contact and took care of my flight bookings and accommodation.

The award ceremony was on the morning of October 18. I had decided to travel a day before.

What happened after that?
On October 16, I got a call from an unknown number in the afternoon. A woman introduced herself as a faculty member of the university. She said, ‘We are cancelling your award because we are getting a lot of political pressure and threat calls. We also think that it’s not safe for you to travel here.’

I thought some of my friends were pranking me.

I asked her to put everything in writing to me over e-mail.

After that, I called Rajeesh Kumar. To my surprise, he was not aware of such a decision. But he called back later and said, ‘It is true. We are cancelling your award’. I asked him to give me the reason and put it in an official email.

After about one hour, I got a call from Dhiraj Singh, the director of the university’s media department. He told me, ‘There are some people who have different ideas about Article 370 and you are a Kashmiri and we are concerned about your security.’

I told him if it’s about my safety, I will not come but there’s no need to cancel the award. Why were they doing so?

He replied, ‘We are an institution and, at the end of the day, this is a business. You have to understand our point also. You know the atmosphere in the country.’

Safina Nabi with the Fetisov Journalism Award in April.

How did the jury come to know about it?
On Tuesday evening, the department’s director Dhiraj Singh called me again. He was apologetic and offered to invite me as a speaker at the university’s ‘youth parliament’ in January. I got angry and told him I will never be part of an institution which is spineless.

After that call, I got in touch with one of the jury’s members and informed him about the developments. To my surprise, even the jury was clueless about the university’s decision.

As a mark of protest, he said, they will not attend the ceremony – and they did not.

What does this episode say about the state of journalism in India?
I have always been an independent journalist. I have been appreciated and won awards and grants from all the international journalism organisations. I have always done that on my merit.

This story, which was supported by the Pulitzer Center, got two international awards. It has also been nominated for national awards.

I have multiple identities. I am a Muslim, a woman, a Kashmiri and then on top of that I am a journalist. Carrying all these different identities and then making a mark in the field of journalism, especially at a time when we are not able to report the way we would like to, makes me more vulnerable.

This was not a big award or an achievement but the point is that you are denying it to someone who has achieved it on merit – especially to a woman journalist from Kashmir, who is a Muslim. It says a lot of things, given the current political context.

I feel even this is a badge of honour because my story has all the merit it should have. My story is not against anybody. I am talking about women’s rights and the reforms we need to make in order to give them those rights. I did this story because I had faced something similar in my life. That’s where the idea came from.

The university responds

In an official statement emailed to Scroll, the Maharashtra Institute of Technology-World Peace University said “no external political or non-political pressure has been exerted to rescind the award granted to Ms Nabi”.

The university said it anticipated that the award may lead to “unwelcome controversies”. “We wish to express our deep appreciation for Nabi’s substantial contributions to the field of journalism,” the statement said. “Nevertheless, we have been made aware of some of her published opinions and views, which have the potential to be viewed as contentious...Without taking a stance of either endorsing or renouncing her expressed views, we anticipated that presenting her with an award at this time could have given rise to unwelcome controversies.”