On August 6 the Indian Women’s Press Corps hosted a press conference by Jai Kisan Andolan at its Delhi office where the farmer organisation announced a plan for countrywide protests against the Narendra Modi government’s new Agnipath military recruitment scheme. It was all quite routine, or so it seemed.
But, behind the scenes, the press conference had caused turmoil within the IWPC.
After confirming the booking on July 29, the IWPC cancelled the press conference the night before it was scheduled to be held. In an email to the organisers at 11 pm on August 5, the club said that they had decided to cancel the booking “in light of the fact that many IWPC members have objected to the holding of this press conference”.
In addition to inviting public personalities and politicians to speak at the club, the IWPC rents out the premises for functions such as the August 6 press conference.
In the morning, however, IWPC president Shobhna Jain wrote to the organisers that the previous night’s email and phone call was “miscommunication” and that the press conference could go ahead after all.
Significantly, the internal turmoil in the IPWC spilled out the week after the lease for its office expired on July 31.
The IPWC has been housed in a bungalow on Ashoka Road in Lutyens’ Delhi since it was founded in 1994. The lease for the bungalow, a prized property in the capital’s most exclusive zone allotted to the journalist body by the Congress government of PV Narasimha Rao, has been renewed every few years. Until this year.
The lease was due to end earlier this year, but in May the estates directorate of the housing and urban affairs ministry extended it until July 31 to allow the IWPC time to vacate the bungalow.
The IWPC, however, asked the ministry to extend the lease for three years. The July 31 deadline came and went, but the club is still to hear back.
That the IPWC now occupies the bungalow without a lease has bared internal rifts that have long dogged the club, affecting the commercial activities as well as the politics of the association.
"The politics of IWPC has become entangled with this whole lease business,” said a member of the club. But the controversy over the farmer organisation’s press conference, she said, was unwarranted.
“Saying IWPC shouldn’t be used as a political podium is nonsense, it happens all the time,” she added. “In the past, the president and the general secretary have invited leaders from across parties to speak. Nirmala Sitharaman, Mohan Bhagwat, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan have all come. There is nothing unlawful about it. It’s all done very much in the open. The way people are reacting to this is very unfortunate.”
One of the objections to the August 6 press conference, which was addressed by Swaraj India Party chief Yogendra Yadav, Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait, student leader Aishee Ghosh, and representatives of the United Front of Ex-Servicemen, was that it could be used to call for protests against Agniveer scheme and that would be a problem, said a member of the club who has been privy to the decisions.
Just in: an email from secretary @iwpcdelhi says that the phone call and official email last night was "miscommunication" and that we can go ahead with our press conference on Jai Jawan Jai Kisan Sammelan.— Yogendra Yadav (@_YogendraYadav) August 6, 2022
See you at 1 pm at IWPC, 5 Windsor Place. https://t.co/neB8vCaJsQ pic.twitter.com/VzyQyERIY6
“We are unauthorised occupants of this bungalow, how can we further rent it out?” she said. “This club is very political. People from the left are asking how we could cancel the press conference when we have freedom of expression. But they are just looking for a confrontation. The IWPC president told Yogendra Yadav that the email cancelling the press conference was a miscommunication. That’s not true. The decision was made to cancel it.”
Another IWPC member agreed. “Some people felt that we should not, at this point, invite people who are obviously going to come and bash the government. It's not a very comfortable situation when we are trying to get the government to extend the lease. Also, if we rent out the premises, money will be exchanged. We are not legally allowed to sublet it as we don't have an extended lease.”
Simran Sodhi, who, as IWPC general secretary, made the decision to cancel the press conference after getting calls from several club members, said, “Sentiments of IWPC members should be respected when we rent out the premises for events. Most of the members had pointed out that since the lease expired on July 31, holding such remunerative events on the premises would be in contravention of the law. Unfortunately, some of the managing committee members, led by the president, refused to respect this sentiment and went ahead with the event.”
Sodhi was on the “anti-BJP” panel that was elected to run the club in April this year, but has often found herself on the other side of decisions made by the managing committee.
Ashutosh, the media coordinator of Jai Kisan Andolan, said the press conference suffered because of the confusion. “We were expecting a large turnout of journalists, 35-40 of them,” he said. “But we only got 25-30 journalists because of the confusion the night before.”