With the club’s ‘takeover’ and closure, journalists are mourning the loss of their safe space.
On Monday, January 17, several journalists gathered outside the gates of the Kashmir Press Club in Srinagar’s Polo View.
On a usual day, the club usually saw at least two dozen of its 300 members visiting, usually as a meeting place but often as a workstation. But now, a day after the club’s gates had been sealed by persons unknown, its premises were deserted.
By afternoon, the journalists’ worst fears had been confirmed: The Jammu and Kashmir administration had cancelled the allotment of the building to the club, days after a group, accompanied by government forces, had conducted a “takeover” of the club management.
The administration’s reasoning was the “unpleasant developments” that had led to a new interim body, led by Times of India assistant editor Saleem Pandit, taking over the club. Pandit declared himself the interim president, citing mismanagement and a delay in club elections. On Tuesday, he told Newslaundry he could no longer comment on the issue as the J&K administration had disallowed issuing statements in the club’s name.
Journalist groups were more frank in their description, calling the takeover “illegal” and “arbitrary”.
Standing outside the gate, one journalist turned to his colleague and said,”Where do we go now?”
‘Abrogation of the club’
The Kashmir Press Club was a safe space, particularly for Kashmir’s freelancers and journalists operating without an office.
Established in 2018, it became one of two places where journalists worked during the 2019 lockdown after New Delhi abrogated the erstwhile state’s residual autonomy.
“Nothing was open. But we knew that we had KPC, where we could sit and work,” said freelance journalist Quratulain Rehbar, 26. “It had become a spot for freelancers like me to sit and chat with seniors.”
Rehbar, originally from south Kashmir’s Pulwama and now living in rented accommodation in Srinagar, had been a regular at the press club, often seen working in the club’s canteen. It made her life easier, she said, since the club offered a workspace and also relatively cheap food.
“For me, particularly, this was home,” she said. Now, with the club’s closure, “everyone has just scattered”.
Freelance journalist Quratulain Rehbar, 26.
KPC was also the first stop in Idrees Bukhtiyar’s daily routine. “It was the only place for me to sit, get an internet connection, and where I could file a story,” said the 27-year-old freelance journalist. “I don’t have any other option available.”
Like many other journalists, Bukhtiyar depended on the club because it saved him money and also offered access to senior journalists.
“For me, KPC was a second home where I used to interact with senior journalists, learn from them, and make new contacts,” he said. “But now, it looks like everything has been wasted.”
The club also gave Srinagar’s journalists, who are constantly under intense government scrutiny, a place to converge and discuss their problems. But no longer, Bukhtiyar said, even as he has to tackle the immediate issue of finding a place with an internet connection to sit for long hours and file his reports.
Bukhtiyar believes the administration could have resolved the club’s issues, but “they don’t want to”.
Freelance journalist Kaiser Andrabi, 27, agreed. “It’s simple, they did it the same way they abrogated Article 370,” he said.”A military coup followed by other modes of power to attain their ultimate goal.”
The authorities, he said, “don’t want to have an institution that has the power to express dissent to government actions and policies. Since Article 370’s abrogation, KPC was the last independent organisation that, despite many odds, was standing.”
He added: “Simultaneously with the takeover, they conveyed a message that today they took away the institution, tomorrow they can muzzle the entire community. Like they have been doing individually for the past three years in one way or another.”
Andrabi also often worked at the club, chasing deadlines. He lives in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, an hour’s drive from Srinagar. As a freelancer who also found a workspace and a relatively safe platform to engage with other journalists at the club, he said he now feels “homeless”.
Peerzada Muzammil, a sub-editor with Sunday Guardian, told Newslaundry he also worked out of the club since he doesn’t have an office.
“Whenever I would require any sort of help from my counterparts or seniors, I would rush to the club,” he said. “Now that the club is physically non-existent, I have to find out where everyone is...Spaces like KPC help: you meet colleagues, funnel down ideas, seek collaborations, or simply sit there and transcribe your recordings.”
He continued, “It’s important to have free and safe spaces, given the times the media fraternity is going through. You can meet a colleague in a cafe but, most likely, you would not be comfortable discussing a sensitive story in a place where everyone sitting around you is a stranger.”
Muzammil described the “abrogation of the club” as “an affront to propriety and democratic institutions”. “Such events only bolster disorder and disturb society,” he said. “This will, I feel, only add to the problems of the journalistic community.”
With KPC’s closure, he said, “I would not say I can’t work, but the privilege to meet all your seniors nearly everyday and learn from them is somewhat gone.”
The Kashmir Press Club is the only elected representative body of journalists in Kashmir. While the “takeover” led by Pandit was condemned by multiple press groups, the actions of the last elected body had also been a cause of concern.
The body’s term had expired last July, but it continued to hold onto the official posts instead of designating an interim body. They argue that the administration’s refusal to re-register the club led to the delay in forming the body or holding elections.
Journalists have also accused it of failing to protect the interests of the community, since the last elected body had often maintained a silence on the frequent detentions, summons, and everyday harassment inflicted on their colleagues.
As a result, senior journalists had been mulling the creation of an alternate space, said BBC journalist Riyaz Masroor, who also heads the Jammu and Kashmir Journalist Association.
Ironically, the establishment of the club in 2018 – a long-pending demand by Kashmir’s journalists – was due in part to Pandit’s efforts. Pandit was also its first interim president.
But the loss of the club itself, Masroor said, is like “being rendered homeless”.
“It has caused dismay and anguish, especially among the footsoldiers of media coverage, who are always on their toes and who need a space to hang out between deadlines,” he said.
The administration had claimed the press club was caught in the middle of “two rival warring groups”. Masroor said this isn’t true, since there “was only one group”, led by Saleem Pandit, while the other 13 groups registered with KPC had not attended the “takeover” meeting.
“It was one versus 13,” he said, “so it couldn’t be a clash.”
Anees Zargar, a member of the Journalist Federation Kashmir, said KPC was an important institution that not only provided space to young journalists but also “emerged as a key advocate of press freedom” in the region.
“It was a place where not only journalism was flourishing but was also helping build solidarities within the fraternity,” he said. “Its closure seems to be part of a tactic to end that solidarity. Journalism will continue as usual.”
Historical aversion towards a press club
Senior journalist Mohammad Syed Malik – who was the first Kashmiri Muslim to become an editor of a national paper, and also former director general (information) – told Newslaundry the press had faced a similar situation in the 1970s.
At the time, a group of journalists had come together to form the first Kashmir Press Club. Headed by Khwaja Sanaullah, the editor of Urdu paper Daily Aftab, the aim was to form “an umbrella organisation”.
The group approached the government, Malik said. Then chief minister Syed Mir Qasim had appointed two ministers – Mufti Mohammad Syed, who would later head the PDP, and Abdul Gani Lone, later of the Peoples Conference – to oversee it. The ministers allotted a building for this purpose, located behind Sher-i-Kashmir park on Residency Road.
“Apart from discussing our issues and holding press conferences, we would invite visiting dignitaries,” Malik recalled. “Reputed leaders have addressed [us] there. It was quite a busy place for some time.”
But by the end of 1974, the political scenario began to change. Sheikh Abdullah was under detention, and public clamour was intensifying to bring him back. In 1975, when Abdullah returned to power, his government “suggested that this building would need to be restored back to the municipality”, Malik said.
“So, it was handed back to them,” he said. “With no place, we dispersed. When the building was gone, we had no space. So, it went out of existence.”
Another attempt to set up a press club was made in the late 1980s, under the government of Farooq Abdullah. Journalist Yusuf Jameel, who had been the vice-president of the Kashmir Union of Working Journalists at the time, said they had been promised a building where the club could be run.
But eventually, Jameel said, the government never did hand over the building. Journalists at the time were in two camps, one led by Pran Nath Jalali and the other by JN Sathu.
“Satpal Sahni [the director-general, information] told the CM that there are two groups and if one was given a building, the other would be upset,” Jameel said.
And so, the matter was shelved, especially as the valley soon plunged into violence with the eruption of an insurgency a few years later. When Farooq Abdullah became chief minister again in the mid 1990s, the matter was raised once more on the sidelines of a press conference.
“He asked us to come to the secretariat the next day,” Jameel said. “But nobody went for the obvious reason that the [security] situation was not conducive.”
In the late 1990s, Ajat Shatru, a former information minister in Farooq Abdullah’s cabinet, had proposed setting up the club at a building where the Directorate of Information and Public Relations is currently headquartered, Jameel said. But that same day, “chief secretary Ashok Jaitley called me...and said, ‘Nothing doing. We are not going to give you space for the press club.’”
Ajat Shatru, the information minister in Farooq Abdullah’s cabinet, had proposed the setting up of the club where the current Directorate of Information and Public Relations is located, said Jameel. The same evening, however, “Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley called me...and said ‘nothing doing, we are not going to give you space for the press club’.”
Successive governments also showed no interest in taking the plan forward, until 2018, when chief minister Mehbooba Mufti allotted the club the piece of property in Polo View.
“It is bad on the part of the government to take it back,” Jameel said. “Obviously they didn't want the press club to exist.”
Given the state’s historical aversion towards a press club in Kashmir, Malik said, “the manner in which the whole thing was conducted raises suspicions, including about our own colleagues”.
Jameel believes the current crisis is “an opportunity for unity we must seize” and that journalists must not “lose heart”.
“KPC is not the name of a particular building,” he said. “We can start it anywhere in a rented accommodation.”
Today, the press club is more important than ever, Malik said, but journalists have always been helpless, “more so in the present climate”. “There is no accountability forum like the assembly. They [officers] are not accountable to you,” he said.
He added, “I am shocked, pained but not surprised. Because no institution, where the voice of the people gets a vent or communicated, is allowed to function after August 5, 2019. All institutions have been dismantled.”
And the Kashmir Press Club, he said “was only waiting for its turn”.
Update: The chief minister in question during the 1970s was Syed Mir Qasim, this has been updated.
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