Ending the shift between Jammu and Kashmir

The 149-year-old bi-annual tradition of shifting the capital of Jammu and Kashmir to Jammu during winters and Srinagar during summers is coming to an end. Peerzada Ashiq reports on a grand and expensive practice that led to the region becoming a melting pot of cultures and what its end portends for the people

Given that the Kashmir Valley is prone to landslides, shooting stones and heavy snow, a tradition began, 149 years ago, of shifting the capital of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to Srinagar during summers and to Jammu during winters. The ‘Darbar Move’, which brought two linguistically and culturally different regions closer, was entirely dependent on the vagaries of weather.

Today, this tradition is likely to become history after the Lieutenant-Governor’s administration decided to shift to e-offices this month. The administration says the epic bi-annual move is too costly and takes up precious time and resources. But the decision has left hundreds of families worried that their decades-old links with families across the mountains may fade away. Students are concerned about losing opportunities; traders about losing profits. Some suspect that the move has a larger motive.

Sharing of cultures

Notwithstanding the distance and the difference in culture and language, Chasfeeda Shah, 30, a media professional from Kashmir’s Hyderpora, and Maanya Sethi, 26, a human resource manager from Jammu’s Gandhi Nagar, grew up seeing the Shahs and the Sethis as one family since 1983. A chance meeting between Chasfeeda’s father Bashir Ahmad Shah, a police officer, and Maanya’s grandfather Surinder Sethi, a Section Officer in the Irrigation Department, in Jammu city transformed into a bond and the Sethis and Shahs became one extended family.

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“I was posted in Jammu during the Darbar Move in 1983 and met Sethi sahib. Since then, we have stuck together through thick and thin. Sethi sahib met with an accident in the 1990s. I shifted him to hospital and stayed by his side till he recovered. Thereafter, we celebrated weddings, Eid and Diwali together,” Shah says.

Maanya is a fan of Kashmiri ‘wazwan’, an array of meat dishes served at Kashmiri weddings, and Chasfeeda developed a sweet tooth for the famous sweets of Jammu, also known as a city of temples. “I was introduced to ‘wazwan’ dishes when the Shahs invited our family on Eid many years ago. I got hooked to minced meat dishes like Rista and Gushtaba. I love spending summer vacations at the Shahs’ house in Srinagar. Ours is a relationship that cannot be expressed in words. When my grandfather passed away, Bashir sahib booked a flight so he wouldn’t miss the final rites,” Maanya says.

For Chasfeeda, born in conflict-ridden Kashmir, shifting to Jammu meant six months of normal life, away from bomb blasts and frequent exchange of fire. She first entered a cinema hall in Jammu because all the cinemas were closed in Kashmir in the 1990s. “The first movie I watched was Hum Saath-Saath Hai in Apsara cinema hall in Jammu’s Gandhi Nagar. In Jammu, I would attend coaching classes conducted by a Kashmiri Pandit teacher and eat without any fear on the roadside. I like Jammu weddings — they’re loud and grand unlike those in Kashmir,” Chasfeeda says.

In July, when the Lieutenant-Governor administration issued a directive asking all the employees associated with the Darbar Move to vacate their flats within three weeks, without citing any reason, Chasfeeda was upset. In Jammu, Maanya felt the same way. “I will miss the Shahs if the Darbar Move stops,” she says.

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This is not the first time that the Darbar Move has come under a cloud. In January 1987, during his visit to J&K, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was stranded in Kashmir due to heavy snowfall while the capital was in Jammu. “Gandhi asked the Farooq Abdullah government to have a re-look at this practice because officials were unavailable when they were needed in Kashmir during winters. However, an agitation started by the Chamber of Commerce and Industries-Jammu and the Jammu Bar Association forced the government to keep the tradition,” says former Director General of Tourism, Saleem Beg, who has continued to visit Jammu every winter since the 1970s, and even after his retirement.

A committee formed in 1987, headed by the then Chief Secretary, Shiekh Ghulam Rasool, submitted a report titled ‘Darbar Move: The Reality’ to the government, to place before it the pros and cons of the practice. But the report was put on the back burner after the Jammu agitation.

 

“The process of shifting hundreds of files and employees ran smoothly. It always connected people, regions and cultures,” Beg says.

A week-long carnival

The Hindu Dogra rulers from Jammu expanded their boundaries up to Afghanistan in the 19th Century, but most of them preferred to stay in the Valley. It was in 1872 that Maharaja Ranbir Singh began the practice of shifting his government from Jammu to Srinagar in summers, taking the arduous journey along the Banihal Cart Road.

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“Dogra rulers popularised the papier-mâché artwork of Kashmir in many Jammu structures and the architectural elements of the Dogra Raj are visible in monuments in Srinagar such as the Sher Garhi Palace. Dogra ruler Pratap Singh was so impressed by Kashmir’s calligraphy that he started an annual award for calligraphy artists,” says Beg.

The Dogra rulers set up key institutions like J&K’s first museum and the Oriental Research Library in Srinagar. “Even the Royal Samadhi is in Srinagar. The Dogra Maharajas preferred to be called as Kashmir’s kings and contributed a lot to the Valley’s socio-economic development,” Beg says.

Zafar Choudhary, a Jammu-based writer and author of the book, Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu, goes to the extent of saying that the Dogra rulers were biased towards Kashmir. “The first power project of J&K was set up in Uri in the Valley so that the King’s palace could be well lit in Srinagar. No such project came up in Jammu despite the Chenab river flowing through it. When Maharaja Gulab Singh, the founder of the modern but difficult State of J&K, stepped down for his son, Ranbir Singh, he decided to live the last four years of his life in Kashmir as its Governor,” Choudhary says.

The Dogra Maharaja used hundreds of carts driven by horses and elephants to move to Srinagar through the treacherous stretch connecting Jammu and Kashmir. Cut to 2019: files and records, many loaded in hard drives and computers, took about a week to move to the capital via trucks and buses. A total of 151 government departments used to shift capital twice a year in J&K.

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“All the departments would first bundle their files and seal them and then stock them in tin trunks. A team of every department would head for the capital where everyone would be shifting. On arrival of the trucks, the teams would identify the trunks and unload them and place the files in the respective departments,” Beg recalls.

According to the officials of the J&K Estates Department, it took 152 trucks and 56 buses in April 2019 to ferry files and employees from Srinagar to Jammu. The August 5, 2019 decision to end J&K’s special status, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupted the Darbar Move in 2020 and 2021.

According to official figures, 10,112 employees had moved to Jammu, including 1,179 gazetted officers, 7,110 non-gazetted employees and 1,823 Class IV employees, in April 2019. “While the loading and unloading of files cost ₹45.41 lakh, the carriage cost ₹116.55 lakh. The Darbar Move cost about ₹1,636.04 lakh, besides the additional expenditure of ₹1,213.44 lakh as special allowance to the employees,” an official of the Estates Department says, on the condition of anonymity.

The Darbar Move, which took place twice a year — in October/November to Jammu and in April/May to Srinagar — would take two weeks of working days. From the Raj Bhavan to the Chief Minister’s Secretariat to the Chief Justice’s office, the shifting of the capital was like a week-long carnival. It cost around ₹198 crore in 2019 to keep the tradition alive, officials say.

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According to the Estates Department, 151 private houses, 125 J&K Tourism Department Corporation structures and 1,457 hotels were booked for shifting employees to Kashmir, while 69 private houses, 253 J&K Tourism Department Corporation structures and 2,387 hotels were booked in Jammu. Arranging for accommodation cost the exchequer ₹4,161 lakh in Srinagar and ₹2,053.99 lakh in Jammu in 2019.

Under the scanner of the court

It was this “expenditure, wastage of time and the labour” that caught the attention of the J&K High Court in May 2020 while it was hearing a petition on the Darbar Move and the ongoing pandemic. A Division Bench of the court comprising then Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Rajnesh Oswal directed the Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, and the Chief Secretary of J&K “to examine the issues raised by the court”.

Monika Kohli, amicus curiae, argued against the Darbar Move. “Jammu and Srinagar are well connected by air, road and rail service. The distance of about 300 km is covered in half an hour by flight. It is clearly logical that the consideration of extreme weather in support of the Darbar Move does not hold weight today,” she said.

A battery of lawyers also questioned the security of records that were being ferried from one place to another. “Sensitive documents and old archives cannot tolerate exposure of any kind. Such documents may be on matters of security of the country as well as of the Union Territory. This security ought not be compromised for any reason whatsoever,” Kohli said.

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Chief Justice Mittal, who was impressed by the arguments, called for rationalisation of the tradition. “The amount of money, resources and time which could be saved could be utilised towards the welfare and development of the Union Territory, which has otherwise witnessed much turmoil. The financial savings and resources could be utilised for contributing towards the protection and propagation of its inherent culture and heritage of the communities,” she observed.

Beyond an emotional bond

The Darbar Move is not just an emotional bond between Kashmir and Jammu. Hundreds of students leave turmoil-hit Kashmir Valley to go to Jammu to seek admission into educational institutes and coaching centres. Retailers in Jammu procure special stocks for the 10,000 employees and their families and friends who mill around Jammu for six months.

Naresh Katoch, sales manager of the famous sweet shop, Pahalwan Di Hatti, at Jammu’s Wave Mall, says his shop has traditionally attracted buyers from Kashmir during winters. “Sales would see a jump when Kashmiris would stay in Jammu. Kashmiris have a special preference for Sund Panjeeri, Kala Kand, Chana Murgi and chocolate bars and would take huge stocks back to Srinagar, where we don’t have an outlet,” Katoch says.

Similarly, Jammu’s Khati Ka Talab area has become a hub of pink tea sellers. “Kashmiris prefer pink tea or noon chai (salty tea) and special morning bread. From just two to three shops in the 1980s, there are over a dozen shops serving the tea,” says Niyaz Ahmad, a shopkeeper who shifted from Ramban area to Khati Ka Talab in the 1980s and managed to set up a buzzing tea business.

“The Darbar Move, if it was a practice in the West, would have been an annual festival and would probably have everyone participating, even outsiders; it would be used to showcase the uniqueness of the region. But here it’s mired in politics and confusion. The fact remains that there is no viable alternative to the practice so far. Can J&K afford an administrative capital somewhere between Jammu and Srinagar,” Choudhary asks.

He says many leading retail shops in Jammu have stopped buying fresh stocks now that the pandemic has disrupted the practice. “Shopkeepers would procure special stocks in September for the Kashmiris who would travel and stay here for six months,” he says.

Arun Gupta, who heads the Chamber of Commerce-Jammu, says the government will soon provide a clarification about the move. “The tradition is not merely about shifting of files but a living example of brotherhood. We will oppose any move to end it. Shifting may cost the exchequer ₹200 crore but the fact remains that the people of Kashmir spend thousands of crores here and vice versa. It’s the job of the government to maintain brotherhood in J&K,” he says.

Politics over the Darbar Move

Three Jammu-based political parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party, the J&K National Panthers Party, and Ikkjutt Jammu — have welcomed the move to abandon the practice. They see this as an end to Kashmir’s domination over the Civil Secretariat, the seat of governance in J&K. Kashmir-based parties have opposed the move.

Choudhary says there were more Kashmiri employees than Jammu ones in the Secretariat in the 1950s and 1960s. “That gave birth to the notion that there was a bias against Jammu,” he says.

The practice resulted in the region becoming a melting pot of cultures. Marriages took place between people from different regions: Muslims from the Kashmir Valley, the Chenab Valley and the Pir Panjal Valley, otherwise separated by mountains. It resulted in new cross-cultural Muslim colonies coming up in the surroundings of Jammu city.

“Jammu has seen a new cultural landscape with cross-cultural marriages. New colonies have come up. If the Darbar Move stops, people from the Chenab Valley and the Pir Panjal Valley will feel like a part of them is not there,” Choudhary says.

However, senior BJP leaders like Kavinder Gupta termed the end of the Darbar Move akin to the August 5, 2019 move, which took away the special constitutional position of J&K.

“We welcome it. The first priority is governance. There are e-offices in place now. It will not impact cultural interaction. Who has time to interact in this era of Internet and social media? The only issue is that the Jammu Civil Secretariat requires equal recruitment: about 70% of the recruits in the Secretariat are from Kashmir. In fact, most of the higher posts are occupied by the people of Kashmir,” Ikkjutt Jammu president Ankur Sharma said.

More than resolving the issue, the Lieutenant-Governor administration has ushered in new challenges for itself. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader M.Y. Tarigami has asked the government to explain where the Chief Secretary, the Director General of Police, and the administrative secretaries will function from. “If people have to meet any officer, where will they meet him or her? Where will the Assembly function from? Where will the Raj Bhavan be? There is no clarity on this issue,” Tarigami said.

Many political analysts fear that the move will drive the wedge between the Kashmir and Jammu regions deeper, which could eventually result in their separation, the way Ladakh was carved out as a separate Union Territory on August 5, 2019. Gul Wani, head of the Department of Political Science at Kashmir University, is wary of the move. “On the face of it, it seems like a step towards good governance. But the fact remains that people from Kashmir see Jammu as a safe location to settle down and buy property. Most prefer to spend their earnings there. The old and ailing population, who cannot live in severe winters in Kashmir, prefer the warm weather in Jammu. In contrast, the people from Jammu are not able to settle down in Kashmir. The whole move has a conspiracy angle to it. In Kashmir, conspiracies are proven true with time,” he says.

Meanwhile, hundreds of files of the 97 departments, which include 47 Secretariat-based departments, have been digitised so far. The J&K e-office project has scanned and digitised around two crore pages from 3.50 lakh files, in a bid to end the practice of shifting the capital. “The e-office is one of the reformative steps taken to put an end to the Darbar Move in J&K, thus saving crores of rupees spent on transporting files in hundreds of trucks,” Lieutenant-Governor Manoj Sinha said earlier this month.

In Srinagar’s Hyderpora, Chasfeeda is singing a lullaby to her 18-month-old daughter, Madiha. “I am not sure now if the relationship between the Shahs and the Sethis will last through the next generation,” she rues, pointing towards the baby.

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