Srinagar, Kashmir: In December last year, when 27-year-old freelance journalist Quratulain Rehbar found her name on 'Bulli Bai' app, targetted in an online hate campaign against Muslim women in India, she went to the Kashmir Press Club and confided among her colleagues at the Kashmir Press Club. Soon after, senior members of the press club released a statement in Rehbar's support, condemning the harassment.
"To me personally, the support provided by the club meant a lot to me at the time. It gave me hope and confidence that I wasn't alone, I have people who think for my safety and reached out to me," she said.
For journalists in Kashmir, who often face harassment and questioning by police for reporting, the club founded in 2018, not only provided moral support but had beamed as one of the last institutions that stood up for a free press in the region.
Similarly, when multimedia journalist Muktar Zahoor was summoned for questioning by police in October last year, his family reached out to senior journalists at the press club who intervened on his behalf. "I got to meet senior journalists through the club. They shared their knowledge with me and whenever I felt a problem in my professional or even personal life, I would reach out to them. All of that has now gone," Zahoor told BOOM.
With over 300 members, the club also provided a safe space for senior and budding journalists to come together to share ideas and views on journalism in the region. All of that has now been lost after the authorities in Kashmir revoked the allotment of the building that housed the club.
On 17 January, the authorities in Kashmir shuttered up the premises of Kashmir Press Club, even as the club remained closed after the takeover on Saturday.
In a statement, it said, "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 of the now deregistered Kashmir Press Club (KPC) be canceled and control of land and buildings, which belongs to the Estates Department, be reverted back to it."
The move came two days after a group of journalists accompanied by armed forces took over the reins of the club's management. They had argued the tenure of the elected body had ended six months ago.
The Kashmir Press Was Forcibly Taken Over
The term of the executive body of the club, which was elected in 2019, had ended in July 2021. It claimed that the elections could not be held due to the pending re-registration process under the Union Territory laws, and it only received the clearance in late December last year.
But the fresh registration of the club was put in abeyance by the Registrar of Societies on January 14, citing a report by Criminal Investigation Department. The next day, a group of journalists led by Times of India's Srinagar correspondent Mohammed Saleem Pandit, with a posse of armed police personnel, appeared at the club to form an interim body. Journalists at the club opposed the takeover.
Explaining the reason for their move, Pandit's group said that "some vested interests were trying to create chaos in the media fraternity with sinister motives". However, journalists' bodies in India and around the world sharply criticised the takeover.
The Editors Guild of India said it was "aghast at the manner in which the office and the management of Kashmir Press Club … was forcibly taken over." It accused the authorities of being "brazenly complicit in this coup". A joint statement was issued by nine different journalists' associations in Kashmir terming it a "highly condemnable and completely illegal move".
'It Was All A Plan'
Journalists in the valley feel the forced takeover of the club and its subsequent closure was all part of a "plan". Naseer Ganai, senior correspondent for the Outlook magazine told BOOM that the ultimate goal was to shut down the Kashmir Press Club. He said, "They tried to install a group of journalists only for this purpose. They wanted to stifle the voice of journalists that resonated through the forum called Kashmir Press Club, the only democratic and independent journalist body in Valley."
Ganai also feels the move to close the largest journalists' body "is a message to all working journalists whether affiliated with the club or not."
Since the abrogation of article 370 in August 2019, journalists in Kashmir have been under increased scrutiny. Last year, multiple journalists reported being questioned by police and asked to give their personal and bank details for "verification." Many journalists critical of the government have also been summoned by the police for reporting.
Ishfaq Tantray, the general secretary of the club elected executive body also shares similar views. "The manner with which the government deregistered the club and subsequently closed it calling it as factional rivalry seems part of a plan to shut the club."
A Press Club had been a long demand of the media fraternity in the valley. But it was often overlooked by successive governments in Kashmir. It was only in 2018, under the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP, the building was allotted for the club. Ironically, Pandit, who seems to have played a role in the closure of the club, either way, was influential in setting up the club and also held the position of its first interim president.
While Ganai rightly points out that the club's closure will not end journalism in Kashmir, the manner in which it was closed feels "humiliating and sad".
For young freelance journalists like Rehbar and Zahoor, the loss of the club feels even more personal. "I think we'll all be scattered now. It was a place to meet and have conversations on various issues for us. As a woman journalist, it also felt like a safe place," Rehbar said.
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