The Kashmir Press Club remained open during the worst of times. It kept its doors open when Kashmir went under an unprecedented lockdown after it lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370 on August 5, 2019. As all lines of communication were cut, the television in the Press Club canteen beamed the Parliament session where the sweeping legislative changes were passed to anxious reporters in Srinagar.
The club also remained open when the pandemic shut the world down. That the gates of this club could be permanently shut was beyond imagination.
For journalists in the Valley, the Press Club was a “paend” – a place to gather. It was also an incubator for young reporters, a place where they could brainstorm ideas, learn from veterans of the profession and attend workshops to hone their skills.
The club was a source of support for journalists in trouble. It would issue statements of solidarity whenever a journalist was intimidated or harassed. It was also the only organisation post August 2019 that demanded the restoration of communication facilities for journalists.
That was the centrality the Kashmir Press Club acquired in less than four years.
The club was established in 2018. In the summer of 2019, a month before the upheaval of the Article 370 decisions, the first management body was elected through a popular vote.
The elected body was tested from day one. As we took charge on July 19, 2019, a report in a leading national daily described some club members as “jihadi terrorists”. No effort had been made by the reporter or his organisation to seek the comments from us and substantiate these allegations, which were now passed off as a news report.
That was the beginning of a dangerous narrative, not just against the Kashmir Press Club but also the journalistic fraternity of Kashmir, a narrative that resulted in the government shutting down the press club earlier this month.
The authorities struck against the club by backing an illegal “military style” takeover by a group of journalists who barged into the club offices on January 15.
As narrated by the club office manager, the coup leader, who had ceased to be a member of club, was accompanied by a group of 11 people, including a few disgruntled journalists, a cable operator-turned-newspaper owner, a sarpanch who also owns a newspaper. They snatched the seals and the official letterhead of the club.
Meanwhile, a large posse of policemen, led by senior officers, gave them protection by cordoning off the club. Describing their move as a “takeover”, this group appointed itself the interim management of the club.
It may have been the tiniest but fastest coup in the world.
The attempted “takeover” took place in the context of a string of actions by the Jammu and Kashmir administration.
The government had issued a re-registration certificate to the club on December 29, 2021. Then on January 14, a day before the “takeover”, the government issued an arbitrary order saying the re-registration certificate of the Kashmir Press Club had been kept in abeyance.
The club was originally registered in 2018 under the Jammu and Kashmir Registration of Societies Act. But in May 2021, the government issued a notification asking all registered societies to re-register under the new laws that came into place after Jammu and Kashmir became a Union Territory in 2019. Without wasting any time, we submitted an application for re-registration on May 7, 2021.
The then registrar of societies let us make our case and asked for additional information, which was diligently provided. On May 16, 2021, the office of the registrar took the process to the next stage, writing a letter to the Srinagar deputy commission, requesting him to verify the antecedents of the members of the club management.
We submitted to a long and tedious process of scrutiny that stretched over six months. Police authorities checked our antecedents from all angles before finally issuing the clearance certificate, which became the basis of the character certificate issued by the deputy commissioner on December 24, which then became the basis for the re-registration certificate issued to the club on December 29.
While this was going on, we had written to the registrar, asking him to expedite the process and for permission to go ahead with elections even while a new registration certificate was awaited. That letter went unheeded despite reminders.
While the term of the club management was for two years, the lengthy re-registration process and the Covid pandemic delayed elections. In the first week of January 2022, when the Kashmir Press Club was informed it would be re-registered, we set the ball rolling for elections. We approached three senior journalists to be election commissioners.
On January 13, we announced that the club had been re-registered by the government and declared February 15 as the date for the elections. We did not want to set a precedent by delaying the long-due elections.
The elections dates and the re-registration must have come as a shock to those trying to hold up both processes. From late night on January 13, the phones started ringing incessantly. On the morning of January 14, the government issued an order that the re-registration had been kept on hold, citing some report from the criminal investigation department. Just a week before, the same department had cleared the verification of the club members.
The order said the re-registration certificate was being “kept in abeyance” because of a “report” submitted by the criminal investigation department. The contents of this report were never revealed. The order further stated that the certificate was put on hold until the additional district magistrate, Srinagar, filed a “final report”.
The law and established procedure do not empower the registrar to initiate de-registration, a very rare process, without giving the other party a chance to make its case. No notice was issued to the club before it was stripped off registration.
The right to free association
The sequence of events clearly suggests the government wants to instal a management of its choice by throwing out the elected body.
However, much to the annoyance of the “interim body”, journalists in the Valley resisted this move to “take over” the press club. Both the government and this “interim body” got bad press.
So the government came up with a new plan to shut down the Kashmir Press Club. It spoke through a press release issued by the department of information and public relations on January 17, calling the attempted “takeover” and the resistance to it a “war of factions”. Instead of taking action against the coup organisers, the government sat in judgement against the Kashmir Press Club – a legal entity. The government said that since the society had been deregistered, it ceased to exist, and therefore it was taking back the premises allotted to the press club.
A society once registered never ceases to exist. Its founding members may die but its objectives and aims remain or get transferred to a like-minded society if the members wish. It can be disbanded only if its members wish it because the right to freedom of assembly and association is enshrined in Article 11 of the Constitution.
If the government really wants to prevent a breakdown of relations with the media, it should allow journalists in Kashmir a free space to work from. It should restore the Kashmir Press Club, revoke the arbitrary order which kept its registration in abeyance, hand over the premises, allow the elected body to conduct elections and not stifle the Kashmiri press.
The unity and grace displayed by Kashmir’s journalists in denouncing these illegal and arbitrary actions has undermined the government’s theory of a “factional feud”. All of Kashmir’s media has shown support for the Kashmir Press Club, and the management is also grateful for the worldwide solidarity.
The author is the elected general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club.