An Unusual Exit

BVR Subrahmanyam was the chosen officer to spearhead the process of recreating ‘Naya Kashmir’ after the reading down of Article 370 and bifurcation of a state into two Union territories. More than two years after, when the officer with unimpressive contributions readies to take a top position in Delhi, nobody in Srinagar is willing to chaperon him to the door, Masood Hussain reports

Chief Secretary BVR Subramanyam addressing a press conference at Srinagar on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Finally, when BVR Subramaniyam, the IAS officer who parachuted to Srinagar, on June 20, 2018, within days after the BJP-PDP government crumbled under its own weight, found a home in Srinagar’s Church Lane, the officials visiting him were always curious that why is he always busy with his computer, living a very simple life. Good governance, one official said, does not require too much of a computer. “It just needs to be delivered,” he would say.

The reality dawned much later when his own governor, Satya Pal Malik (August 23, 2018 – October 30, 2019) started telling people that his Chief Secretary would avoid revealing details of the happenings to him. In the Jammu and Kashmir administration, it was an open secret that Sumbramaiyam knew everything in advance as he was the most trusted man of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Many think it was him who scripted the details of targets assigned for the dispensation that replaced Mehbooba Mufti.

Enjoying the trust of the most powerful man in India impacts the person in its own peculiar way. Over the days in Kashmir, he had grown into an administrator who would dislike his wisdom being challenged and who would find ways and means to deny the power, sometimes even to his seniors. At one point in time, some even found him flaunting his power by uttering sentences like ‘Oh, I forgot where I had to send this adviser (to governor) today?’

Home Minister Rajnath Singh being received at the Srinagar airport by Chief Secretary BVR Subramanyam on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Subramaniyam would hardly hide his surprise over Kashmiris living in better conditions despite strife. Regardless of the participants in the meeting, he would tell it openly how Kashmiri students manage to get good results despite sitting at home for more than a year and without proper internet. He even shouted around when he found 800 Kashmiri students studying medicine in Iran alone, asking how it is possible that so many young men are in a hostile country.

In a high-level security meeting when a senior central government officer said he would go against his agenda of withdrawing security cover to political beings in Jammu and Kashmir, Subramaniyam had a curt reply – ‘please go ahead, I will overrule you’.

 A Questionable Interview

However, it was his August 2020 “statesmanship” with a group of journalists flown from Delhi to see Naya Kashmir that made him “distinct’. Though Subramanaym had left a group of visiting editors (mostly right-wingers) shivering and sweating in the otherwise cool Royal Spring Golf Course in early 2019 by taking them into confidence about what the Modi government is planning on Kashmir, this open talk actually gave an idea about the power he enjoyed and how has that impacted a “fine” bureaucrat who knew Kashmir for long from PMO when he was part of the Manmohan Singh team.

Chief Secretary BVR Subramanium greets Lt Governor GC Murmu.
Chief Secretary BVR Subramanium greets Lt Governor GC Murmu on December 5, 2019.

Subramanyam had asserted that Jammu and Kashmir was a “broken state” that had “no system” in place due to years of misgovernance, corruption and “unbelievable levels of fraud” committed by political leaders. This was the reason, he said, that not a “single soul had cried” over their detention in August 2019.

“There was a terrible situation here. Things were designed for corruption. Misgovernance and corruption were for so long that the system has collapsed from inside. The whole state was a big ponzi scheme,” Subramaniyam said. “The JK Bank CMD was the scamster number one. Twenty families or a maximum 30 families milked the JK Bank. There was no accountability. All other PSUs (public sector undertakings) in other states submit their report to the assembly; the PSUs in other states come under RTI, CVC (Central Vigilance Commission). But the JK Bank is accountable to none.”

“The Prime Minister told me: Go, clean up the administration, rebuild it and hand over the amanat (something precious in custody) to the local people,” he had famously said. “People have to be patient to get a whole lot of benefits after the abrogation of Article 370 as what had happened on August 5 last year, have not been rolled out fully (yet).”

Kashmir’s political class that had barely been out of their “elite” jails, strongly reacted to the statement. All issued formal statements.

Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha chairs the Administrative Council meeting

Suggesting Subramanyam to work “within his pay and grade”, Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference said he is the victim of delusions of grandeur, a phenomenon that is nothing new in Kashmir. “If the utterances of the Chief Secretary are any indicators of what he thinks of himself and this is what he briefs his bosses in Delhi, then Delhi doesn’t need enemies in Kashmir. Talk of inventing a lie and then believing in it. He takes the cake,” the party said. “This cabal of officers is on a slanderous mission giving an impression as if Kashmir existed in stone ages. And God was finally kind and sent these select officers to Kashmir who in a matter of two years changed everything.” It said the recurring theme of the administration is to project Kashmiris as corrupt so that the identity is tarnished.

“The language used by CS while hurling allegations against mainstream political parties is exactly similar to what BJP is saying,” NC said, insisting the statement was “baseless, politically motivated and intended to evade the genuine concerns of the public on the failures of J&K administration on every conceivable matrix”. It reveals Subramanyam’s “hyper-partisan disposition” and Delhi’s proclivity “to maintain the status quo of confusion, chaos, misgovernance and fear.”

Terming the remarks “uncalled for and utterly flagitious”, PDP said Subramanyam has come with a “colonial mindset” as “chief executioner of RSS” and is running “most corrupt administration” with “a cabal of officers”. Accusing the BJPs “chosen bureaucrat” of heaping “insults, humiliation, and atrocities on the people of Jammu and Kashmir”, the party said they are misleading and exploiting the so-called nationalist sentiments in the rest of the country.

“His only fame to glory is establishing a culture of impunity, polarised administration, systematic sidelining of local officers, fragmenting of bureaucracy on feudal lines and perpetuating the quid pro quo culture of rewarding incompetence,” the party said. “This is the part of the RSS campaign to destroy the identity of Kashmir and they are now attributing criminal charges on almost everybody in Kashmir in the name of terrorism, separatism, and corruption.”

Untruths For Politics

Apart from the politics and the agenda that BVR was castigated for, what is applying is that he was factually incorrect in what he had said in terms of the state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir.

In comparison to all the ‘developed’ states in India, Jammu and Kashmir was a better state despite its small size and demography. In Jammu and Kashmir, the average age is 74 in comparison to the national average of 68. It has 75 children immunised in comparison to 62 nationally. Gujarat had only 50 per cent. Unlike Gujarat’s 65 per cent, 87 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir girls are in school. Even the unemployment rate was one per cent lower at five per cent than the national average. The poverty ratio of Jammu and Kashmir was 10.4 per cent, which is less than half of the national average that stands at 21.9 per cent. The pupil-teacher ratio in Jammu and Kashmir is 16:1, which is hugely improved than the national average of 24:1.

Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam addressing a press conference in Srinagar regarding upcoming polls.
KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“The moral of the story is that while we could have done much better but even when we did badly, it was better than states, which are ostensibly governed with “rules, regulations, systems, processes and ethics”. Welcome to a “broken system” Haseeb Drabu, Jammu and Kashmir state’s last resources manager and finance minister wrote. “It is not that the winds of change from the rest of the country didn’t reach Kashmir; it is the other way round!”

Second Powerful CS

“There is no doubt that he was one of the two most powerful chief secretaries in Jammu and Kashmir, the other being Ashok Jaitely,” one politician said. “The only difference is that Jaitely used the trust of his Chief Minister to salvage the state and bring it on track and this man helped his master undo a state and destroy it.”

This mandate perhaps kept him always in a battle mood. If the officers who knew Subramanyam fully are to be believed, he was not going very well with Satya Pal Malik. At one point in time, he flew to Delhi and volunteered to give up his position. This situation had already divided the bureaucracy of Jammu and Kashmir and the lobbyism had led to multiple sources of power.

Dr Arun Kumar Mehta (IAS) taking over as the Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir from BVR Subramanyam on June 7, 2021. Pic: DIPR-JK

Subramanyam would hardly be impressed by authority and there are instances in which he put his foot down. This had led even BJP to hate him within Jammu and Kashmir. People who worked with him admit that he was an intelligent officer who knew the art of “control” and “kept everybody busy and guessing” within and outside the civil secretariat. As he landed in Srinagar, an expectation amongst the officials was that since he had tackled the left-wing extremism, he will have some expertise in helping improve the security situation. “But he had a different task,” one officer said, “quite an unpleasant one.”

This division within the rank and file of officers reached a level during GC Murmu’s regime (October 31, 2019 – August 6, 2020) that one proposal would move to Raj Bahwan and a contrarian would come out of the building. This was the outcome of the division within officers and their desperation to have their share of power that flowed through the corridors of secretariat like water as never before. Not happy with the situation, Murmu would say in lighter moments that he has two guns and he will use one each against the Chief Secretary and the Police Chief!

It was during Murmu’s era that he is being accused of halting the process of some politicians joining Raj Bhawan in the capacity of advisers. Many think that the appointment of Baseer Ahmad Khan as an adviser to Murmu in Marc 2020, was “aimed at showing him his place”. Till a day earlier, Khan was his subordinate, an officer said, and post-retirement, Khan started passing directions to him.

After a third (Lt) Governor flew to Srinagar, within months, Subramanyam started feeling the heat. He actually was so keen to go back to the centre because he had completed his basic two-year-long tenure. With the Principal Secretary to Lt Governor ensuring that Raj Bhawan prevails on the decision-making, Subramanyam was desperate to move out. But there were not many positions vacant to have him In Delhi.

Subramanyam’s authority got hugely curtailed after Jammu and Kashmir ceased to be a state and was reduced to a Union Territory. It impacted the man who spearheaded the demolition of the state to the extent that choosing a private secretary once became an issue.

Privately he is reportedly telling people that his role actually ended on August 5, 2019. After that, he was neither required nor liked in the civil secretariat. 

If the media reports are to be believed then Subramanyam wanted to be the Home Secretary of India. This, he might have felt, befits his “contributions”. This would have helped him remote-control Jammu and Kashmir. Reportedly he even wanted to be Foreign Secretary, given his Kashmir tenure.  Eventually, however, he got the Commerce Secretary position, which is in the reckoning as No 3, a powerful position in the Indian bureaucracy.

Unimpressive Exit

However, his exit was unimpressive and unprecedented like his contributions during the long siege dictated by the undoing of Jammu and Kashmir and the invisible contagion. Sajad Lone said he will be remembered as “the darkest person in the darkest hours of Kashmir”, who was “consumed by the self” and by his “hatred for the Kashmiris” and who thought of being the “god”. He said he wanted to humiliate an entire race, an entire identity.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Secretary Subrimaniyam Swamy along with V-C Khadi Industries Hinna Bhat inaugurated the Exhibition-cum-sale, at the Civil Secretariat in Srinagar on Thursday 1 October 2020. KL image: Bilal Bahadur

The Raj Bhawan contributed in its own way in ensuring Subramaniyam stays in news. It issued a formal order asking administrative secretaries to route their files to the new Chief Secretary, A K Mehta. “Very unusual order issued by the J&K government,” former Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah wrote on Twitter. “If I didn’t know better I’d read this order to mean the outgoing CS wasn’t too keen to hand over charge to his successor. Either way, I haven’t seen an order like this before.”

Kashmiri politicians attacking Subramaniyam is understandable. They have always used the postman to carry messages to Delhi so that they follow up later. At one level, it is being seen as “engagement”. But the enigma is why a Sanghi academic’s tweet has hit the top babu below the belt. Is there something Kashmir is missing, for the sake of gossip, at least?

Insiders say his astrologers have suggested he should leave on June 7.

Omar, however, had a laconic message laced with irony on Subramanyam’s exit. “A man who famously said no Kashmiris shed tears when mainstream politicians were detained in 2019. In 2021 it looks like no one can wait to show him the door,” Omar wrote on Twitter. “Be careful who you step on, on the way up, you will meet them on the way down.”

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