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Amid infighting among Kashmir journalists, Govt. takes back Press Club building

With two factions of the valley-based media persons fighting over the title, the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Monday has taken back possession of a government building allotted for use to Kashmir’s first Press Club in 2017 (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@rayan_naqash)

With two factions of the valley-based media persons fighting over the title, the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Monday has taken back possession of a government building allotted for use to Kashmir’s first Press Club in 2017.

Even as a Press statement issued by the Government’s Department of Information mentioned only about the building that had been allotted to Kashmir Press Club (KPC), well-placed authoritative sources insist that a separate order was being issued for special audit of an amount of Rs 50 lakh provided by the government for welfare of the media persons in 2018. 

“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”, said the official Press release.

“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”, it added.

“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”, the official Press release added.

“Meanwhile, the rival groups have been levelling various allegations against each other also with regard to the use of the premises belonging to the estates 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”, it added.

“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”, said the Press release further.

“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”, the statement concluded.

Sources said that on instructions from the Government, the Director of Estates was in the process of issuing a formal order of the cancellation of allotment even as the premises had been already taken over in the forenoon. On Sunday, a sub divisional magistrate had locked the premises in the wake of infighting among the journalists.

KPC was constituted for the first time during Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP-BJP government in December 2017. The government in that month handed over a two-storey building at Polo View in Srinagar Civil Lines to senior journalist and correspondent of The Times of India, Mohammad Saleem Pandit, who was introduced as ‘Interim President’ till completion of the membership process and the first elections.

However, Pandit’s story in TOI over an attack of the Kashmiri stone pelters on some tourists unsettled the then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and her confidant minister Naeem Akhtar. A number of associations related to tourism filed complaints against Pandit who was instantly booked in a criminal case. Pandit was soon forced to resign and hand over the KPC management to an ad hoc body of the representatives of several media associations.

In a subsequent story in TOI, Pandit alleged that some ‘jihadi journalists’ had taken over the KPC which angered the media persons who staged a protest against him.

KPC’s first elections were held for a term of two years in July 2019 which expired in July 2021. With the structural vacuum of around 6 months, Pandit entered the KPC building along with his security detail and associates on 15 January. He told reporters that he had been appointed by the members as ‘Interim President’ till the elections. He announced that Zulfikar Majid of Deccan Herald had been ‘appointed’ as General Secretary and another journalist, Arshid Mir, as Treasurer.

Pandit’s action was dismissed by the old KPC functionaries as a “military style coup”. Former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti called it a “State sponsored operation” to further disempower and silence the Kashmiris and the local media. They were the first to express their solidarity with the old KPC body. Both the mainstream leaders issued hard-hitting statements, including frontal attacks on Pandit, while dismissing his move as the one sponsored by the “State”.

“There is no government this “journalist” hasn’t sucked up to & no government he hasn’t lied on behalf of. I should know, I’ve seen both sides very closely. Now he’s benefited from a state sponsored coup”, Omar tweeted on Saturday, 15 January. He continued his campaign against Pandit, while retweeting a number of the reactions and statements of the old KPC functionaries and their sympathisers.

“Today’s state sponsored coup at KPC would put the worst dictators to shame. State agencies here are too busy overthrowing elected bodies & firing govt employees instead of discharging their actual duties. Shame on those who aided & facilitated this coup against their own fraternity”, Mehbooba Mufti tweeted.

Statements critical of the Pandit group’s “coup” came out in quick succession from Mumbai Press Club, Press Club of India, Editors Guild of India and Delhi Union of Journalists. According to an email issued from the old KPC body’s account, nine associations of Srinagar-based journalists also rejected the Pandit group’s action and demanded free and fair elections.

Pandit and his supporters maintained that the old KPC body had ceased to exist in July 2021 and their move had the only purpose of saving KPC’s life. According to them the old KPC body had no organisational locus standi after 14 July 2021. They are now complaining to the government that the statements and tweets issued by their adversaries and some politicians had exposed them to possible attacks from the militants.

The Pakistan Foreign Office in a statement on Sunday, 16 July, lashed out at the Pandit group’s takeover of the KPC. According to it, the move "manifestly reflects India's entrenched use of brute force and coercion to forcibly silence those raising voices against its horrendous crimes and egregious human rights violations” in Kashmir.

"India’s state-sponsored terrorism can never weaken the resolve of the Kashmiris for their right to self-determination," the Pakistan Foreign Office statement said, condemning the booking of Kashmiri journalists and human rights activists under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Public Safety Act.

It called upon the international community, particularly the United Nations and international human rights and humanitarian bodies, to hold India accountable for its "unabated harassment and illegal arrests" of journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society activists in Kashmir.

In hours of the statement from the Pakistan Foreign Office, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir not only declared the KPC as defunct but also booked a reporter from Bandipora under PSA and shifted him to Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail. Sajad Ahmad Dar aka Sajad Gul had allegedly amplified a video showing a group of women protesting over the killing of the most wanted terrorist Saleem Parray in an encounter in Srinagar. According to Police, Parray had beheaded and slit throats of a number of the civilians of his hometown Hajan in 2017-18.