Kashmir Politicians in Detention: Life is All Play, Pray & Parley

The lobby of Srinagar’s Centaur Hotel is a cavernous carpeted hall. For most of the 40 years since it was built, it has mainly been wasted space. But over the past 100 days, it has turned into the pulsing centre of life for a host of Kashmir’s `mainstream’ politicians.

They have been detained at the hotel since the state’s constitutional status was changed on 5 August. And that vast lobby has served as prayer hall, meeting room, and club house at various times of day.

Former PDP minister Naeem Akhtar, who is deeply religious, began to lead prayers regularly. Former NC minister Ali Sagar takes turns to lead, and former IAS officer Shah Faesal gives the aazaan, the call to prayers.

Shah Faesal. 

At other times of day, People’s Conference chief Sajad Lone presides over social life in that hall, turning himself into the centre of what one of his visitors described as `a durbar.’ Apparently, there are card games amid billowing smoke, and much talk of what was, what will never be accepted, and need for unity.

Centaur Hotel’s Past and Present

The Centaur is considered secure, since it faces the Royal Springs Golf Course just below Raj Bhawan, and is surrounded by the Dal lake on its other three sides.

The grey concrete-and-glass building was erected on reclaimed land in the late ‘70s, when ‘development’ still trumped the environment. The hotel continues to be lavishly advertised on various booking websites, but predictably shows as fully booked, whatever one’s dates.

Centaur Lake View Hotel

The high profile detainees initially sent for wazwan from outside, but have since settled down to the daal-sabzi provided at the jail-hotel, visitors say.

It is to such tidbits that the political buzz of that most politically pulsating place has been reduced after a hundred days of silenced politics.

Apart from occasional conferences and certain categories of state guests, government officials of the allied services have comprised most of the hotel’s guests during the unrest of the past three decades.

Catch 22: Stay In or Get Out?

Those who visit often hear of unhappy intestinal and other health issues—many of the detainees being relatively older men. Others lament this twist in their fate. `I came into politics to disburse MGNREGA schemes, not sit here,’ one told a visitor plaintively.

But it is a Catch-22 situation, for the detainees would find it tough to face their people outside.

Policymakers in New Delhi too seem ready for a long haul. Especially in the early weeks after the constitutional changes, they spoke stridently of replacing the old guard of `dynasts’ with a new grassroots leadership.

Yet, Kashmir’s hoary old rumour mills keep buzzing. There have been persistent rumours that some of the most high profile detainees have been flown to Delhi for talks.

“People find it difficult to believe that no one is even talking. They think, ‘kuchh toh ho raha hoga’ (something must be up),” says Saleem Beg, former director-general of tourism and INTACH convenor.

Rumours are eased by the fact that the most high profile detainees—former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti—have been sequestered separately, in finer settings than the Centaur.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah 

But Mufti is said to have refused to meet even long-time associates among officials who have tried to call. Omar is said to have received officials who visit, but remains inflexible.

Talk of Unity, Silence of Separatism?

If indeed anyone went to Delhi, it clearly led to nothing. So, caught as these leaders are between a rock and a hard place, standing firm appears to have become the morale-boosting watchword.

Some of those in detention have spoken to visitors of insisting that the steps taken on 5 August be reversed—as a starting point—and then pressing for that old shibboleth of Kashmiri demands, the ‘53 position’ of maximum autonomy. The move’s architects, on the other hand, hope that restoring statehood to the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir can be the political bargaining point.

It is a Catch-22 situation, for the detainees would find it tough to face their people outside.

Meanwhile, the once-established separatist leaders are silent. The most prominent of them, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is at home but is rumoured to be unwell to the point of being incoherent.

Kashmiri Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. 

Mosques that have been nodes for protest and unrest in the Valley’s towns, including Srinagar’s Jamia masjid, have remained shut. Nor have protests been allowed in other established settings, such as that old hub of Kashmiri journalists, Pratap Park.

When Srinagar’s high society women tried to protest there a few weeks ago, they were locked up for a night. “But they were given decent bedding,” claims one of Srinagar’s most active busybodies as someone clucks unhappily over those detentions. It is to such tidbits that the political buzz of that most politically pulsating place has been reduced after a hundred days of silenced politics.

(The writer is the author ofThe Story of Kashmir’ andThe Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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