How journalism in Kashmir has been driven to the edge
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHAHID TANTRAY
AT 1.45 PM, on 15 January, an armoured cavalcade rolled onto the premises of the Kashmir Press Club—Kashmir’s largest body representing journalists—in Polo View, abutting Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. There had been heightened police presence at the club since the day before, with roving patrols across the road outside. That afternoon, a police officer had told reporters, “We will leave once sahab comes and takes charge.” Surrounded by paramilitary and Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel, Saleem Pandit, an assistant editor with the Times of India, got out of the Ambassador car at the head of the cavalcade and quickly went up to a conference room on the first floor.
Eleven other journalists, many of whom were known to be close to the current unelected administration of Jammu and Kashmir, entered the conference room and sealed the doors shut. Outside the door stood three police personnel armed with assault rifles, glowering at the worried staff and members of the club. Members of the police’s Crime Investigation Department—which has recently morphed into the administration’s most efficient tool against outspoken Kashmiri journalists—also roamed the corridors. An hour later, the 12 journalists walked out of the room and announced that they were “taking over.”
A crowd of club members had formed outside, despite a lockdown that had been announced to combat the most recent COVID-19 surge. Soon afterwards, our phones began pinging, almost in unison. We all received a WhatsApp message, a statement signed by Pandit and two others. “The elected body served its tenure for a period of two years, which ended on July 14, 2021,” it read. “As the previous committee delayed the elections for unknown reasons the club was headless, thereafter for around six months, putting media fraternity to unwanted trouble.”
The statement failed to mention that fresh elections had been announced only two days earlier and that they were only delayed because of the government’s refusal to re-register the club until 29 December 2021. “Now therefore on January 15, 2022 various journalists organizations across Kashmir valley unanimously decided to form an interim body of three members with M Saleem Pandit as president, Zulifkar 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 free and fair manner,” the document stated.
It was unclear which “various journalists organisations” these were, or where and how they had “unanimously agreed” to form an interim body. Pandit did not explain this in a page-long reply to questions that were emailed to him by The Caravan. Of the 13 journalists’ organisations registered with the Kashmir Press Club, ten held a meeting on 20 January condemning what they called the “forcible take-over … and subsequent shutting down of the Kashmir Press Club by the J&K administration.” The takeover was also condemned by the Press Club of India, the Editors Guild of India, the Committee to Protect Journalists and several other national and international press associations. Kashmir’s politicians were critical of the move too. The former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, “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.”
The consensus among the journalists I spoke to was that the takeover had been masterminded by the Jammu and Kashmir administration. Despite Pandit’s denial that the takeover was backed by the administration, several factors point towards this. For a start, the police and paramilitary bandobast around Pandit and others who supported the takeover was suspicious. Pandit has also been known to be close to successive governments.
In November 2019, shortly after the abrogation of Article 370—which ended the limited autonomy earlier granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and was enforced with a brutal lockdown in the Kashmir Valley—Pandit had said that the editor of a prominent English daily had “close connections to terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba and has hired known ‘jihadi journalists’ to write for his newspaper.” This resembles the union government’s own frequent characterisation of journalists in Kashmir as anti-national and Islamist. Pandit’s membership of the Kashmir Press Club was promptly cancelled for “bringing disrepute” to the club, and he has not been a member since.
In January 2020, when the Indian government invited 16 foreign diplomats on a tour of the Kashmir Valley to try and show that the situation was normal, Pandit was among the select media workers they were allowed to meet. Following the takeover of the press club, without naming Pandit, the former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted, “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.”
In his emailed response to questions from The Caravan, Pandit claimed that he had been the founder of the Press Club and that the elected body of the club “chose to confront the government at the behest of Pakistani elements present in the Club.” He claimed that previous club elections had not been free and fair, that it was a lie that new elections had been announced earlier and that the club’s leadership were working on the orders of Mufti and Abdullah. Pandit added, “Can anybody answer this question why Pakistani state and terrorists got rattled because of an internal affair between journalists of Kashmir? Why Pakistani foreign ministry had to meddle in the internal affairs of journalists in Kashmir?” He also alleged that footage of the large security presence at the club had been Photoshopped. This contradicted what I had seen when I was there.
The events of the days following the takeover also suggested the administration had a hand in the move. On 17 January, the government decided to shut down the club as well as seize the building it was housed in. The club’s Polo View premises had been granted to it upon its registration, in July 2018, by Mufti. She had acquiesced to journalists’ decades-old demands for an elected, government-registered body to represent their interests. A mere four years later, citing concerns 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 press club was deregistered and its offices shuttered. “Both the government and this ‘interim body’ got bad press,” Ishfaq Tantry, the first general secretary of the Kashmir Press Club, wrote in an article. “So the government came up with a new plan to shut down the Kashmir Press Club.”
During its short four-year tenure, the Kashmir Press Club was a rare island of calm for journalists to work in. Unlike other press clubs in other parts of India, haunted by journalists primarily for their cheap meals and booze, the Kashmir Press Club provided free working space for dozens of independent journalists who had no offices of their own. Its import grew after the abrogation of Article 370, and the military-enforced lockdown and media blackout that followed it.
“When communications were suspended for months in 2019, the KPC became a centre for information-sharing, where journalists from different regions of Kashmir would share news which eventually would make it to the headlines,” Auqib Javeed, a Srinagar-based journalist, told me. “There was no other way we could have reported during that period.” But the club had never been fully free from government interference. A video journalist in his early twenties told me that, since its founding, CID officials regularly visited the club dressed in civilian clothing, to interact with journalists and attend events. “We would commonly joke that they were reporters working at Kothi Bagh Times,” he said, referring to the infamous Kothi Bagh police station, where some journalists have faced interrogation….