Narinder Nath Vohra was on a dental chair when Home Ministry conveyed him that his tenure is over. Later, he spent a few nights in an annexe of the Raj Bhawan, the premises he literally owned for more than a decade, before flying as a passenger to Punjab. Masood Hussain writes about the history’s longest-serving governor, the ultimate agent that Delhi had in Srinagar
In retirement, albeit controversial, of Narinder Nath Vohra as governor of embattled Jammu and Kashmir, a lack of continuity is being felt within and outside the civil secretariat. Now, probably writing his autobiography in Punjab, Vohra was replaced by Satya Pal Malik in a situation where the two men could not actually meet and discuss how India’s most sensitive state is being managed.
Vohra came at the peak of 2008 unrest, triggered in a way, by his predecessor, Major General (retd) S K Sinha, who wanted the state’s elected government to see him as the ultimate ruler of the state and take his ideas on Amarnath shrine more seriously than the assembly itself. As the governments in Delhi and Srinagar were keen to see Sinha’s leaving Srinagar, Vohra had no briefing of the mess his predecessor had created. But once in Raj Bhawan, he eventually emerged as the longest-serving governor of Jammu and Kashmir, who completed more than 10 years overseeing Kashmir, without getting buried in the ‘cemetery of reputations’, as Kashmir is usually referred to.
Although his exit was no different from his predecessor, for none of his reasons, however, Vohra spoke by his silence and ensured his all-inclusive style remains his signature exclusivity. Apart from supervising the 2008 and 2014 elections, Vohra ruled the state directly as governor at least four times: first in 2008, when PDP withdrew support to Congress; in 2015, when the fractured house delayed installation of a ruling combination; in 2016, after Mufti Sayeed passed away and his daughter was reluctant in taking over; and finally in 2018, when the BJP pulled out of the BJPDP coalition.
“This model of bureaucrats has ceased to exist now,” one senior politician, who knew Vohra closely, said. “He was politically very aware but was non-aligned. Ideologically, he opposed the BJP but he was closer to Prime Minister Modi.” Earlier, it was Lal Krishan Advani who appointed him as the Kashmir interlocutor.
Vohra has been an interesting officer from day one. In his home state, he was transferred six times in three years. Though he eventually managed India’s home and defence ministries, he has never the fortune of becoming a Deputy Commissioner, the Collector of Indian bureaucracy.
An IAS officer since 1959, he retired in 1994 and was soon picked by the then Prime Minister I K Gujral as his principal secretary for almost a year until 1998. Vohra became a member of Vajpayee’s National Security Advisory Board for three years till 2001 and received the Padma Vibhushan from Manmohan Singh in 2007.
Though Vohra handled Kashmir earlier when he was the top babu in Home and Defence Ministries, his real and focused engagement with Kashmir started with his appointment as an interlocutor in 2003. He was a BJP appointee but Congress did not disturb him.
In 2008, when Congress flew him as governor to Srinagar, nobody threw a spanner in his handling of Kashmir. He was perhaps the closest source of information and analysis to Prime Minister Modi, people aware of the relationship said.
Vohra’s contributions, if any, as interlocutor are not known. But one politician who is personally aware of certain things told Kashmir Life that his “major contribution” was his top secret report about Article 370. “It was the then Prime Minister Vajpayee who assigned him the job to explain how the Article 370 can be scraped,” the politician said. “Vohra met all the top constitutional experts in India and compiled a thick report which did not support the BJP thought process. This report was personally handed over to the Prime Minister by the then Home Secretary and is there under lock and key in the PMO.”
In Kashmir, Vohra did not offend anybody from the political class, and he kept everybody happy and gave them the respect they deserve. “He had his own opinion about people but he would choose against making that public,” one officer, who worked with Vohra closely, said. “Sometimes, he would drop hints to the persons but not to the extent that they would feel humiliated.”
One day, one of the Vohra’s ministerial staffers needed some help in case of his son and the governor rang up the respective minister. “Somehow, there were tensions at the officer level and the person briefed the governor. He rang up the minister and told him that his staffer is too poor to afford things. Within half an hour, the blushing minister personally came with the work done report.”
Famous for his one-liners, his staff would take hours to decode his loaded sentences. One day when he was told about the acrimony and pandemonium in the state assembly, Vohra said about a particular politician: “Yes, he needs to be sent on long maternity leave.”
In run-up to his August ouster, Vohra had done certain things that angered many people in Delhi. He sent back the General Administration Department (GAD) the August 15 draft speech and refused to read it. Instead, he wrote his own speech and read it. That refusal was not taken kindly, insiders in the system said.
In case, he would feel convinced by what the cabinet would suggest him to speak – on the inaugural session of the twin houses of the state legislature ahead of the budget session, and the January 26, he would ensure that he chooses his own words in conveying the same thing.
After the collapse of the BJPDP government, he literally took a stand against “any sort of political engineering”, insisting, it will “create further mistrust towards the democratic process”. Blatantly against any kind of horse-trading, he was surprised when Mehbooba Mufti did not recommend dissolution of the House when she tendered her resignation. It was Vohra’s office that conveyed her she was no more the Chief Minister.
In a way, it was the undoing of what Vohra had contributed to. “There were two persons who played important role in ensuring that Mehbooba becomes the Chief Minister after the talks broke down between the two parties during the winter of 2016,” one insider said. “One was Ajit Doval and another was Vohra but it was Vohra who literally campaigned for that.” Later, however, Vohra had second thoughts about her and some of her colleagues.
This was almost the same feeling he had when he was excited over Omar’s takeover but he developed second thoughts after 2010. Omar, however, was gracious in accepting his suggestions, and later acknowledging his contributions once Vohra was sent home.
Vohra’s decision to submit before the court that no non-political government in Jammu and Kashmir should tackle 35A was another issue that had impacted his relations with the rightwing controlled Delhi.
Unfazed, Vohra would continue ruling the state the way he thought was better. He would talk in ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ every time Delhi had a suggestion.
In Raj Bhawan, his day would start with a keen study of the Urdu newspapers from Srinagar, making him perhaps the only governor in history, who was a loyal reader of newspapers. He would underline the important reportage and ensure they reach the concerned.
Off late, on the personal front, he was on a technology upgrade. He had fully mastered the use of WhatsApp and other technology tools.
A traditional conservative, the officers who have worked closely with him, said Vohra would always lay emphasis on better drafting. “He would say improve the draft because a better draft would help make things happen quickly unlike a bad draft,” one officer said. “In the situation of unrest and tensions, he would be cool but literally on tenterhooks. He knew who needs to be talked to in a particular situation and would talk directly.”
Another officer said he would hold people responsible but would own their mistakes. “He would grill people but would not hold the long-term grudge,” the officer said. “He was always keen to spend on the handicapped, and by an average, he would spend Rs 30 lakh on them from his funds, a year. One day, he would exclusively spend with them.”
Some people who served him in Raj Bhawan said he would spend time with them and help when they required it.
“He was very conservative, a risk-averse officer who had professional and intellectual integrity,” one well-read politician said. “He believed in status quo and was secular to the core. He had the courage of conviction as well.”
But, people who knew him said Vohra was not new to Kashmir or to Pakistan. Well before the militancy started in Kashmir, Vohra was part of an official diplomatic delegation that had to sign an agreement in around 1987. That was Zia’s Pakistan. Somehow the talks failed, because both sides wanted certain concessions to satisfy their ego. Vohra, despite being a Joint Secretary level member sought permission to meet Pakistan president. His boss, Naresh Chandra, who was heading the delegation, gave him go-ahead thinking how Zia can meet a junior Indian officer. But he did not know what Vohra was up to.
Vohra made a request to the Pakistan president’s office saying it was a Punjabi’s request to meet a fellow Punjabi. The appointment was granted. Though for a few minutes, it lasted for many hours. Zia even enquired about the failure in not reaching the agreement. As Vohra explained, Zia issued necessary directions and the agreement was inked. Next day, Vohra was flying in a Pakistan chopper to visit his place of birth; courtesy Zia-ul-Haq!
“Not many people know that Vohra was engaged with Kashmir decades before militancy took roots,” one middle rung officer quoted Vohra saying. “After the 1975 accord, Mrs Indira Gandhi had told her officers that Delhi must give a sort of gift to Sheikh Sahab, and after a lot of research, it was decided that SKIMS would be the best gift. After it was approved, it was Vohra flying almost on weekly basis to review the work. He was then a middle rung officer but was assigned that job.”
After playing in such a long inning, Vohra, by all probabilities must be busy writing his memories. If it really happens, it will be a great book. The reason is that Vohra is a person who has been writing his diary for 58 years. In fact, there was a person who would maintain it. “It is properly indexed and detail of every meeting is recorded,” people who knew Vohra said. “It was this diary that would surprise the people visiting him as he would tell them what they had discussed in the previous meetings. This would happen even if the last meeting had taken place 20 years ago.”