12/07/2019 4:21 PM IST

Kashmir Press Club Elections: Hot Button Topics Include Press Freedom, Tea Prices, Marriage Expenses

Two camps have formed, with the “good” coming together to stop the “evil” from winning the election.

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A Kashmiri man reads a newspaper at a stall in Srinagar.

An election in which the contestants, voters, campaigners and critics are journalists, and the place just happens to be Kashmir — the results are bound to be stormy.

Until a year ago, Kashmiri journalists would always count the absence of a press club in Kashmir capital Srinagar as their primary failing. Last year, the government handed them a building that previously housed a panel meant for conducting examinations for professional courses. It was named the Kashmir Press Club (KPC). Its Urdu name, Aiwaan-e-Sahafat, The House of Journalism, sounds grander. On 15 July, elections will be held for various posts of the club.

On election manifestos, prices of coffee and tea are jostling for attention along with freedom of speech.

So far, it appears, the dynamic of the controversial assembly polls in the state has caught up with the elections for the KPC.

The sub-text of the elections is that since KPC is bound to be a power centre, those who are going to be at its helm should not be like pro-India Kashmiri politicians, who are essentially seen as compradors. Hence the “good” have come together to stop the “evil” from ascending the throne.

Alliances have been forged and, despite bitter differences, a consensus has been evolved over the choice of candidates in both camps.

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A few journalists have taken to the social media to canvass for candidates with a “clean image”.

Journalist Najeeb Mubarki posted pictures of a few contestants, whose poll slogans are “ready to listen”, “ready to connect”, “ready to talk”, with the accompanying message: “our candidates. fully endorsed”.

In the comments section, he writes: “this election is a micro example of truth vs trith (Kashmiri for fakery). Vote, if you have a vote”.

Another journalist, Javed Naikoo, writes on his Facebook wall: “Dear journos, professionalism, as we believe, matters the most and we don’t need any journalism illiterates in our profession (sic).”

Locally, “journalism illiterates” is a blanket term encompassing people masquerading as journalists and having dubious credentials who have brought a bad name to Kashmiri journalism by indulging in blackmail and sub-standard journalism or by their proximity to the state.

“My only reason behind becoming a member and now contesting for this post is to keep the rot out. We cannot cede this important space to the unscrupulous people in this profession and there are a lot of them,” a journalist told me on the condition of anonymity.

For a Press Club the size of a big kothi in Delhi’s Maharani Bagh, elaborate manifestos have been circulated among the voters.

The manifesto of one of the grouping reads: “KPC canteen will be made affordable for all with tea @Rs 5 and coffee @Rs 10 as much needed attractions (sic)”.

This grouping stands no chance of getting any post. But it has taken a cue from BJP’s campaign for parliamentary elections and declared that “we are not going for any alliances with (any) of the associations because such milawat (adulteration) or mahamilawat (mega-adulteration) makes things weak and weakness is not our cup of tea”.

Its presidential candidate “looks ahead for reservation of seats for the children of journalists in educational institutions”.

An independent candidate for executive member’s position not only believes in pricing a coffee cup at Rs 7 and lunch at Rs 50, but he has also promised: “the KPC will bear expenses of marriage of family members of journalists who are getting meager salaries (sic)”.

He is fighting it solo because he believes “alliance often means compromise with the powerful and the mighty—something I will be the last person to accept”.

Some manifestos are quite elaborate and tempting. In a place where journalists are booked by the National Investigation Agency and another has spent about a year in jail, one manifesto says it will ensure KPC becomes an epitome of freedom of expression and “freedom after expression”.

This manifesto has been issued by an alliance that also promises to work for pension and EPF for retiring journalists in a place where nearly all working journalists are without work agreements, not to speak of other facilities.

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The word spoken, and practised, quite often during elections in Kashmir is “boycott”. Keeping up with this tradition, Kashmir Journalists Corps has “decided to stay away from the election to the Press Club”. Any of its members would be “voting in his individual capacity as a member of the Press Club, not as a member of the Corps”.

To emphasise the point of its non-participation, the KJC writes: “A member’s participation in no way is an endorsement of KJC for any candidate or alliance.”

The grapevine has it that there are fears of “cross-voting” and “attempts at manipulation by political parties”.

The grand aim of the press club was to forge unity among journalists. So far, however, it has only resulted in factionalism and deepened divisions. Friendships have come asunder in some cases.

A journalist who enjoys acceptability among all associations and groups was projected as a presidential candidate by his own association, which was confident of the victory. But given his genial nature—construed as ‘moral weakness’ by his pals—he consented to step down to leave the candidacy to a senior and well-respected journalist.

He was pilloried by his group for having taken such an important decision without consulting them.

“This is Kashmir. You have responsibility but no authority,” he told me.