Omar’s Hari Niwas turndown

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A house of his own was apparently the only factor for the chief minister to decide against making the Rs 500 cr spooky Hari Niwas Palace as his official residence. But for the new generation democrat, living at a palace with a history of torture and sleaze would not have augured well either. R S Gull reports.

A renovated Hari Niwas Palace on the Gupkar Road that nobody in the ‘powerful and mighty’ is keen to stay in.

Omar Abdullah would not take the Hari Niwas Palace as his official residence. Instead, he suggested the renovated palace be marketed as a guest house and a venue for holding high-level conferences. The state’s Hospitality and Protocol Department would maintain the place that could sustain revenue for itself.

The palace is spooky and has traditionally proved quite unlucky for its occupants. But people treat Omar’s decision vital for two other reasons – the palace used for torture during the last two decades, was the nucleus of a huge crackdown that led to hundreds of killings in Kashmir. Then, its notoriety acquired another dimension during the sex abuse scam – a minor city girl central to the botched up investigations into the scandal had alleged been raped by a police officer in the palace.

The chief minister who already owns a house has decided against taking Hari Niwas as his official residence saying that he will feel lost in the huge palace with his wife and two children.

The rat infested majestic structure located over 200 kanals (25 acre) of land overlooking the Dal Lake was till recently the headquarters of state police’s intelligence wing. In its backyard, CIK maintained a small prison for transit and torture.
Former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad discovered and renovated the palace to be his official residence after he was tired shuttling between his own house, his in-laws house and finally to the J&K Bank guest house at Zeithyar.
The decision had sound logistical reasons.

“It (the palace) was an ideal setting for a Chief Minister’s residence. It has huge parking space, vast lawns for parties, banquet, and lot of space to accommodate CM’s security detail and the personal staff,” an officer who was part of the renovating exercise in 2007 told Kashmir Life. “The location is fascinating and at a safe distance from the congested and unpredictable city,” he added.

Azad’s predecessor Mufti Sayeed had upheld National Conference decision of converting the palace into a museum. In fact the process had started and the blood-stained JIC had already been shifted to Humhama on the Airport Road. But 17 months of “houselessness” made Azad to take the decision. Within less than six months, the entire palace was redone at a whopping cost of over Rs 14 crores.

Post-renovation, it was a marvel. With 66 seven-star rooms including not less than seven VVIP (read presidential) suites, it became the most expensive address in Srinagar. But Azad could not stay there for a long time. In the midst of the summer agitation in 2008 he resigned from this very palace.

Azad’s stint added another leaf to palace’s chequered history. Not many people have been able to live in it for long. In fact the man who built it against advices that it would prove inauspicious (they said the area has been the abode of Hindu goddess Shiksha Devi) never used it.

Says M Yousuf Taing, “A young Hari Singh impressed by Gothic architecture wanted to build a palace after his return from Europe. He built it in 1925-26 but never lived there. Instead, he constructed Tara Niwas in the neighbourhood where he was living when tribal raids took place.” It was, in fact, Malika Pokhraj, the celebrated singer who was Maharaja’s court singer in her heydays who is claimed to have lived in the palace for much more time that the Maharaja.

After the partition of sub-continent, the palace remained useless for a long time. In 80’s there was a plan that Kashmir Hotel Limited would acquire it for Rs. 43 lakhs but the deal never took place. Later the state government took it over and housed the police intelligence network.

But the palace became the most visited place soon after the insurgency broke out in Kashmir. Owing to seclusion and availability of space, the belt was converted into the main nucleus of the counter-insurgency initially by the police and later by the BSF. Apart from the residences of the two top commandants, the palace had a sub-jail and many of its annexes were converted into interrogation centres.

It was one of these annexes that got the huge notoriety of the Papa-II, a building where scores of youth are believed to have been tortured to death. Post-1996, it was closed down and the then Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley renovated it and converted into Fairview Guest House. Haunted by heart wrenching and hair raising tales of custodial deaths in the house he arranged a `special` house warming by inviting soothsayers from all faiths. They recited verses from respective scriptures to cleanse it off wandering spirits.

After the change of guard in 2002, Muzaffar Hussain Baig took up residence there and now it is the address for the former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

“There have not been any violent deaths in this palace unlike the Fair View,” a senior police officer wishing anonymity told Kashmir Life. The only shady instance in the recent history was the allegation by a minor girl – who was central to the CBI probed sex abuse racket – that she was raped by a DySP rank officer in his office, then located in the palace.
Many people in Srinagar believe that there is something strange if not spooky with erstwhile Pargana Phag, the earlier name of the Zabarwan foothills, that whoever wanted to stay put in the belt paid dearly.

“Mughal emperor Dara Shikoh set up a library in the area and that was end of his political career. Hari Singh was the first Dogra ruler who built a structure in the area which did not auger well for him. In recent past, Farooq Abdullah laid foundations of his official residence which is in ruins now,” said a student of history who wishes to remain anonymous. He refers to a “recorded” legend that Sheikh Noor-ud-Din, Kashmir’s most revered saint, once refused to enter the belt saying anybody spending time here would see that much of time deducted from him when he enters the heavens. And most recent instance is that of Azad who had to put in his papers from the very Palace he renovated.

Omar’s decision has put an end to the newfound fashion for the chief ministers to have newer residences. Post-1975, Chief Minister had the only address – the Gupkar Road. In 2002 when Mufti took over, he revived the official residence of Chief Minister of the Bakshi era and over eight crore rupees were spent on renovating the M A Road residence. Among other things, it included a bullet proof chamber to protect the chief minister in case of an attack. There were no attacks and at one point of time it was used as pen for puppies. Azad took the chief minister’s residence to J&K Bank guest house and later to Hari Niwas. Now it has again gone to Abdullahs’ on Gupkar leaving the M A Road palace empty.
Reports suggest it may go to Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand if at all he takes the risk of living in the city.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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