Excerpts of a memoir

Daily Excelsior is publishing the excerpts of first two chapters of ‘Unmasking Kashmir : A Bureaucrat Reveals” by Sonali Kumar IAS (Retd), who has served Jammu and Kashmir as a Civil Servant for 37 years. -Editor

GROAN… YAWN… Oh No… o… o… o…
What new can you talk of, except of cataloguing the postings you suffered and the “successes” you had over some boring 37-years of service in the Government?
What’s new about Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) too, when there are so many books already on the subject?
On the Kashmir dispute in the United Nations, on the valour of the Indian Army and how they foiled the “evil designs” of our enemies in 1947, 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999, on the beauty of Kashmir, about the pilgrimages to Vaishno Devi and Amarnath Shrines and on J&K as a wonderful tourist destination.
And then there are biographies, hagiographies and auto-biographies of politicians ad nauseam.
The pain and suffering of the Kashmiri Muslims in those “curfewed nights” of the 1990s havealreadybeen catalogued. The Kashmiri Pandits too have written about their horrific exodus, how they lost their little paradise-on-earth, and what is stopping them from regaining that paradise.
But what I found missing was-what an outsider Indian Administrative Service (IAS), or for that matter, any officer belonging to any All-India Service (AIS) like IPS (Indian Police Service) or IFoS (Indian Forest Service), goes through while serving in J&K. In my case, there was an added disadvantage-I was the first outsider lady IAS officer serving my full term in this cadre.
In India, most people have either a love-it-or-hate-it relationship with the IAS. They like it for being the “meritocratic steel frame” that is supposedly keeping the country together. And dislike it for being a “favoured”, “twice-born” service that rides roughshod on the aspirations of all other governmentservices in India.
Little do they realise the silent war that most All-India Service officers have to wage against corruption and nepotism in a hostile state “cadre” that is imposed on them for the entire duration of their career. Unlike the Army, Para Military or the Central Services who can escape from any such “bad posting” after a two-year stint.
Willy-nilly, we in the IAS become the nameless faceless bureaucrats who perform the thankless task of holding the country together especially in the North-east and in states like J&K. In J&K, the fight is even more difficult. Because to rampant corruption and nepotism, that every IAS officer is forced to fight everywhere else, is added the deadly ingredients of: communalism, anti-nationalism and, in my case, gender bias.
But what is the big deal I’m making of being an “outsider” in J&K? Aren’t about 50% of allIAS officers in every state, by design, “outsiders?”
Well, the difference is that unlike any other state, in J&K, an “outsider” or a “non-state subject” can’t buy property, can’t educate her children in any technical-medical or engineering college, can’t get her spouse or children to find employment with the State Government, can neither vote in nor stand for any state-level elections even after retirement, can’t even get her son married to a local girl because that will immediately extinguish that girl’s state-subject status, and so on.
And why? Because a law passed by the Maharaja of J&K in 1927 (20 years before India became independent and J&K acceded to India) says so. The law was enacted by Maharaja’s Hindu advisors primarily to keep other Hindus of India out of J&K. And the same law is now coming in handy for Kashmiri Muslims to keep everyone else out!
But what happens to the Indian Constitution and my (and those girls’ who have committed the cardinal sin of marrying non-state subjects) fundamental right to property, employment or franchise?
Shhhhh… Don’t even talk about it, lest you upset the fragile Hindu-Muslim amity in the country.
Okay, so let the Government of India then look after the interests of these All-India Service officers by letting them to come to Delhi (or whichever place in India they belong to) to construct their homes, to look after their old parents who can’t do “durbar move” in the sunset of their lives in J&K, to let their children study or to find employment for them…?
Hah, are you in your right senses?
Government of India instead loves dragging back to J&K even those All-India Service officers who may have with proper permission come to Delhi (or to whichever place in India they belong to) for any of those normal human needs.
And what happens to their service interests when they get back to J&K? Are they allowed to hold the cadre posts that are meant to be manned by them under rules made by the same Government of India? Do they get their latest Pay Commission or even Dearness Allowance benefits announced by the same Government of India when their compatriots elsewhere get it? Are their seniorities protectedunder rules made by the same Government of India? Do they get their pensionary benefits in routine as their batch mates get it elsewhere without fighting for it every inch of the way? Can they hope to get official accommodation in J&K the same way as they get while they are with the Government of India?
Now, you are rocking the boat too much!!! You need to be taught a lesson you will never forget.
So that’s the CURSE of being an “outsider” in J&K I’m talking about.
But what about the curses of that “outsider” to J&K? Are you sure the present problems are ONLY communal, i.e. how can the Muslims in J&K live with a Hindu India? Or instigated by Pakistan? Or because of the Kashmiri’s genuine desire to separate from India?
And NOT because of those tears of the “outsider,” shed while serving as bonded labour in J&K?
Just think about it!
On a side note, many people speak about the bureaucratic hurdles they face in their everyday lives. Funnily, whether it is water, electricity, telephones, or any other thing, they always blame the IAS for all ills. Not even knowing whether IAS is indeed responsible for it or not.
Little did I realise that my entire career would be a fight against bureaucratic hurdles where my being in the IAS wouldn’t matter. But then, that was because I was in J&K, which as you would have guessed by now, is on another planet.
I have worked in the J&K cadre for 36 and a half years and have spent another year watching events unfold as Arun, my husband, was still in the IAS there. This experience of 37 and a half years is something I thought I needed to share in this background.
For me, writing this book was a cathartic experience where all my pent-up feelings could finally find some expression. I expect little, but only hope this book proves useful both in understanding what the IAS does in J&K and in helping frame some national policies for dealing with the problems there.
Meeting Sheikh Abdullah
THE TWO-HOUR journey from Baramulla to the Civil Secretariat in Srinagar, rattling over some 54 kilometres (km) of potholed road, was by now a daily affair for me. Among my companions in the bus that day in July 1980 were two smelly sheep and a couple of live chicken in the hands of a freckled youngster.
A wizened old woman was sitting on the floor carrying a plastic bag containing a few live fishes in some water. I must be lookingquite strange in a formal silk saree and bindi (the round sticker that some Indian women sport on their foreheads) but no one seemed to mind.
The journey was important because we were to meet Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the legendary Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir that day. He had to decide whether I should be allowed to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) cadre of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state or not.
But am I not getting ahead of myself? So, let me start from the beginning.
Making it to the IAS
1979WAS THE year when it looked like all my dreams were coming true. I still remember the scent of the letter, the letter of my dreams, I was holding in my hands. The letter that proudly announced to the world that I had made it.
Like my father, I wanted to be an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Officer, supposedly the crème de la crème of Government administration in India. Being a girl, whenever I talked about my dreams with anyone, I had to face sniggers, and even downright hostility. In Patna, my home town, a girl wasn’t supposed to dream of becoming an IAS officer. Instead, she was supposed to sit at home, cook meals, take care of her husband and children and accept fate as it is.
“To become an IAS officer, you need to have the lady luck smiling at you,” I was told.
“And how do you know the lady luck won’t be smiling at me?” would often be my irreverent, irritated retort.
I had earned the reputation of being a girl who was too ambitious. Waaayyyyyyy too ambitious!
Making it to the IAS wasn’t easy. It meant competing with around 300,000 candidates from all over India. Just for 100-odd seats. It meant proving those people wrong who believed my dreams would never come true. And above all, it meant believing in myself.
On 11 July 1979, I landed up in Mussourie, at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration-the name of the academy was as long as a sentence-for the start of my mandatory two-years of training. Mussourie was a breathtakingly picturesque, mist-laden, British-era hill station of the then-Uttar Pradesh. But that is only one part of the story.
It was in Mussourie, I met the man of my dreams. What can I tell you about him? He was… a little snooty at first, more interested in his camera than me. He was dreamy, charming, funny though sarcastic at times, but above all my best friend. He was somewhat like Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” that I read during my English literature days. He was a real cutie pie, and I fell in love with all his qualities-especiallywith his imperfections. And we soon decided to get married.
In a classic tale of romance, if the couple gets married at the end, it is a happily ever after story. But if the couple marries in the beginning, then you expect conflict. Forces trying to tear the lovers apart. And keeping you on tenterhooks on whether the lovers will remain together or be separated forever?
My story, like a typical romance novel, wasn’t any different. I have already told you that we decided to get married in the beginning. Then… then what?
No dream lasts forever, and I didn’t realise that my dream was soon going to come crashing down. Real hard.
It was time for cadre allotment. Oops what that was?
Cadre allotment was something like… HogwartsHouses in Harry Potter. To which House will you go-Slytherin, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw-each with its own merit and its own set of problems. Except that there were more Houses or States here-over twenty-five.
This was a strange practice reserved only for the All-India Services like the IAS where you are allotted a state (also called cadre, which was confusing for all sort of reasons) for the entire duration of your career. Which somewhat sounds like life imprisonment, isn’t it?
India is a land of diverse cultures, languages and traditions. And we were soon going to find out that first-hand. There are 18 official languages and hundreds of local languages and customs. Being allotted to a state in the IAS meant you had to learn the language and the local laws and the customs of that state. You had to work there for a couple of years (nine being the minimum). Then come to the Centre, that is the Government of India (GOI), once in a while, if you so wish, and if the GOI agrees to accept you. Then go back to your state again, and repeat the process, if you have the stamina to do that.
Confusing, right? But the bottom line remains that you have to spend most of your career in the state you are allotted to and any time spent OUTSIDE that state has to be agreed to by that state. Which somewhat sounds like you can be let out on parole only once in a while!
So for all practical purposes the great IAS actually becomes a bonded labour of some State Government!
The practice, strange and cruel as it may sound to some, didn’t worry me too much because till then, there was an unstated convention that lady officers would be posted as close to their homes as possible. Which meant that I would be posted either in my home state Bihar or a state close to Bihar. Hopefully.
Plus, I had also noticed many officers calling their cadrestate as their “home.” For example, in Bihar (where my father also served as an IAS officer), I had noticed how some Tamilian officers had comfortably settled down in their own houses in Patna after their retirement. So, cadre allotment couldn’t be that scary, I thought!
But when the dreaded list was finally pinned on the notice board, it was mayhem all-around.
Horrors! Horrors! Our worst nightmares had indeed come true. Padmini from Tamilnadu was allotted Haryana. Kusumjit from Punjab was given Nagaland. And Ifrom Bihar was allotted Kerala.
It was really like… the Sorting Hat (sorry, Harry Potter wasn’t born then!) had made all the decisions for us. And we felt like we had been “hufflepuffed.”
I want Bihar; no sorry baby since you said Bihar I’m going to post you as far south as possible. To Kerala. To keep our country united and integrated!
I could hear the Sorting Hat laughing in my ears.
There were obviously some big, misogynistic forces in the Home Ministry throwing us lady officers all- around India in some misguided attempt at National Integration!
Arun, my husband, was allotted Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), because he had fallen in love with its snow-covered mountains after a 14-day trek. The Sorting Hat had fulfilled his wish. And denied mine!
So here was the biggest conflict at the heart of our romantic story. Arun to J&K, I to Kerala. It was like Arun had been posted to Mercury and I to Pluto. Or may be to some other galaxy.
As my US-based brother remarked, if distance could make the heart grow fonder, we couldn’t have been posted further apart!
I desperately wanted a “cadre change.” So, we moved an application in the Academy itself but we didn’t indicate where we wanted to go-J&K, Kerala or a third state. Actually, at that time… we didn’t know… where we wanted to go.
So, we decided we should go to our respective states first, compare notes and then decide where we should head for, finally.
That is how Arun landed up in Baramulla in North Kashmir while I was posted as the Assistant Commissioner Training, Trivandrum, Kerala.
Getting my cadre changed to J&K
SO TOTALLY ON a whim, I applied for leave and decided to go to J&K. I had to go to Delhi first by train and then to Jammu. Arun came to Jammu, two days’ journey from Baramulla, to pick me up from the Railway station. It was refreshing to find that he looked the same, sans beard or moustache.
Next day we took a local bus to first Srinagar, the summer capital of J&K, which was about 300 kms. and then another one to Baramulla, about 54 kms. away.
The beauty of Kashmir in 1980 was just “awesome,” as my nephews staying in US would proclaim. The mesmerising journey to Baramulla with tall poplar trees on both sides of the road reminded me of so many Hindi film songs that were shot on that stretch. Like jane mera dil kisedhoondrahahai, in haribhariwadiyonme(I don’t know who my heart is looking for in these green verdant valleys).
The bus dropped us on the main road from where we dragged our luggage to the PWD Dak Bungalow where Arun was staying.
This was a quaint building with a sloping tin roof and just four rooms. One VVIP room no. 1 was permanently reserved for state dignitaries like the Chief Minister. Arun had managed the other semi-VVIP room no. 4. And yes, the huge lawn in front and the 50 apple trees in bloom behind was exactly the way I had imagined from Arun’s letters.
The cook Akbar Khan, with his flowing white beard, and the butler Fateh Butt, despite his lack of vision in his right eye, were effusive in their welcome. Both were above 60 years in age but Arun had cautioned me NOT to comment on that “sensitive issue” as the age of retirement from Governmentservice then was 58. Later I learnt that Fateh Butt’s son, who worked in some department, had already retired from the Government! That made Fateh Butt above 70 years but I kept my maths to myself.
Akbar Khan, the cook, had cooked two mutton curries in my honour, one Rogan Josh (the red curry) and another Yakhni(the white yoghurt based curry). And yes, both were cooked in mustard oil and were delicious.
Later I learnt that for all our meals they were billing Arun his entire salary for the month! Anyway, I still felt so welcome that I immediately fell in love with Kashmir and its people.
Next morning, we took a bus to the secretariat in Srinagar. We met Mr. BN Safaya, the suave, aquiline nosed, Secretary GAD (General Administration Department) who was courtesy incarnate. And then we called on the Chief Secretary, Mr. Noor Mohammad.
Mr. Noor Mohammad was one of the most influential men in the whole of J&K. In our little research, we had discovered that Mr. Noor Mohammad had started his service as a junior stenographer in the legislative assembly (without coming through any transparent recruitment process). First shock!
Later through his “connections,” he had managed to get promoted to the IAS with a funny seniority of 1956 and a half. He could thereafter hold all senior posts under the State Government with ease. And now he was the ChiefSecretary or the topmost bureaucrat in J&K. This made him somewhat like Jaffar in Aladdin, the evil sorcerer who could keep the Sultan under his control by casting a spell.
Mr. Noor Mohammad was definitely a dodgy man, as we would soon learn.
Unlike Mr. Safaya, Mr. Noor Mohammad didn’t at all look like a “Kashmiri.” He was short, fat and surprisingly as dark as a Bihari… like Arun, as I joked. But he spoke English with a clipped non-Kashmiri accent and floored us with his expansive mannerism welcoming us to J&K with open arms, literally.
My heart leapt with joy. I mistook his mannerisms to mean that our cadre change to J&K shouldn’t be a problem. With this contented feeling, we returned to Baramulla.
We were soon to realise how wrong we were.
A week passed and nothing happened. No news! Nothing! I decided to venture back to Srinagar. Arun was engrossed in his work, so it was not possible for him to join me.
Like a brave warrior, I hopped on to a bus to Srinagar. Which meant enduring a 2-hour bone rattling journey on horrible roads on a rickety bus to the Batmaloo bus stand. And then walking 2 kilometres (yes, walking) to get to the secretariat. And being stopped by security guards at the gate as if I was the biggest criminal walking to the secretariat. Well, for a while, I did feel like a criminal.
“I am an IAS probationer,” I would squeak.
The guard would look surprised. How can a lady be an IAS officer? After all, till then, there was only one other lady IAS officer in the state. She was a local from Jammu and 10 years my senior. Also, IAS officers don’t enter the secretariat on foot, do they?
Once inside, I was repeatedly told that I had no chance of getting “accepted” in J&K.
Why? Because no “outsider” had ever been taken in “by choice” by the State Government. All “outsider” officers, in fact, advised me to do a favour to my husband by taking him to some other state to escape this virtual prison.
My heart sank when I heard the word outsider for the first time. How could I be an outsider in my own country? I was an Indian first and then anything else. Little did I realise then that the entire Kashmir problem was because of the apartheid regime that existed. That regime which divided humanity into two: insiders and outsiders.
Being the stubborn person I am, the more I heard those negative comments, the more determined I became to come to J&K. After all, isn’t this state a part of India and am I not in THE INDIAN Administrative Service?
The travel to Srinagar became a daily grind. Which meant enduring a 2-hour bone rattling journey on horrible roads on a rickety bus. And then walking 2 kilometres (yes, walking) to the secretariat from the bus stand. And being stopped by security guards at the gate as if I was the biggest criminal walking to the secretariat. And then watching the security guards make a strange face as if they had never seen a woman IAS officer. In their whole lives.
Every day my struggles were increasing in intensity. I was entitled to only a month of leave which was finishing fast. Time was running out. If I wasn’t accepted in J&K, I would be forced to go back to Kerela.
Finally, Mr. Safaya, the Secretary GAD, took pity on me and told me there was NO possibility of my being accepted in J&K.
“But why?” I was incredulous.
“The State Government had just issued an order creating a parallel cadre to the IAS up to the rank of the Additional Chief Secretary. So, they would be soon replacing the IAS with the local cadre KAS.”
What Mr. Safaya, the Secretary GAD, saidin a typical bureaucratic language made no sense. What he meant was: That the IAS (a nationalservice) will soon be replaced by a local KAS (Kashmir Administrative Service) and then we can kick you outsidersout of our beloved state.
This would be the first step towards getting more autonomy for the state. And, of course, Mr. Noor Mohammad, the Chief Secretary (and the evil sorcerer!), was the chief architect of this idea.
So, I was told to forget my dream of getting accepted into J&K. Mr. Noor Mohammad would never agree to that.
Which made us even more stubborn. Instead of giving up, we decided to go up the next level, to the Chief Minister (CM).
The same afternoon, we walked four kilometres. Yes, I am emphasising on “walked.” To the CM’s house behind Nedou’s Hotel on the Maulana Azad Road. We were confronted by a balding, pot-bellied, private secretary, who looked us up and down and decided that we were too lowlyto deserve an audience with the Honourable CM.
So, we were back to the secretariat the next day. There we bumped in to Mr. Mohammad Yousuf Dar, an about-to-be-promoted IAS officer from Kashmir. We had met Mr. Dar in Mussourie where he had come for compulsory training like all of us. For some strange reason, he had got along well with Arun who was half his age.
Taking pity on us, Mr. Dar explained, rather patiently, that we should have actually tried to see the Secretary to CM who was different from the private secretary to CM. The latter was there to just take dictations and type out letters while the former advised on files and other weightier issues. Routine appointments were certainly handled by the private secretary but the more important engagements invariably went through the Secretary.
It was all so confusing!
So, we had to focus on meeting the Secretary to CM, Mr. Ghulam Ahmad, a promoted IAS officer. That took another day. Mr. Ahmad was a suave, well-dressed officer belonging to the Kashmir valley who gave us a patient hearing and then said:
“Yours is a sensitive case. What I can do is simply to get you to meet the CM. But I must warn you that I cannot promise any positive outcome. The CM has a mind of his own. So, this would be your first and last chance to impress him.”
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