At around 5 pm on Monday, staffers at the Srinagar office of the Kashmir Times were working on the next day’s edition when officials from the union territory’s estates department barged in and asked all 20 of them to move out. They had come to seal the office of one of Jammu and Kashmir’s leading English dailies.
“We told them they couldn’t seal our office because we hadn’t been served an eviction order. They said the order was with a senior official and if we insisted on seeing it the police would get involved. Let the police come, we said, but you give us an eviction notice before you seal the office. After waiting for around three hours at the office, they simply barged in and directed us to move out,” said Qazi Irshad, a reporter at the paper.
It was a “targeted move” against her and her newspaper, said the editor Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, a “political vendetta” conducted by the Indian administration to suppress her. “No due process was followed” and no “eviction or cancellation notice was served”, she pointed out.
“I have been very outspoken, writing and talking about what has happened in Kashmir and how people are suffering. So, we were expecting some kind of targeting and this is not out of the blue,” Jamwal told Newslaundry.
On August 5 last year, when the Indian government abrogated Article 370 to remove the last vestiges of Kashmir’s autonomy and put the region under a communications blackout, Jamwal the Supreme Court for the restoration of internet and phone services to ensure the free and safe movement of journalists. The apex court asked the government to ease the curbs on communication.
The petition cost her newspaper advertising money from the government. “The very next day after I went to the court, ads were stopped,” Jamwal recalled. “Ads are the major source of income for newspapers.”
The newspaper continued publishing from Srinagar through the blockade, but the loss of ad revenue hit hard. The pandemic only worsened the paper’s financial situation, forcing it to suspend circulation for a few months. They were just starting to pick up again when the estates officials landed at their door.
“It becomes so difficult to function like this. It is an attempt by the administration to freeze us,” Jamwal said.
‘We knew we would be targeted’
The Srinagar office of the Kashmir Times is in the Press Enclave, a smattering of public buildings leased to media organisations. The Kashmir Times was allotted its office in 1993. Jamwal said there had been rumours of their allotment being cancelled, so they had gone to estates officials over a month ago. “But there was no clear answer,” she said.
They vaguely replied that there was some order regarding the Kashmir Times office, but they didn’t have a copy. “They would also regularly send low-rung officials to the newspaper’s office to keep that rumor in circulation for several days that they were going to lock the office, so we based on these rumours because they were not giving any orders,” she said, adding that their plea was scheduled to be heard in five weeks.
Fearing eviction from their office, Jamwal also petitioned Srinagar’s deputy commissioner, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary. “Due process should be followed by the government and a person should be given an opportunity of being heard in respect of government property leased or rented out,” the editor said.
Jamwal said the office was leased to the Kashmir Times in the name of her father and the paper’s former editor Ved Bhasin. “And I have a government accommodation close to the Kashmir Times office which is in the name of my husband Prabodh Jamwal, who is also a journalist. We use that allotment as residence, and they haven’t touched it so far.”
“They have been saying that 20 days back we handed over the building to them. Am I so stupid that I would hand over all my infrastructure? We haven’t handed over anything to them. And the newsroom has so much infrastructure. They sealed it with our entire infrastructure inside. Our infrastructure is here, our computers are here, all machinery is here, our generators and other equipment are here.”
Jamwal protested that the authorities did not follow due process in sealing her paper’s office. “As per the rule, they are supposed to serve an order, state the reason so that the occupant can file an objection and they need to ensure that we have received the order. We even approached them ourselves, but they said they did not have the order, which is the best answer that we could get.”
“If they had any order they should have served it. Did they just keep it in their own pockets?”
In 2009, Jamwal recalled, the authorities had planned to bulldoze the Kashmir Times office and they published the eviction order in the local press. “On the basis of that, we approached a court, got a stay order, and got a quashing order.”
‘The office wasn’t sealed’
Contradicting Jamwal, estates officials Newslaundry spoke with claimed that the building which had been sealed was allotted to Ved Bhasin and was being used as a residence. The newspaper is operating out of a flat allotted to her husband.
“There are two quarters, 4 and 9. So, quarter 9, which has been taken over by the department, was in the name of Ved Bhasin who died in 2015 and was being used for residential purposes. Officially, we don't close anybody’s office and it shouldn't even be done. So, when a person who is no longer alive, anything that the government had allotted to them can’t be continued in their favor,” said an estates official who asked for anonymity because he weren’t authorised to speak to the press.
The official claimed that the estates department had issued an order cancelling the allotment in July. “In the order too, it’s written that because Ved Bhasin is no more, this allotment stands cancelled.”
He promised to provide a copy of the order to Newslaundry but didn’t.
He maintained that estates officials had followed “proper procedure” to “reclaim the property”.
“One of their staffers was regularly visiting the department,” he said, referring to the paper. “Citing some Covid issues, they requested more time to vacate the premises and shift their belongings.”
They granted the request “unofficially” on “humanitarian grounds”, the official claimed. “Then, around 15 days ago, we locked it. But in between, when there was some need, they used it. Two days back, they said amicably that you can take it. Later, it got twisted that we had sealed the office.”
The official insisted that the newspaper’s office, which is a few meters away from the “sealed residence” was still open.
Refuting the official’s claims, Jamwal explained, “You can clearly see the pictures I shared. On my residence I wouldn’t be putting up a Kashmir Times board. Also, am I so stupid that I would hand over all my infrastructure?”
She described the estates official’s version of the story as just a figment of his imagination. “Covid never came into the picture. And if there was so much benevolence why did they lock all our things inside and sealed without notice?”
She said the paper’s staff moved to the apartment allotted to her husband after the office was sealed. “They are using my drawing and dining rooms as a temporary office,” she added. “It’s my residence with no infrastructure.”
‘My residence was ransacked’
In early October, Jamwal that her residence in Jammu, where the Kashmir Times is headquartered, had been vandalised by a politician’s brother “in connivance with officials of the estates department and local police”. The flat, allotted to Jamwal under a government housing scheme for journalists, was ransacked and “some rumour about it” was circulated on social media. “That very day, they broke the locks of my house and pushed in some new allottee. They gave all my belongings to the new allottee,” she added.
‘She’s being hounded’
The crackdown on Jamwal and her paper has drawn widespread condemnation from the journalist fraternity.
“This move is highly condemnable. The government should have followed due process before closing the office” Ishfaq Tantry, general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club, told Newslaundry.
This was a case of vendetta against Jamwal for being critical of the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir. “There’s no doubt about it being a targeted move, as her home in Jammu was also vandalised,” Tantray argued. “She could have been issued a notice or the allotment could have been extended because the paper has been operating from that office for a very long time. It amounts to muzzling the free press in Kashmir.”
“The office of Kashmir News Service, a local news agency, was also closed. So, it appears to be a case of vendetta. After last August, the media in Kashmir has been a target.”
Geetarhtha Pathak, president of the Indian Journalists Union, said, “This is vendetta for raising her voice. In the past as well she approached the judiciary for the independence of the media in Kashmir.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists “the ongoing targeting and harassment” of Jamwal and the Kashmir Times, and asked the “authorities to stop trying to silence independent and critical voices and should respect press freedom”.
Journalists in Kashmir have long faced intimidation and harassment from the government. According to collected by the Print, at least 18 journalists in Kashmir have been summoned or questioned by the police and over a dozen physically assaulted since August last year.
Qazi Irshad of the Kashmir Times said for the 18 years that he has been with the newspaper, it has always been on the radar. “A few days ago I was detained for seven hours at Khanyar police station because I reported that in an encounter with the security forces in Srinagar’s Barzulla area. They had an issue as to why I reported about it. Then, I had to write an apology saying it was my fault. I had no other option and only then they let me go.”
Update: Jamwal tweeted that they had obtained a stay on the sealing order until October 30.
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