Before passing recently at 73, Ashok Jaitly was someone who understood pulse of Kashmir and was its de-facto ruler during Dr Farooq Abdullah’s government. Known as half-Kashmiri, the deceased was the most powerful bureaucrat of the state who fought atrocities, reports Bilal Handoo
Once troops evacuated the notorious torture centre, Papa 2, where a number of Kashmiri youth were done to death under the “catch and kill” operation, the top bureaucrat Ashok Jaitly—the ears, eyes and right hand man of Dr Farooq Abdullah—spent Rs 1 crore to renovate the building. But before settling down in the picturesque mansion, the bureaucrat performed certain purification rites to exorcise the place from “ghosts”.
Popular as Tony in his friend circle, Jaitly was J&K’s chief secretary (1996-2002) who recently passed away in Delhi at 73. Suffering from a protracted illness, Tony was a close confidante of NC patron, who ran Abdullah’s government behind the curtains during his tenure as state’s top bureaucrat. Till the time he retired from his services (on April 30, 2002), he had become the second-longest serving chief secretary of the state after Peerzada Ghulam Ahmad (1953-63).
After his retirement, he was appointed as principal advisor of Dr Farooq for six months. Shortly he was dragged into accountability net along with Abdullah for misappropriation of public fund of Rs 5.50 crore earmarked for renovation of state property in New Delhi during NC rule in 2001. Jaitly termed the charge “baseless”. After twists and turns, finally no action was initiated against the duo.
Accused of being arrogant administrator, Tony is known for his “immense” contribution to J&K’s administration and economy. Even the incumbent chief secretary of state, Iqbal Khandey remembers him as “a sharp-minded bureaucrat who had a special affection for Kashmir”.
Once done with administration, Tony was writing book on Kashmir noting personal anecdotes, his take on militancy, Delhi-Srinagar relations and other K-experiences spanned over 25 years. Had his book been out, then people would have known how Farooq’s ministers were reporting to him!
Sharing a good rapport with Farooq Abdullah, Tony drew flak for his loyalty to Abdullah. When the controversial Special Operations Group (SOG) of the J&K police was set up, the Kashmiris blamed Abdullah for raising anti-people force. Tony also shared the blame for executing the policy. But mostly, he was hailed for standing with Kashmiris in their tribulations.
In early 1990s, government employees staged a massive protest against the “bloodbath” triggered by forces in Kashmir. In that strike lasting for 73 days, six Indian Administrative Services officers posted in valley submitted a report to Governor, condemning excesses committed by men in uniform. One among those six IAS officials was the ‘most powerful’ bureaucrat of J&K, Ashok Jaitly. For his sacrifice offered in the line of duty, he was removed from Kashmir along with other officers. Many in Kashmir read his solidarity move as an attempt by an Indian representative to gain a foothold in Kashmir to benefit New Delhi.
A 1964 IAS batch officer, Tony was assigned JK cadre, only second bureaucrat to get that after RK Takkar (1962 batch). With Rs 550 salary a month, he was first posted to Islamabad district as an Assistant Commissioner where anti-India emotions were running high.
A year later in 1965, Indo-Pak war broke out. Once the war ended, he was posted in Poonch. “We could even spot Pakistani pickets from our home in Poonch,” his ex-wife Jaya Jaitly remembers. At Poonch, his job was to resolve issues related to army and civilian population. He was shortly deputed to Ladakh as Development Commissioner where he worked to improve tourist footfall. Tony later batted for HMT factory in Srinagar and set up Kashmir’s first multinational company (the juice making plant) in Sopore.
Besides termed as a congenital secular having a razor sharp brilliance, Tony wore “bleeding heart” for Kashmir. For some of his friends, he was a half Kashmiri. “I was Commissioner, Kashmir, and staying in the neighbouring house in Gupkar Road at the time,” Wajahat Habibullah remembers. “We (he and Tony) would exchange information from our adjoining terraces. Tony was concerned with the collapse of the school system.”
An ardent listner of Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals, Tony’s love for his worn out shirts set tongues wagging. He married Jaya Jaitly, a socialist, during his posting in Kashmir. But their marriage ran in rough weather after Jaya was “drawn to the socialist movement” while working with George Fernandes. Her growing association with Fernandes—whom Jaya termed her “political mentor” set rumour mills on fire, eventually consuming her marriage with Tony.
In 2001, Tony remarried when he tied knots with Sabina Mehta at 60. He rested all gossip surrounding his second marriage, stating: “I’d found my soulmate!”
During Papa 2 overhaul, it is said, two human skeletons were retrieved from the torture centre that consumed many innocents during the turmoil of 90s. In 2001, Jaitly invited his newlywed daughter Aditi Jaitly and her husband cricketer Ajay Jadeja to stay at Papa 2. Throughout their stay there, the young couple complained about hearing shrieks and strange cries during night — as if someone was in extreme pain, crying for life.
Tony later realised that even his purification exercises couldn’t rid the structure from its haunting past. After his retirement in 2002, Papa 2 (now Fairview) was taken over by Muzaffar Baig who later swapped it with Mufti Sayeed’s M A Road residence. And since then, Mufti—whom NC blames for launching “catch and kill” operation in Kashmir—seems at peace with shrieks!