Kashmir Press Club ‘Coup’: The Complete Story

SRINAGAR: Journalist bodies within Kashmir and at the national level have strongly condemned the weekend “takeover” of Kashmir Press Club (KPC) by a group of journalists, who appointed themselves as the “interim body”. Cops were seen within and outside the Club at the time of the takeover, a first in the Club’s brief history when ten people were in a meeting.

PCI team visits Kashmir Press Club on March 18, 2020.

Journalist bodies, which have expressed their serious concerned include the Press Club of India, Editors Guild of India, Mumbai Press Club and Delhi Union of Working Journalists.

The incident now infamously termed as “coup” took place within less than 24 hours after the Registrar of Societies kept in abeyance the fresh registration on basis of a police report. The first decision of the “interim committee”, incidentally, was to close the Club to its members for a week for Covid19 concerns, another first-ever since the pandemic started impacting Kashmir in early 2020.

Jammu and Kashmir’s two former Chief Ministers’ Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti strongly reacted to the development. Omar termed it a “state-sponsored coup”. The takeover was personally announced by M Salim Pandit, a journalist with The Times of India, who appointed himself as the president of the Club.

The visiting Nepal Press Council Chairman Kishore Shrestha handed over a memento to the Aiwan-e-Suhafat functionaries after an interaction with the Kashmir journalists and editors on October 14, 2018. KL Image: Masood Hussain

Here are the details of the development based on who said what. The statements have been issued without editing for the sake of record:

The Takeover Statement

Issued on the official letterhead of the KPC on January 15, 2022, with the heading: “Takeover of Kashmir Press Club, Srinagar”.

“It is an open fact that the Kashmir Press Club at Poloview Srinagar founded in 2018 with immense efforts of the Kashmir based journalists who had unanimously handed over the responsibilities of the Club to veteran journalist M Saleem Pandit, who works with The Times of India (ToI) as the founding President. With the passage of time, however, the Kashmir based journalists held elections of its executive body on 15th July 2019. The elected body served its tenure for a period of two years, which ended on July 14, 2021. As the previous committee delayed the elections for unknown reasons the Club was headless, thereafter for around six months, putting the media fraternity to unwanted trouble.

Now therefore on January 15, 2022, various journalist organizations across Kashmir valley unanimously decided to form an interim body of three members with M Saleem Pandit as president, Zulfikar Majid, bureau chief of Deccan Herald as General Secretary and Arshid Rasool Editor Daily Gadyal as Treasurer of the Club till elections are held in a free and fair manner.

The interim body besides running the day-to-day affairs of the Club will also be authorized to form a required executive body which will help the KPC to flourish and grow into a modern press club much in need with the growing requirements.

The new body has pledged to ensure the welfare of journalists as its top priority.”

The First Reaction

“All the Kashmir-based journalists have expressed anguish over the illegal and arbitrary takeover of the Kashmir Press Club by some journalists with open support from the local administration. On January 15, the day when the administration had declared weekend lockdown in view of Covid surge, a group of journalists barged into the club office and forcibly took control of the club by keeping the office members hostage. Large number of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed beforehand for this highly condemnable and completely illegal move.

The journalists’ bodies including Journalist Federation of Kashmir (JFK), Press Photographer Association (KPPA), Kashmir Press Club (KPC), Jammu and Kashmir Journalist Association (JAKJA), Kashmir Video Journalist Association (KVJA), Kashmir Working Journalists Association, Kashmir National Television Journalist Association (KNTJA), and Kashmir Journalist Association (KJA) in a joint statement said, that the administration, by allowing a few disgruntled elements to hoodwink the Club constitution, bylaws and flout all norms of law, has set a wrong and dangerous precedent. The authorities had already communicated about the mandatory re-registration, which was initiated by the KPC management, but it took authorities more than six months to verify the credentials of the management body. On 29 December, the re-registration was finally issued following that the Club decided to initiate the process of fresh elections and also announced the date. But all of a sudden a group of journalists, including some non-members, approached the district administration with a proposal for an “interim body” and it is followed by a communication from the government that the re-registration has been kept in abeyance.

This move, in which a group of journalists self-appointed itself as an “interim body,” is uncivil, illegal, unconstitutional and without any precedence. It has been taken at a time when the process of registration is still pending before the authorities.

All journalist bodies are unanimous in the view that this unfortunate move by a disgruntled lot has set a dangerous precedent by forcing their way into the club office in violation of the KPC constitution and bylaws. The Press bodies have decided to take legal recourse against the perpetrators.

We appeal to the press bodies across the country including the Press Council of India, Press Club of India, Federation of Press Clubs and Editors Guild of India to take a strong note of how the local administration is supporting lawlessness and throttling a democratic media body. If such incidents are allowed to happen with a Press Club in Kashmir this can be a precedence for future.”

Editors Guild Of India

Issued on January 16, 2022, the statement is signed by EGI president Seema Mustafa, Secretary-General, Sanjay Kapoor and Treasure, Ananth Nath.

“The Editors Guild of India is aghast at the manner in which the office and the management of Kashmir Press Club, the largest journalists’ association in the Valley, was forcibly taken over by a group of journalists with the help of armed policemen on January 15, 2022. The Guild is equally alarmed by an arbitrary order of putting the registration of the Kashmir Press Club “in abeyance”, a day before this armed takeover of the Club, on January 14, 2022, by the Registrar of Societies. The Club had been issued a fresh “re-registration” as recently as December 29, 2021, following a long process of verification of an application made by them in May 2021, in response to public notices issued by the Registrar.

 

The Club was under an interim management after the ‘re-registration’, and had on January 13, 2022 announced an election date of February 15, 2022, to elect a new management body as well as the executive committee. The armed takeover has effectively scuttled this rule-based functioning of the Club. Even more disturbingly, the state police entered the premises without any due warrant or paperwork, and have therefore been brazenly complicit in this coup, in which a group of people have become self-declared management of the Club.

This violation of the sanctity of the club by the police and the local administration is a manifestation of the continuing trend to smother press freedom in the state. Just recently, Sajad Gul, a young journalist was arrested for merely posting a video on social media, which showed a family protesting against the Indian government.

Editors Guild demands immediate restoration of the status quo before this hostile takeover, the announcement of elections to appoint a new management body and executive council, and strict prohibitions on any armed forces from interfering with the functioning of the Club, without due legal sanction. The Guild further demands an independent inquiry as to how armed forces entered the Club premises.”

Mumbai Press Club

Issued by Hon Secretary of Mumbai Press Club on January 16, 2022, the statement is captioned: “RESTORE ELECTION PROCESS, REGISTRATION OF THE KASHMIR PRESS CLUB – Stop state inference in journalist bodies

“The Mumbai Press Club condemns the forcible takeover of the Kashmir Press Club (KPC) from the legally elected management body in conjunction with security forces on Saturday. The MPC also deplores the Jammu & Kashmir administration scuttling the Club’s election process the previous day, Friday, 14th January, by holding in abeyance; the registration of the Kashmir Club, which is registered under the Societies Act, 1860.

The Kashmir Club had applied for re-registration in May last year. This was required by an April 2021 notification after the abrogation of Article 370 for J&K, and the region is converted into a union territory. After a long verification process by the District Commissioner, on 29th December, last year, a Registration Certificate under the Societies Act was issued to the Kashmir Press Club. However, soon as the Club Managing Committee announced elections to the 300-strong body, on 13th January, the administration issued an Order on the 14th of January, stating that re-registration of the Kashmir Press Club is hereby kept in abeyance till the receipt of the final report from Additional District Magistrate, Srinagar.

This order effectively has put the entire 300-member journalist body in cold storage and negated the democratically called election process.

This being not enough, the next day, Saturday, 15th January, using the Covid lockdown announced for Srinagar, a group of journalists barged into the Press Club premises in the Polo View area and declared themselves to be an interim body.

The group who trespassed into the club premises were protected by the J&K Police. The KPC does not allow gun-bearing persons in the club premises. However, the J&K Police personnel installed themselves at the club’s gate and inside the club building. Significantly, the group that barged in and seized the club had lost the elections in 2019.

This indeed beats the imagination of how the local administration and police had blessed the trespass and takeover of the Kashmir Club on 15th January by a rival group, a day after the local government had frozen the organization through; de-registration; on 14th January.

The Kashmir Press Club went through a democratic process of elections in 2019 and has been representing the voice of independent journalism in the Kashmir Valley for some time. To dub those who are writing and reporting in a balanced manner as anti-national; is a cause of concern, and to derail a legally registered body from holding its own election process smacks of autocracy and is a violation of the freedom of the press guaranteed under the Constitution.

The Mumbai Press Club demands that the registration of the Kashmir Press Club be restored and that its legally elected body be allowed to conduct its election freely and fairly without threats and sans the shadow of the gun.

Delhi Union of Working Journalists

Signed by S K Pande, President and Sujata Madhok, the General Secretary, the statement issued on January 16, 2022, is captioned: “Restore Independence of Kashmir Press Club, says DUJ”

The Delhi Union of Journalists is dismayed at the government move to close the Press Club of Kashmir.  Press Clubs everywhere are information hubs where journalists exchange information and views, enabling them to perform their jobs better. They are also places where journalists stop and rest between hectic deadlines, while they wait for the next interview, the next press briefing…..They are places to get an affordable meal and a drink and socialize with colleagues.  Press Clubs, therefore, are invaluable for the profession.  In Kashmir, where journalism is a tough, risky, dangerous profession, the Press Club has played a vital role.

The authorities had renewed the license of the Kashmir Press Club on December 29, 2021, after the issue had hung fire for months.  Once the renewal notice was received the Press Club belatedly announced elections.  Now the license renewal has been suddenly cancelled, ostensibly because of an adverse CID report. This volte face is inexplicable.

It is singularly unfortunate that a division seems to have been created within journalists, with a small faction ‘taking over’ the Club when Srinagar was under a lockdown.  Police and paramilitary personnel were deployed during this process.  Several associations of Kashmir journalists have signed a joint statement objecting to this ‘takeover’ of the premises.

We also note that the arbitrary arrests, detentions and questioning of journalists in Kashmir continue unabated. On January 5, 2022, Sajad Gul, a trainee journalist with Kashmir Walla, was arrested for fomenting anti-government feelings. Last year Salman Shah and Suhail Dar were arrested for ‘breach of peace’. Journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail since August 27, 2018, and awaits trial.

We call for greater democracy and freedom of the press in Kashmir today. We view the developments in the Kashmir Press Club as one more reprehensible attempt to intimidate journalists. We demand immediate restoration of the Club to the duly elected office bearers and a renewal of the license.  There must be no government interference in the running of a journalists’ club.

Press Club of India

Press Club of India issued January 16, 2022, was issued by Umakant Lakhera (President) and Vinay Kumar (Secretary-General).

“The Press Club of India is deeply concerned over developments in Kashmir Press Club, Srinagar where an attempt has been made to deliberately derail the democratic process of holding elections and throttle the body of journalists.

 

Reports emerging from Srinagar on Saturday are a cause of concern and distress as a faction of journalists took over management of the Club with support from the local administration amid heavy police deployment in and outside the Kashmir Press Club premises. The presence of police at the Club premises is highly condemnable and totally illegal.

The Press Club of India demands that the democratic process of holding elections to the Kashmir Press Club be allowed to proceed in a peaceful manner. Only the democratically elected body of journalists has a right to run the affairs of the Club in Srinagar as per the bylaws and constitution of the Kashmir Press Club.

The Press Club of India appeals to the Lieutenant-Governor of Jammu and Kashmir to look into the matter, restore registration of the Kashmir Press Club and facilitate the process of elections which had already been set in motion.

Shuja Ul Haq’s Statement

Kashmir Press Club’s only elected president in its brief history Shuja ul Haq issued a detailed statement on January 16, 2022:

“Kashmir Press Club has been functioning as a democratic institution since 2019 when we were elected as its first management body. In May 2021 the govt. through an order asked the KPC society to re-register itself. As the responsible management, we submitted all documents and followed up with the procedure. It took months for the process, which includes police verifications etc. to complete. During this period (between July 2021 to December 2021), we have written official communications to the concerned authorities to expedite the process so that we can hold the elections to the next body as mandated by our rules. Finally on December 29th, 2021 the letter of granting us re-registration was signed. Soon after we received the communication the management announced elections on 13th January. A day after this announcement, to our sheer surprise a fresh communication was received by the club from authorities that the re-registration which was approved just days before has been put under ‘abeyance’. This effectively derailed the process of the planned elections.

The incident & the circumstances of ‘takeover’ on 15th January by a group of journalists came as another shock. The club has been locked from outside and no member was allowed to enter on Sunday. I am flooded by calls from members expressing their anguish. The incident has pained us all as this institution had been functioning with a sheer focus of seeking the welfare of its journalist members. Throughout our tenure, as was expected from us, we have tried to act with the utmost professionalism, without any bias, political or ideological sidings. In the interest of the community and the club, we have also been a bridge between the administration and the journalistic fraternity including during some of the toughest times like the recent Covidl9 pandemic. The club was among the first bodies that organized vaccination camps of all its members and sent out a very positive signal across the board. For the last few months, our efforts have been to hand over the mandate to the next elected representatives and for that to happen we have been eagerly waiting for our registration to be restored. I urge the administration and the Hon’ble LG of J&K to look into the matter and ensure the institution is allowed to function democratically.”

The Pandit Group Statement 

“The interim body took over the defunct Club on January 15 on the popular demand of the journalist fraternity who were otherwise facing problems on numerous fronts. The journalists wanted the institution to be headed by a founding president who had played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Club, and other working journalists of repute to pave way for much-awaited elections.

Terming the KPC coup as a figment of imagination, the interim body said the reality is that the policemen shown in the pictures were PSOs of one of the journalists.

Moreover, it was a day of Covid lockdown in Srinagar district and on finding an unusually big presence of visitors at the Club, the local police station was enforcing SOPs outside the club on the main road. So who were the ‘armed forces to have barged’ into the Club? Or is a Press Club supposed to be above law?”

It said that what was even shocking is that the worthy Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India and Mumbai Press Club instead of adhering to journalistic standards of verifying the other side of the story came up with a half baked and sensational statement as if some “government-sponsored coup” had really taken place.

The Editors Guild of India never bothered to inquire as to why the Kashmir Press Club was defunct for the last six months but jumped the gun when the Club was taken over by an interim body for the conduct of free and fair elections. We expect such esteemed institutions to behave even responsibly for places like Kashmir where concocted stories like ‘armed coup’ can jeopardise the lives of innocent journalists working between the devil and deep sea.

The body further said it was open to any scrutiny over the interim takeover but that bias in the issuance of statements without verification of ground reality amounts to nothing but “malicious propaganda.” ”

The Elected Body Appoints Committee

January 16, 2022

Kashmir Press Club nominates committees from various associations, the mandate is to organise elections, assist in the management

“The elected management body and the Executive Committee members of the Kashmir Press Club have thanked various national media bodies including the Press Club of India, Mumbai Press Club, Editors Guild of India, Delhi Union of Journalists and other individual journalists for raising their voice against the illegal act of ‘takeover’ committed at the KPC in Srinagar on Saturday.

The elected body has further resolved/decided to appointment/ nominate a committee with members from constituent/most media associations functional in Kashmir. While nominating the committee, care has been taken that it be broad-based and represents every section of the fraternity.

The committee will have the mandate to hold the elections to the new body as soon as possible by constituting an election commission, work on completing the legalities & re-registration process which is pending before the Registrar Societies and Firms, Kashmir and in the meantime also assist in the affairs of the club.

The nominated/appointed members for the committee are:

Riyaz Masroor- (JAKJA)
Mehrajuddin-(KVJA)
Ashiq Peerzada ( KWJA)
Azan Javaid-(JFK)
Javed Dar- (KPPA)
Syed Muzafar-(KPPA)
Malik Saajid-(JAKJA)
Shabir Ahmad Mir- (KNTJA)
Shahnawaz Khan- (KWJA)
Mudasir Kaloo- (KJA)
Anees Zargar-JFK
Shahana Bhat-KWJA
Qurat ul Ain Rehbar-JFK
Jahangir Aziz-KVJA

KPC will remain in constant touch with the major press bodies across the board and apprise them on the developments.”

The Government Decision

On January 17, afternoon, the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) issued the following statement:

“The government is 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 factual position is that KPC as a registered body has ceased to exist and its managing body too has come to a legal closure on 14 July 2021, the date on which its tenure came to an end. In its failure to register itself under the central Societies of Registration Act, further compounded by its failure to hold elections to constitute a new managing body, some individuals of the erstwhile club have been committing illegalities on several counts, least of which are false portrayal of being owner-managers of an entity which is no longer in legal vogue.

Meanwhile, some other members have created an interim body using the same banner suggesting a ‘takeover’. However, since the original KPC itself has ceased to exist as a registered body, the question of any interim body is rendered infructuous. In these circumstances, issuing of notices and communication by any group using the rubric of erstwhile Kashmir Press Club is illegal.

Meanwhile, the rival groups have been levelling various allegations against each other also with regard to the use of the premises belonging to the estate’s department that was being used for the legitimate use of the members of the journalistic fraternity. In view of this aspect of the dispute and in view of the reports in social media and other sources indicating a potential law and order situation including a threat of breach of peace and the safety of bonafide journalists, an intervention has become necessary.

In view of the unpleasant developments and dissensions between various groups of journalists, it has been decided that the allotment of the premises at Polo View in view of the now deregistered Kashmir Press Club be cancelled and control of land and buildings situated at Polo View Srinagar which belongs to the Estates Department be reverted back to the said Department.

The government is committed to a free and fair press and believes that journalists are entitled to all facilities, including a place for professional, educational, social, cultural, recreational and welfare activities. It also hopes that a duly registered bona fide society of all journalists shall be constituted as soon as possible and the same shall be able to approach the government for reallocation of the premises.”

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