The distance between Jammu and Srinagar – the winter and summer capitals, respectively, of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir – is less than 300 km. But the chasm in mutual trust is far greater.
In 1872, when Maharaja Ranbir Singh began the practice of alternating between Jammu and Srinagar every six months as the government’s seat of power, he would not have bargained for the political hot potato his decision, aimed at bridging the administrative gap between the two regions of the state, would turn out to be. Incidentally, a 5 May judgment of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on the issue of the bi-annual move suggests that the Maharaja thought of the same “to escape the harsh winters of the Kashmir Valley, which, in the 19th century, used to result in the valley being cut off from the outside world”.
Apart from questions raised over the wasteful expenditure in moving entire offices from one place to another, the annual move also attracted political opposition due to the feeling among the people of Jammu of hegemony of the Kashmir region in matters of administration and governance, something that the Bharatiya Janata Party cleverly channelled into a solid votebank.
Changing the bureaucratic tradition
Now, over 148 years after the Maharaja started the practice, and following a well-reasoned 5 May judgment of the J&K High Court, the Administration of Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir issued an order on 8 June, deviating slightly from the established practice where the entire government machinery – men and women and material, including files–would be transported from Jammu to Srinagar during summers.
To better understand the enormity of the move, here’s a statistic: 10,112 government employees shifted base from Jammu to Srinagar last year.
Apart from the expenses borne by the government, each employee is also entitled to a sum of Rs 25,000 every time the offices shift. This is in addition to the monthly Temporary Move Allowance of Rs 2,000 paid to each moving employee.
This year, citing “circumstances arising due to outbreak of Covid- 19 pandemic”, the administration has decided against closing any office in Jammu, as it used to happen in the past, and ordered that move staff – a reference to government officers and officials who would shift base during the durbar move – would work on “as is where is” basis.
Effectively, this means that Kashmir-based employees would work from the Srinagar Secretariat while Jammu-based staff would work from Jammu Secretariat.
While the order says the arrangement is for this year only due to the ongoing pandemic, many feel it could be a trial balloon floated by the government to see if the new system works.
But, like many other decisions, this move could also backfire and face a strong backlash.
In Kashmir region, where conspiracy theories about the so-called plans by the BJP-led Narendra Modi government to drastically curtail the grip over political and administrative power enjoyed by the Kashmiris abound, the move is fraught with danger.
It would take just one misstep for Kashmiris, already upset over the dilution of Article 370, to take to the streets against the move, if they see in it a design to further curtail their autonomy.
And, let’s not forget that there won’t always be a pandemic or strong-arm curbs by the government to force them inside their homes.
Residents of the Jammu region might be initially euphoric in their welcoming of the move, but unless things change for the better in a big way and the region doesn’t feel a massive difference in the administration and development, it wouldn’t take long before the euphoria is replaced with criticism.
And, that could cost the BJP electorally.
Why it makes sense for Durbar Move to end
Nothing explains the rationale behind ending the durbar move better than the judgment of the J&K High Court.
First of all, there’s the huge cost – at least Rs 200 crore, which is just the disclosed cost. Expenses worth hundreds of crores of rupees come as undisclosed costs, as per the high court judgment, which a “hopelessly fiscally deprived UT with severe underdevelopment and people deprived of bare basics which are essential part of their fundamental right of life guaranteed can ill-afford”.
And, then the fact that nothing worthwhile in terms of better administrative efficiency has come out of the move in the last 148 years also adds to the argument of ending this practice.
In fact, the High Court even went to the extent of saying: “… Hence the Durbar Move directly and adversely impacts human resource efficiency.”
The court also noted that no “reasons or grounds are forthcoming for enabling and supporting considerations of administrative efficiency, legal justification or Constitutional basis for affecting the Durbar move”. It also underscored the need for both Jammu and Kashmir regions to receive administration and governance round the year without interruption, adding, “it is unfair and opposed to public interest to deprive either region completely of access to government machinery for six months at a time.”
While the court didn’t pass any direction to the Narendra Modi government or the UT Administration on what to do about the move, the first shot may have been fired now.
The road ahead
Durbar is an outdated concept and so is the bi-annual move. Barring a handful of countries, the reign of monarchs is nowhere to be found across the globe. It is high time J&K also did away with this needless practice.
But, there are many who will argue that it shouldn’t be done away with. The National Conference has already opposed any move to tinker with the status quo, saying it “would increase the gap between the two regions of J&K”.
Separatists will also try to fuel antipathy and widen the distrust between the people of the two regions.
That is why the government will have to be sure-footed about the long-term impact of permanently doing away with the Durbar move.
Covid-19 has granted it an opportunity to test waters and it shouldn’t let it go waste. Else, it will end up like several recent decisions – ill-advised, improperly implemented and legally questionable.
And, in a crisis region like J&K, this is something India can’t afford.