After a harrowing five hours with a counter-insurgency official in Srinagar in September 2020, journalist Auqib Javeed headed to the Kashmir Press Club first.

“Everyone was waiting for me at the Press Club,” recalled Javeed, who works with the Kashmir Observer, a local daily. “I didn’t share anything with my family. I felt kind of safe sharing my burden with my colleagues.”

A day earlier, Javeed had been summoned by the Kashmir police’s cyber cell over a report about the alleged intimidation of social media users by the police. When he went to the police station, two members from the Club accompanied him to provide support.

For many like Javeed, the Kashmir Press Club had become a safe harbour over the last couple of years. After Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of autonomy and downgraded from state to Union Territory on August 5, 2019, summons and police cases against journalists – especially those who published stories critical of the government or security forces – had become routine.

“Journalists would reach out to the Press Club, they knew it could seek accountability from the government,” said Javeed, who was also an executive member of the club’s managing body.

Now, the government has effectively declared that the Kashmir Press Club – the largest elected journalists’ body in the Valley – does not exist anymore. It was no longer registered with the government, the administration claimed as it took over the premises of the club on January 17. The statement came days after a group of journalists took control of the club, barging into the premises accompanied by armed police personnel.

With the government takeover on Monday, one of the last spaces for critical discussion in Kashmir has closed.

The Kashmir Press Club premises are locked after the 'takeover'. Credit: Kamran Yousuf

‘The takeover’

The controversy started with a couple of letters that surfaced on social media on January 13. They were addressed to the Srinagar district magistrate and apparently signed by various journalists, many of whom were members of the club. They pointed out that the tenure of the club’s elected executive body had lapsed six months earlier and asked the district magistrate to intervene. They also proposed the formation of a interim committee.

Within hours, the elected body, whose term had lapsed in July 2021, responded with a statement. Elections had been held up, it said, because the club had to be registered afresh under the new laws of the Union Territory government. But that process was now complete.

“The government has communicated the same to the [club] management last week,” the statement said. “The club management had been waiting for this process to complete for about six months.” Elections for a new managing body could now be held.

But then the government appears to have made a U-turn. On January 14, the club management issued a fresh statement saying it had received an order “informing that the re-registration certificate issued to the club on 29/12/2021 under Society Registration Act, 1860 has been kept in abeyance”.

The order, issued by the registrar of societies and firms, said that it was acting on information sent by the additional district magistrate of Srinagar. According to him, the additional district magistrate had issued a “character certificate” to members of the managing body on December 24. The character certificate verified the antecedents of each member. But this was now put on hold, on the basis of a report by the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s Criminal Investigation Department.

On January 15, a group of journalists, led by the Times of India’s Srinagar correspondent, M Salim Pandit, held a meeting of the “new interim body” in the club building while security personnel stood guard outside. They then issued a statement under the club’s official letterhead, entitled “Takeover of Kashmir Press Club, Srinagar,” declaring themselves the interim managing body.

Many journalists at the club openly voiced their objections to the “takeover”, and on January 15 a joint statement issued by nine different journalists’ associations in Kashmir called it a “highly condemnable and completely illegal move”.

The “interim body” shot back with another statement that same evening, claiming “some vested interests were trying to create chaos in the media fraternity with sinister motives.” The police had been present during the “takeover”, it continued, because the local police station wanted to make sure Covid-19 protocols were observed. It also said that the club would remain closed to visitors for a week as a member of the “interim body” had tested positive for Covid-19.

A fresh round of condemnations followed, this time from journalists’ bodies across the country, from the Mumbai Press Club to the Press Club India Editors’ Guild.

On January 17, as the Jammu and Kashmir government took control of the press club building, it said it had been forced to act as it was “concerned over the emergent situation which has arisen due to the unpleasant turn of events involving two rival warring groups using the banner of the Kashmir Press Club.”

The government hoped that “duly registered bona fide society of all journalists” could soon be formed. The government would return the club building on the request of such a body.

The government, the statement said, was “committed to a free and fair press”.

At least three journalists whose names appeared on the January 13 letters that set the stage for the takeover have now denied signing it. But has it come too late to reverse the takeover of a hard-won institution?

A safe space

Journalists in Kashmir had demanded the creation of a government-registered Press Club since 2003 but successive dispensations had been reluctant to approve it. Finally, in 2018, Jammu and Kashmir’s last state government, headed by Mehbooba Mufti, handed over the club premises to an interim body. Elections to the 11-member managing body were held in July 2019.

The next month, the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood and autonomy, placing the Valley under a lockdown and a communications blackout. It was one of the most challenging times for the local press, which battled months of internet shutdown as well as a crackdown by security agencies.

In the aftermath of the August 5, decisions, the government set up a “media centre” in a plush Srinagar hotel where it would hold daily press briefings. But it was the Press Club where Kashmiri journalists sought refuge, in the company of colleagues and away from government supervision.

Over the last two years, the club, with over 300 members, has become a hub for journalists in the Valley. On any given day, it would be brimming with reporters, media students and visiting journalists from outside the Valley. Evenings were the busiest, as journalists finished their daily reporting and headed to the club to file their stories.

“It was a dynamic space,” said a local journalist who did not want to be identified. “Not everybody would agree with everyone but people would discuss all kinds of things there. I think that kind of feeling emerged from the fact that almost everyone knew everyone else. It was relatively easy to speak one’s own mind.”

While newspaper offices were being shut down in Srinagar’s Press Colony, the old hub of the local press, new outlets were being launched at the Press Club. When 27-year-old Marila Latif launched a digital daily, The Himalayan Post, in September, it was at the club building. Conversations with veteran journalists at the club had helped shape her initiative, Latif said.

It was also a vital space for freelance journalists, many of whom eked out a living, could not afford to work in cafes and relied on the club to file their stories.

It was also a safe space for women. “I would stay there till late in the evening. I would always find a colleague to drop me home,” Latif said.

But many members also felt the freewheeling discussions at the club were being monitored by the authorities. “There was always a feeling that the state might have its own people here and there to smell out what was being discussed,” said a journalist who regularly visited the club.

‘Only independent body’

Journalists facing police action relied on the club to speak for them. Reporter Sajad Gul, currently detained under the Public Safety Act, a stringent preventive detention law, sent a plea for help from police custody. “He told me to talk to people at the Press Club,” said Gul’s brother, Zahoor Ahmad, who had met him in custody. “He said I should update other media persons there about his detention.”

When journalists were harassed or detained for their work, it was expected that the Press Club would issue statements of condemnation. But a former office bearer of the club’s managing body said they had to strike a delicate balance.

“There was pressure from two sides,” he explained. “We couldn’t afford to annoy the government much. That’s why we would carefully draft statements which were mild and were able to put our message across. On the other hand, we would have journalist colleagues telling us that we aren’t doing anything.”

The club was criticised for not being vocal enough about the detention of Aasif Sultan, a reporter for the now-defunct magazine, the Kashmir Narrator. Sultan was arrested in 2018 in a militancy-related case. Over three years later, he remains in jail even though the charges against him are yet to be proven.

Still, the Kashmir Press Club was one of the few remaining institutions in the Union Territory that drew legitimacy from voters rather than executive power. Since August 5, 2019, Jammu and Kashmir has not even had an elected government, it is ruled by centrally appointed bureaucrats.

“The Kashmir Press Club was the only independent body in post-August 5 Kashmir,” said a journalist with a national daily who did not wish to be identified. “By shutting it down, the government wants to send a message that it will not tolerate a free press in Kashmir.”

He rubbished the government’s claim of two factions fighting over the press club and necessitating state intervention. “They wanted to instal a regime of their choice but when they failed and got bad press, they shut it down to deprive journalists of a body that could speak for them,” he said.