by Khursheed Wani
Over the years, the Srinagar Raj Bhawan has become more important in dealing with the affairs of governance in Jamamu and Kashmir than the civil secretariat. The culmination of the extended tenure of Governor Narender Nath Vohra came at a time when he was directly ruling the state as Delhi’s representative in absence of an elected government, which he sacked two months ago after BJP withdrew support to Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition. After the longest spell of central rule in the embattled state, following the resignation of Farooq Abdullah in 1989, it was the first time when a Governor was changed at a time when the state was being ruled from the Raj Bhawan. The exit was unceremonious much to the disliking of the former bureaucrat who handled the state through a crucial phase in history.
Vohra is now replaced by Satya Pal Malik, a former top-ranking BJP leader who was in Bihar before he received the warrant to shift to Srinagar. Unlike past, when the choice for J&K governor swung between personalities with military or intelligence background, the appointment of a career politician is quite seminal. Malik flew in quickly to take over the reins without waiting for Vohra to arrive from New Delhi to wind up his belongings.
Authentic sources said that Vohra was shocked to know that he has been replaced with too immediate effect. He was along with his ailing wife in Delhi’s premier hospital for a routine check-up when he was conveyed about the Government’s decision. He had no intention to stay put at Raj Bhawan for more time after the completion of his second straight term in June-end. However, his completion coincided with the fall of elected government and beginning of annual Amarnath pilgrimage. Eventually, he immersed himself in the state affairs and wanted to make a final impression through his administrative skills by utilizing the vast experience during his longest stay in the state.
Many observers likened Vohra’s ouster to the humiliated sacking of Mehbooba Mufti, at least to the level that Delhi doesn’t care for the ramifications of its decisions on Kashmir. Vohra was terminated when the Amarnath yatra was on, and he had taken up many initiatives to reform the state administration in his capacity as the Chairman of the State Administrative Council (SAC), an equivalent of state cabinet of an elected government.
During his more than a decade’s time in Raj Bhawan, Vohra directly ruled the state four times. His first tenure in 2008 was the most crucial when Ghulam Nabi Azad led government collapsed following the withdrawal of support by PDP. It was a time when the state was divided on communal lines after the outbreak of the Amarnath land row. Vohra meticulously quelled the rebellion in Kashmir during a sustained campaign for four months and paved way for the conduct of assembly polls. These polls resurrected National Conference as Omar Abdullah formed a government in alliance with the Congress in January 2009, which completed its full term in 2014. Vohra was disgusted with PDP after it took away support from Azad-led government at a crucial stage. This, observers say, was one of the key factors that led to the formation of NC-Congress alliance despite a section of influential Congressmen including Pranab Mukherjee who later became the president of India, favoured realignment with the PDP to keep the NC at bay.
The happenings in J&K in 2008 are watershed in the recent history of the disputed region and Raj Bhawan has played the most crucial role in shaping up the circumstances we find ourselves in. The most important character in the turn of events was retired Lieutenant General SK Sinha who served as the controversial governor between June 2003 and 2008. Sinha’s first target was to take the control of Unified Command Headquarters to sideline the state government on anti-insurgency and counter-infiltration fronts. Though he did not succeed, we saw his successor actually heading the Command Headquarters a decade later when Mehbooba Mufti easily played second fiddle in many of its meetings.
Sinha is known for running a parallel government and creating a state within the state. The tipping point came when he lured a PDP Minister Qazi Afzal to transfer a huge chunk of forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). The controversy over the illegal transfer of land snowballed into a virtual rebellion to the extent that at one point in time, a million people gathered in Srinagar. A march towards Muzaffarabad led to the brutal killing of Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz who was determined to lead a sea of people to cross the Line of Control to offset the economic blockade of the Valley and Muslim dominated parts of Jammu by rightwing activists in the winter capital.
Vohra streamlined the SASB functioning and used the state machinery to the hilt to make the annual pilgrimage a part of Kashmir’s routine. During his four stints as direct ruler, he amended certain laws, which the elected government hesitated to fiddle with. The latest example was a crucial amendment in Public Safety Act that would allow the authorities to lodge a state subject in any jail outside the state. During his last months, he seemed to be following Delhi diktats in letter and spirit. Had it not been so, he would have laid wreaths at the graves of 1931 martyrs in old Srinagar on July 13, as he did in his first spell of the rule in 2008.
Malik has occupied the Raj Bhawan at a time when rumours on government formation and the scrapping of Article 35 A are rife. Is he there to play the most pivotal role?