Srinagar: The J&K administration took control of Kashmir Press Club (KPC), the largest membership organisation of the Valley-based media persons, hours after a group of independent journalists announced the formation of second interim committee for electing its new managing body.
The J&K administration led by Lieutenant Manoj Sinha on Monday, January 17, said that the press club, which was registered as a society in J&K, has “ceased to exist” after it “failed to reregister” under the Societies of Registration Act, a central law which was extended to Jammu and Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370.
The Press Club’s existing managing body “too has come to a legal closure on 14 July, 2021, the date on which its tenure came to an end”, the administration said in a statement, effectively seizing control of an institution which was set up to look after the welfare of journalists in Kashmir.
The development took place barely hours after a group of independent journalists associated with the national and international news organisations, including the BBC, Associated Press and others announced that they had nominated a committee “to hold the elections” for the new managing body, the second such committee in as many days.
The committee of 13 journalists, with the BBC’s Riyaz Masroor topping the list followed by Associated Press’s Mehrajuddin, had said on Sunday, January 16, that it was working “on completing the legalities & re-registration process.” In a statement, the committee said “care has been taken” to make the nominated body “broad-based” with representatives from “every section of the fraternity.”
A day earlier, in what the Editors Guild of India termed as armed “coup”, another committee of journalists, led by The Times of India’s Saleem Pandit with at least 10 more journalists and newspaper owners, some of them widely perceived to be government-friendly, had taken over the KPC office, naming Saleem as their interim president.
The hasty election of the ‘interim’ committee and the heavy presence of security personnel armed with automatic weapons at the Press Club on Saturday had prompted uproar with prominent journalist bodies and free speech activists across the country criticising the involvement of the J&K administration in the “illegal takeover”.
The ousted managing body said on Monday that the formation of the interim committee “was done with the ultimate goal of shutting down the club”. “For this purpose, they tried to install a group of journalists. By this action, they wanted to stifle the voice of journalists that resonated through the forum called Kashmir Press Club, the only democratic and independent journalist body in Valley,” Ishfaq Tantray, general secretary of the ousted body, said in a statement.
“But it is our firm belief that our journalists are capable and professional enough to keep the flame glowing and confront these challenges ahead. I want to reiterate that journalism thrived in Kashmir and it will survive all crests and troughs in the future as well,” the statement added.
The issue had turned into a major embarrassment for the administration which seems to have now moved into damage control mode, dubbing the KPC takeover by the interim committee and the announcement of second committee on Sunday as an “unpleasant turn of events involving two rival warring groups.”
“In view of this aspect of the dispute and in view of the reports in social media and other sources indicating a potential law and order situation including a threat of breach of peace and the safety of bonafide journalists, an intervention has become necessary,” the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) said in a statement on Monday.
The Kashmir Press Club ran out of an outdated building located on the upscale Poloview Road in the heart of Srinagar. Before 2017, the building was occupied by the J&K’s employment department. After the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the J&K government, led by Mehbooba Mufti, partially refurbished the building and allotted it to the Kashmir Press Club after it registered as a society in 2018.
The announcement was made by Haseeb Drabu in his third budget speech as J&K’s finance minister and it was seen as a major achievement for the local media fraternity in Kashmir who have been working under difficult circumstances to report the region’s recent volatile history. The PDP-BJP government had also promised Rs 50 lakh yearly budget for the club.
However, with the latest controversy, the administration has cancelled the allotment of Aiwan-e-Sahafat, pulling shutters on the institution which had emerged as a space for critical thought and intellectual exchange between journalists during its short existence. The club remained open during some the most historic developments, including the reading down of Article 370, when the whole of Kashmir was brought under a crippling security lockdown, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The J&K administration said it is “committed to a free and fair press” and journalists should be “entitled to all facilities, including a place for professional, educational, social, cultural, recreational and welfare activities”. The admin “also hopes that a duly registered bona fide society of all journalists shall be constituted as soon as possible and the same shall be able to approach the government for reallocation of the premises,” the DIPR said in a series of tweets.
Anuradha Bhasin, editor of Jammu-based English daily Kashmir Times, said the KPC’s inability to hold elections (for the managing body) and the “endless” delay in the re-registration process was a “pretext to lock a democratic institution”.
“It is more than evident that the move (to cancel the re-registration of KPC) was preplanned and aimed at killing a democratic institution where journalists were practicing free speech and free thought,” she told The Wire.
The KPC had applied for reregistration last year in May and it was approved by the registrar of societies on December 29 last year after which the club announced dates for electing a new managing body on February 14. However, the administration applied brakes on the reregistration, citing a report by the CID or Criminal Investigations Department, an elite counterintelligence wing of J&K Police. The details of the report have, however, not been made public.
Bhasin said the issues at the KPC should have been dealt with by Kashmir’s media fraternity. “Instead of promoting democracy, the government has imposed its will and undemocratically demolished an institution,” she said.
“It has set a wrong precedent; if it can happen in Kashmir, it can happen elsewhere,” she continued.
In a statement on Monday, the Indian Journalists Union said the KPC “has been vocal on media issues, sustained harassment and intimidation of journalists in the Valley and the twin actions smack of vendetta and brazen attempt to silence dissenting voices.”
The union, which in its National Executive Committee meeting in Itanagar, Arunachal, on January 12 had passed a resolution expressing solidarity with its Kashmiri journalists, demanded inquiry into the happenings at the Press Club over the last three days to “ensure the KPC is allowed to function democratically.”