Back-and-Forth Continues in Women's Press Corps Over 'Nationalist' Clause in Booking Form

While several members of the Indian Women's Press Corps have asked that the clause be removed, office bearers say they are trying to protect members' interests and do not adhere to the BJP's views of what is 'anti-national'.

New Delhi: In the wake of reports that the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) in Delhi had added a ‘nothing anti-national’ undertaking to the form members have to fill if they want to book the location for an event, members have demanded deletion of the controversial clause.

“Nothing will be said [at the event] which will be anti-national, question the integrity of the country, amount to sedition or cause harm to the reputation of the club,” the clause on the IWPC venue booking form states. What this entails is not clarified or explained.

Ever since the introduction of this clause was publicised last week, it has drawn criticism from several quarters, including various members of the the group. Senior journalist and editor Mrinal Pande, founding president of the club, spoke out against it at the Jaipur Literary Festival, saying that that she is not in support of anything that “militates against my integrity” and that if required she will rebel against a group that she helped found.

A letter signed by 134 members of the IWPC, sent to the club’s president and general secretary, has expressed “strong objection” to this clause and demanded its removal. The members have also questioned a statement that the president of the IWPC, Sushma Ramachandran, released last week, saying that the IWPC “needed to put this particular clause to protect our premises from misuse by vested interests. … it was introduced as a matter of abundant caution following the incident where questions were posed to the management of a club for acts about which they were not responsible. We in the IWPC are committed to safeguard the club’s interests.”

Ramachandran’s reference is to the police questioning Delhi University faculty members S.A.R. Geelani and Ali Javed last year over the alleged chanting of pro-Kashmiri freedom slogans by members of the audience at an event at the Press Club of India.

“IWPC is neither a social club, nor a political one. It is a journalists’ club where freedom of speech and expression have been and must continue to be encouraged and protected. Press clubs in all democratic countries have always been spaces where all shades of opinion — including criticism of government policies and state action, dissenting views of all sorts — are heard and discussed. As independent journalists, we draw power from the fact that we listen, report and disseminate varied and varying opinions. Thus, as independent journalists it is our duty – individually and collectively – to ensure no opinion or stand is judged beforehand as being worthy of being expressed or not. IWPC, as an institution founded, created and belonging to journalists who firmly believe in the freedom of speech and expression, cannot be allowed to fall prey to the spurious debate on what is nationalist and what is anti-national. Journalists are not and can never be arbiters of what amounts to sedition,” the members’ letter says.

So why did the IWPC feel the need to introduce this clause in the first place?

According to a senior office bearer of the IWPC, this clause was added when controversy erupted around the event on Kashmir held at the Press Club of India. The clause is not new but has been in the booking form since August 2016, when the form was edited to add several clauses on liability – including on issues such as broken crockery, damage to property and so on. However, she added, the IWPC managing committee will be meeting in the first week of February and will take into account all the voices that have been raised, and discuss whether the clause needs to be reworded, removed or retained. “The term anti-national has become very politically loaded, almost as if what is ‘national’ has been appropriated by the BJP. That is not how we meant it. We are a professional journalists institution, not based on an ideology,” she told The Wire. “For us, it’s not about being anti-government or pro-government. ‘Nationalist’ should not mean pro-BJP. Before the BJP came to power, these terms were not so loaded. Why should we allow one party to define what is national?”

This clause, she added, was meant to ensure that the organisation as a whole is not held responsible if something goes wrong and members are careful about the kind of events held. “There have been situations where FIRs have been filed against journalists (for simply being around an event) and we want to insulate our members from such incidents,” she said. According to her, this clause is meant to protect against cases where there might be a scuffle or violence of some sort. “This is a measure of abundant caution,” she continued. “But we will be taking all views into account in the upcoming meeting and take a decision accordingly.”

The office bearer also raised questions on the timing of the controversy. “This clause has been around since August, yet it is only now that it is being brought to the public eye,” suggesting that it may be an attempt to undermine the current managing committee’s work before the March-April elections. “We have hosted all kinds of people at the IWPC, from across the political spectrum.”

The IWPC has held several events, both recently and in the past, which have been critical of government actions. In early January, the club hosted an event by the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh and Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression about alleged state atrocities in Naxal areas.

Although the IWPC felt constrained to add a restrictive condition to its booking form last year, other venues in the capital that often hold seminars and other events, including the India Habitat Centre and India International Centre, told The Wire they did not have any clauses on what can or cannot be said at an event that a member has to agree to at the time of booking the venue.

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