On October 19, the Jammu and Kashmir estates department sealed the Srinagar office of the Kashmir Times. The newspaper, one of the oldest English dailies in Jammu and Kashmir, had functioned out of the government allotted offices since the 1990s.
“Today, Estates Deptt locked our office without any due process of cancellation and eviction, same way as I was evicted from a flat in Jammu where my belongings including valuables were handed over to ‘new allottee’,” tweeted Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Kashmir Times. “Vendetta for speaking out! No due process followed. How peevish!”
On October 4, Bhasin had alleged that the brother of a former legislator from Jammu had barged into her government-allotted residential accommodation in Jammu and ransacked the place. She had been occupying the flat since 1999. Bhasin filed a complaint against the brother of the former legislator but no first information report has been registered yet.
The editor believes she is being targeted for filing a petition in the Supreme Court against the communications blockade imposed on August 5, 2019, when the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and split the former state into two Union Territories.
“The debilitating restrictions imposed through the complete shutdown on internet and telecommunication services, and severe curbs on the movement of photo journalists and reporters [should] be immediately relaxed in order to ensure the freedom of the press and media,” said the petition filed on August 10, 2019.
Bhasin’s petition was instrumental in getting the Supreme Court to push the government to relax curbs on communication and be transparent about restriction orders in Jammu and Kashmir.
While the Jammu accommodation was allotted to Bhasin, the office in Srinagar’s Press Colony was in her father’s name. “The office building they sealed was allotted to my late father, Ved Bhasin,” she explained. “And it was allotted to him as editor of Kashmir Times. We have another government-allotted accommodation just close to the Kashmir Times office. It is in the name of my husband, Prabodh Jamwal. They haven’t touched it so far. We are using it as a residence.”
Jamwal is editor of the Kashmir Times.
According to Bhasin, the offices had been targeted by earlier governments in Jammu and Kashmir as well. “In 2009, the Omar Abdullah government had ordered its demolition,” she said. “We were writing very strongly against the Shopian double rape and murder case. But the government issued us a proper notice and we went to court. The court quashed both the allotment cancellation and demolition order.”
Bhasin also claimed that they had done some construction work on the allotted building on the understanding that the Estates Department would reimburse them. “They never paid it off,” she said. “Like everyone else, we also wanted to carry out some construction in the building but the Dstates Department didn’t have the budget for it. That’s why we sought permission from them. Only then did we start construction.”
‘Proper procedure followed’
Estates Department officials said that the sealed building in Srinagar, which had been allotted to Ved Bhasin in 1994, was being used as a residence and the newspaper was operating out of the accommodation allotted to Jamwal.
“The building sealed by the department might have been used as an office in the past but now they are operating from the other allotted accommodation, as per our reports,” said an Estates Department official who did not want to be identified. “The sealed building was now being used for residential purposes and since the allotment was in the name of a person who is no longer alive, the government decided to take it back.”
Bhasin contested the official’s claim. “I am not mad that I will put up a newspaper’s board on a residence I am staying in,” she retorted. “The other building they are talking about was alloted in my husband’s name in 2002 as a residence.”
According to her, the newspaper staff had moved to the apartment allotted to Jamwal only after the office was sealed. “From today, they are using my drawing room and a dining room as an office space,” she said. “I don’t know when they will seal that also. They sealed the building with our computers, generator and other electronic equipment. I am sure they can make out the difference between an office and a residential building. Unless they think we sleep on tables and work on beds.”
Asked why the government cancelled the allotment to Ved Bhasin five years after his death, the estates department official acknowledged that there had been a delay. “It’s a routine exercise to check the status of allottees from time to time,” he said. “Maybe this was overlooked in the past.”
He also held that the Estates Department followed proper procedure in reclaiming the allotted property. “They were given proper notices and one of their staffers was regularly visiting the estates department offices,” he said. “It’s a different matter if he says today that he doesn’t know anything.”
The cancellation order, according to the official, was issued in July. “But since there was Covid-19 etc, they asked us to wait a bit,” he said. “We were also humane and liberal with them. Now when the situation has eased a bit, we decided to take over the possession. Everything was done amicably.”
According to Bhasin, rumours that they would be evicted from the government allotted offices in Srinagar’s Press Colony had been doing the rounds since early September. “From around five weeks ago, the lower rung staff of the department would come and say that you are being evicted and the allotment is being cancelled,” she said. “But whenever we spoke to higher officials in the department, nobody would come up with anything.”
In order to preempt an eviction, Bhasin had approached the office of Srinagar deputy commissioner, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, with a petition. “In 2018, they changed the law – in respect of government property leased or rented out, disputes shall not be heard by the district court but by the respective district’s deputy commissioner,” explained Prabodh Jamwal.
In the petition, Jamwal said, they had argued that due process should be followed by the government. “It amounts to a violation of natural justice if you hang a person without giving him an opportunity of being heard,” he said. After his petition was heard, Jamwal said, the Srinagar deputy commissioner dictated an order asking the estates department to “maintain status quo”. “He said he would stay [proceedings by the estates department] and ask for the other side to file an objection.”
However, the order was never furnished to them in writing, Jamwal said. “After he dictated the order, we were told to come [the next day] to take it but it has been more than five weeks since then and they haven’t provided it to us,” he added.
Scroll.in sent written questions to the Srinagar district administration. Officials said they did not have details of the case at present. This story will be updated if there is a further response.
Bhasin has also approached the Jammu wing of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against her eviction from the apartment there. “The Jammu deputy commissioner is not hearing any cases and that’s why we directly approached the high court,” explained Jamwal. “The high court has been hearing the matter virtually. It has issued a notice and asked the other side to reply first.”
The next hearing in the matter is on November 2.
Government ads stop
Even before its Srinagar offices were sealed, the Kashmir Times has been struggling to stay afloat. Financial constraints forced it to stop publishing its Srinagar edition from March, when the Covid-19 lockdown began. Much of the cash crunch is due to the Union Territory administration choking off government advertisements to the newspaper.
Bhasin feels it was a response to her Supreme Court petition challenging the communications blockade imposed in August last year.
“Last year, when I went to court, the very next day the flow of ads dwindled,” said Bhasin. “They kind of reduced it to a trickle for a while. Then by October 2019, it was completely stopped. There was no explanation.”
From 2010, the newspaper stopped getting Central government ads from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity. With the Jammu and Kashmir economy in crisis, there is little money from other sources.
“The major source of revenue was government advertisements,” said Bhasin. “With the economy down and Covid-19, private advertisements also got affected. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, we just decided to suspend the publication both in Jammu and Srinagar. By the time we thought of resuming, everybody else was publishing but it was difficult to resume both the publications because of our financial issues. We restarted Jammu gradually first, then regularly for the last two three months. But we haven’t been able to resume printing the Srinagar edition.”
As news of the eviction broke, several journalists took to social media to say they stood with Bhasin and the Kashmir Times. The Delhi-based Network of Women in Media has issued a statement calling for an end to the “harassment of Bhasin and other independent voices in Kashmir”.
While the Kashmir Times stares at an uncertain future, Bhasin says the paper will not be gagged by government action. “The basic thing is your voice and integrity,” she said. “If you keep that alive you will rise someday.”