Touchdown at Srinagar airport brought a clutch of memories flooding back, a quick Sajda on the airport tarmac to acknowledge the fact that I was home at last. Home and hearth from where many of my closest relatives were chased out in the stampede of January, 1990 when the clarion call by Islamists was given to shut us out after brutal rounds of ethnic centrism, a weeding out process to send a message to the community to leave or be killed.
Two days in the Valley was more than enough to convince me that the time was right to bring my immediate family back to show them where I was birthed. On Monday, when the epochal moment of revocation came, in my mind's eye, disparate emotions played out again, evaluating and judging what it meant for various stakeholders including Kashmiri Pandits. Late evening, one heard and reported that state politicos Mehbooba Mufti had been put in detention in the state guest house Hari Niwas, while Omar Abdullah's exact location was not known.
A fresh round of memories were triggered the moment one heard that.
Fade to black.
As we left the former interrogation centre codenamed Papa 1 for the last time to begin our tryst with Alpha, the humongous Air Force chopper that ferried us to the Badami Bagh military facility, the dam of bitter-sweet memories broke and I was inundated with thoughts and fragments of conversations. A jackhammer of sentiment and sensations played out before me.
Papa 1 is the Hari Niwas state guest house built by Maharaja Hari Singh. It was once the interrogation centre used by paramilitary forces. Ghulam Nabi Azad, during his tenure as chief minister, scrapped Papa 1, got it refurbished and turned it into his residence. Like Hari Singh who had to leave Hari Niwas in a hurry, Azad too could only stay there for seven months. My guess is that Hari Niwas is not a happy place for its residents. Imagine that I stayed at Hari Niwas. Anyway, I did not encounter any ghouls during my stay, no screams, no Casper either.
Before it was turned into a guest house, Azad stayed there himself. Before him, Maharaja Hari Singh built it but could not stay there as the raiders descended on the Valley from Muzzafarabad and he had to leave Srinagar in a rush. This is part of the larger orientation of catharsis for the people of Kashmir. I must add that I slept soundly, no ogres, no screams, nothing.
No surprise then that in 2015 when the J&K government's move to outsource Hari Niwas Palace - formerly a dreaded torture centre - and promote it as a 'wedding tourism destination', it found next to no takers. After all, officials blamed the "notorious history of the place" for the poor response.
Greater Kashmir reported The government's initiative to outsource the palace on Gupkar Road - which was refurbished by former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad -has failed to attract investors as only two bidders have participated in the tendering process. Interestingly, the palace was declared as "permanent Chief Minister's residence" by Ghulam Nabi Azad. He was the only the Chief Minister in the post-partition era to refurbish the property and stay there for some time. But the "jinx" returned when he had to prematurely resign on July 7, 2008 following the Amarnath land row. Some linked Azad's fall to the 'myth' that the palace was jinxed.
Legend has it that "Maharaja Hari Singh was told not to build the palace at its existing location on Gupkar Road as it was inauspicious. He ignored the warning and the events post-1947 proved inauspicious and forced the Dogra ruler to pack his belongings from Kashmir. His dream of living in the new Palace was never realized."
Similarly, Azad had to resign after he started living in the property, following which former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah outrightly rejected the idea of shifting to the palace.
Mufti had also preferred to stay out of the "CM House" and was residing at Fair View here, which was named as Papa-2 - another torture centre - situated in the vicinity of Hari Niwas Palace.
Hari Niwas is currently serving as State Guest House, but its "murky and mysterious history" continues to haunt it.
In the mid 1990s, when militancy was at its peak in Kashmir, the palace meant "death and torture center" for Kashmiris and many people continue to narrate the horrifying tales of torture there.
During Farooq Abdullah's tenure (1996-2002), a proposal was mooted to convert the building into a museum. However, it did not materialize until Azad spent around Rs 10 crore to convert it into Chief Minister's House. In the sprawling building, built over 70 kanal (nine hectare) land, there are three presidential suites, VVIP guest house and scores of bedrooms.
A prominent businessman of the Valley said if the government finds the property "inauspicious", "why should we invest in the place which has a history of dreaded tales and is witness to death and torture of many innocent Kashmiris."
Pertinently, the association of the parents of disappeared persons (APDP) has accused the government of "destroying material evidence of custodial torture" by "facilitating renovation of Hari Niwas Palace." The association had demanded shelving the plan "in the best interests of justice."
The APDP members believe converting Hari Niwas for hospitality of diplomats and ambassadors was the state's "new policy to camouflage these structures where innocents were tortured."
According to them, the decision to convert it into a state guest house "will destroy vital evidence of killings and custodial torture and thus hamper administration of justice.
( With inputs from IANS )