Kashmir Press Club ‘Coup’: Another Govt Attempt to Muzzle Journalism?

After the controversy surrounding the 'coup', the J&K administration cancelled the allotment of the Club.

8 min read
Hindi Female

At around 1 pm on Saturday, Times of India assistant editor, Saleem Pandit arrived at the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) in his white Ambassador car along with some journalists to “take over” the club.

The scribes, some known and others unknown, went inside a room for a “meeting”, came out after some time and asked the staff of the club to hand over the official letter pad and stamp as they are the “interim body” now.

“They made a statement declaring themselves interim body on the official letter pad and put the stamp on it,” said a staffer, who wished not to be named. He added that they also used the official mail to issue a statement.

The club witnessed dramatic scenes soon after Pandit came out of the building to address the media, many of whom were “shocked” to see the “coup”.

“You have taken over the club arbitrarily,” a journalist told Pandit. “No, we have people with us,” he responded. "I am not with you" replied another journalist.

A large number of Jammu and Kashmir police personnel were deployed outside the Club premises when the incident took place. Some forces could be seen on the Club premises as well. The KPC does not allow gun-bearing persons in the Club.


The KPC Was Vocal Against Assault on Press Freedom

Pandit was suspended by the elected body in 2019 after he wrote an article in the Times of India alleging that the Club members are “jihadi journalists”.

Soon after the Club was taken over by the group, the KPC was locked by them on the pretext of a COVID-19 lockdown. The club remains shut on the second day of its “takeover".

Media analysts, however, see the “coup” as an attempt to assault the already battered journalism in the Valley. Senior journalist Najeeb Mubarki argues that the KPC was always vocal about the harassment and intimidation of journalists in Kashmir.

“See, you need to see it in the larger context. Journalism in Kashmir already has been under assault for decades, and post the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, even if some journalists were still working with utmost sincerity, they were either summoned or intimidated. The KPC would act as a pressure group by issuing statements against such assaults,” Mubarki told The Quint.

He noted that the action shows that the KPC’s actions were bothering the state. “Otherwise, what would be the logic of doing such a thing?” he added.

Mubarki, a former editor of Economic Times, opines that the action reflects what New Delhi has been doing in Kashmir for decades.

“In a very silly, comical and petty way, this is like a repeat of Article 370,” he added.

Dr Rashid Maqbool, a veteran journalist and a media researcher, told The Quint that the KPC was a beacon of hope for the media fraternity and a centre for all journalists in Kashmir.

“It is ridiculous on their part to make such a brazen attempt. The sanctity of this institution was violated by those who call themselves journalists. They can never be well-wishers of journalism. Their name in history will go down as the worst attackers of the press.”


J&K Govt's 'Intervention'

Meanwhile, the J&K administration issued a statement after the controversy.

“The government is concerned over the emergent situation which has arisen due to the unpleasant turn of events involving two rival warring groups using the banner of the Kashmir Press Club … In view of the unpleasant developments and dissensions between various groups of journalists, it has been decided that the allotment of the premises at Polo View in view of the now-deregistered Kashmir Press Club be cancelled and control of land and buildings situated at Polo View Srinagar, which belongs to the Estates Department, be reverted back to the said Department."


'Club's Sanctity Violated'

The Pandit-led group’s action drew massive outrage and criticism from media bodies in Kashmir and across the country.

The Editors Guild of India and the Mumbai Press Club on Sunday slammed J&K authorities for scuttling the Club’s election process and helping the group in taking over the Club.

The Editors Guild of India expressed its concern “at the manner in which the office and the management of Kashmir Press Club, the largest journalists' association in the Valley, was forcibly taken over by a group of journalists with the help of armed policemen on January 15, 2022”.

“This violation of the sanctity of the club by the police and the local administration is a manifestation of the continuing trend to smother press freedom in the state. Just recently, Sajad Gul, a young journalist was arrested for merely posting a video on social media, which showed a family protesting against the Indian government,” the Guild said in a statement.

The Mumbai Press Club in its statement asked for the restoration of the election process and the registration of the ‘Club’, while calling upon the state ‘to stop interference’ in journalist bodies.

“The Mumbai Press Club condemns the forcible takeover of the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) from the legally elected management body in conjunction with security forces on Saturday. The MPC also deplores the Jammu & Kashmir administration scuttling the Club's election process the previous day, Friday, 14th January, by 'holding in abeyance' the registration of the Kashmir Club, which is registered under the Societies Act, 1860”, reads the statement. ”


'Media Was in Trouble', Says the Interim Body

Since its formation, the KPC has issued day-to-day statements against the excesses of the state and its security agency on journalists. The Club is located in the heart of Srinagar city. The two-storied building was provided by the government of Jammu and Kashmir in 2018.

Post the abrogation of Article 370, the club provided a safe space for local journalists and those who used to arrive from other states of the country.

Soon after declaring themselves the interim body, the group issued a statement through the official email of the KPC, declaring a new interim body with journalist M Salim Pandit as the President, Zulfiqar Majid as General Secretary, and Arshad Rasool as the Treasurer of the Club till the elections are held.

“The KPC was defunct for the last six months when the tenure of the previously elected body ended. As the previous committee delayed the elections for unknown reasons, the Club was headless, thereafter for around six months, putting media fraternity in unwanted trouble,” reads the statement. It further added that “various journalist organisations across Kashmir valley unanimously decided to form an interim body of three members”.

The KPC held its maiden elections in the year July 2019 for a period of two years, which ended on 14 July 2021. Shuja ul Haq of India Today was elected as the President. He defeated senior journalist Haroon Rashid Shah, who, along with Zulfikar Majid of Deccan Herald, was in the fray for the presidential post.

Moazum Mohammad of the local daily Kashmir Reader was elected as Vice-President and Journalist Ishfaq Tantray was elected its General Secretary.

Veteran Photojournalist Farooq Javed Khan was elected as the Treasurer of the KPC. The journalists also elected seven executive members.

The Delay in Registration Process

The tenure of the elected body ended in July 2021. However, due to the registration process of the club under the Society Registration Act, 1860, the elections couldn’t be held on time.

Notably, the Kashmir Press Club comes under the purview of the J&K societies Act VI of 1998 (1941 A.D) registered with the registrar of the societies.

After six months, the authorities, on 29 December 2021, issued the re-registration certificate, following which the Club decided to initiate fresh elections and also announced the date on 13 January 2022.

However, the same group of journalists, including some non-members, approached the district administration with a proposal for an “interim body”, and that was followed by a communication from the government that the re-registration has been kept in abeyance on 14 January.


Nine Journalists' Groups Condemn Action

The letter to the District Magistrate, Srinagar, a copy of which lies with The Quint, reads , “The elections of the Kashmir press club were due in July 2021 within a week's time. Interestingly, the term of the previous executive committee ended on July 14, 2021. Since the club is presently without any legal executive body for the last six months, which has landed the Kashmir press club in a mess, it is therefore, requested to intervene in the matter as District Magistrate in order to set things right in the Kashmir press club in an attempt to sustain/revive the club.”

On 15 January, the group led by Saleem Pandit stormed the club guarded by armed forces and took charge. A majority of journalists in Kashmir condemned the “coup”, which the regional political parties allege was supported by the government.

However, hours after the alleged takeover by the Pandit-led group, at least nine Kashmir-based journalist bodies issued a joint statement describing the move as “illegal and arbitrary”. The statement termed the group that took over KPC as “disgruntled” journalists and alleged that they were having “open support from the local administration”.

The statement claimed that the “disgruntled” journalists had barged into the Valley’s premier press club and had held the office members “hostage”.

“On January 15, the day when the administration had declared weekend lockdown in view of Covid surge, a group of journalists barged into the club office and forcibly took control of the club by keeping the office members hostage,” the joint statement reads. “A large number of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed beforehand for this highly condemnable and completely illegal move.”

Expressing anguish over the “illegal and arbitrary” takeover of the KPC, the statement further states that “the administration, by allowing a few disgruntled elements to hoodwink the Club constitution, bylaws and flout all norms of law, has set a wrong and dangerous precedent”.

The nine journalist bodies that have opposed the takeover include the Journalist Federation of Kashmir (JFK), the Kashmir Working Journalists Association (KWJA), the Kashmir Press Photographer Association (KPPA), the Kashmir Press Club(KPC), the Jammu and Kashmir Journalist Association (JAKJA), the Kashmir Video Journalist Association (KVJA), the Kashmir Working Journalists Association, the Kashmir National Television Journalist Association (KNTJA) and the Kashmir Journalist Association (KJA).


Allegations and Counter-Allegations

Rejecting the allegations, Zulfiqar Majid, General Secretary of the interim body, said that these claims are spread by “vested interests” and politicians.

“What role do the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have in the Press Club? Did they ask them [the elected body] how they can continue to hold the charge even after their tenure was over?” he said.

He added that the tenure of the body was over six months earlier and it should have announced an interim body till the time of elections. Majid further claimed that his name as interim General secretary has been proposed by over 250 journalists and that he didn’t take charge forcefully. “The whole media fraternity is with us,” he added.

When asked if over nine journalist bodies have rejected the “overtake”, he said he doesn’t consider them journalists but ‘activists’.

On forces being deployed in the KPC, Majid said that Pandit is a protected person and is being guarded by over 12 policemen who were with him yesterday. “The police outside the KPC are usually there,” he added.

'We Have Full Support': Ishfaq Tantray

The group’s action has been widely condemned and all journalist bodies across Kashmir are unanimous in their condemnation.

But Ishfaq Tantray, General Secretary of the elected body, says, “The journalists have expressed their full support and faith in the incumbent body.”

He told The Quint, that the KPC management body is a legal entity and is democratically elected.

“But that does not mean that anybody would self-appoint themselves as the management body. It has no precedence and no basis in law,” he added.

(Disclaimer: The author was one of the elected executive members of the KPC and is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets @AuqibJaveed)

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