Hari Niwas Palace: Inauspicious Guest house

Maharaja Hari Singh was cautioned against constructing the Hari Niwas Palace at the location where it stands now. He was told that the place was inauspicious. However, he did not listen and went ahead with the construction. The queen was pleased but the Maharaja’s rule did not last long. He had to leave behind everything including the newly constructed palace. Decades later, the ‘democratic’ government turned the palace into a torture chamber. The prophecy of Maharaja’s astrologers had come true. The palace proved inauspicious for him as well as for the people of Kashmir. It has never offered solace to the people who lived in it willingly or unwillingly.

The former palace has had a checkered history since being used at times as a joint interrogation centre, and finally as the headquarters of the State Intelligence Department which was evicted at short notice from the palace. The association of the parents of disappeared persons would call it  as Abu Gharib of Kashmir. Thousands of persons were tortured in the erstwhile palace. Some succumbed to torture and the others who survived the ordeal have horrifying tales to tell. It is from this palace that the state intelligence sleuths decided who can perform Hajj, or who is worthy of getting a government job. Whether a court order is to be implemented or not was also decided in the palace tastefully decorated rooms. In short the erstwhile palace made the life of Kashmiris miserable.

The state government presently intends to turn the erstwhile torture chamber into a VVIP guest house. An order to this effect was passed recently by the General Administration Department (GAD). The Hospitality and Protocol Department (H&PD) shall take over the complex shortly and maintain it. "The complex shall be properly maintained and managed by the H&PD as a valuable property of the State. It shall essentially be utilized as a VVIP State Guest House and also for holding high level selective banquets, receptions and conferences," the government order reads.

The sufferers especially the relatives of the disappeared persons have taken the government order with a heightened sense of foreboding and apprehension. According to them, the decision to convert it into a state guest house will destroy the vital evidence of killings and custodial torture and thus hamper administration of justice. Converting Hari Niwas Palace for hospitality of diplomats and ambassadors is State’s new policy to camouflage these structures where our sons were tortured to death, they said. Apparently this seems a far fetched assessment of the situation. But the aggrieved and concerned relatives are in no mood to allow the government to weaken their case. They want justice. Administration of justice seems a distant dream in this abused and neglected land. If the police can make a person like Justice (Retired) Muzaffar Jan bite the dust, the plight of the lesser mortals can only be imagined.

Yes, there has been talk of a truth and reconciliation commission but nobody seems serious about it. Further the people, by and large, have rejected the idea as ridiculous. When the truth is found out, the culprits have to be brought to justice! People want culprits behind the bars. Nobody is ready to reconcile in this ‘valley of ghosts. And the government is not ready to constitute a commission to probe excesses. The sufferers know the government cannot afford to unveil the truth. Still they want to preserve evidence in whatever form it exists.

Not only have the sufferers criticized the government order, they have issued an appeal to all the embassies in New Delhi urging them not to accept official hospitality in Hari Niwas Palace. The appeal reads: “The government has been using the erstwhile palace as a torture chamber since 1985. Thousands of souls have been tortured in it. Many of them died or have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Hundreds of bodies must have been buried in the nearby forest. Vital evidence has already been lost as the government renovated the palace recently. More than 100 million rupees were spent to make it suitable for the former Chief Minister. You have always stood by us. You have always urged the government of India to pay due respect to human rights. And, if you choose to stay in this torture chamber, it will amount to rubbing salt into our wounds.”

The relatives of the disappeared persons have availed the opportunity to reiterate their demand for an impartial probe into enforced disappearances. The appeal is expected to generate lot of interest in diplomatic circles. However, the aggrieved relatives maintain that the appeal has not been made for publicity. We are not politicians and do not want cheap publicity. We want the people across the globe to understand and feel our pain, they said.

Noted historian of Kashmir, Fida Muhammad Hasnain believes the palace is inauspicious. In a letter published in Greater Kashmir dated July 10, 2008, Fida wrote: "On the day, Azad Sahib, laid foundation of an international trade centre at Pampur, I wrote him a personal letter, asking him to consult archaeologists and historians about the history of that site. While reading files of the Viceroys of India at the National Archives of India, New Delhi, in 1952, I had seen as to how the British would consult the history of the site, when laying foundation stones of bridges and buildings. I also wrote him that his idea to renovate the Hari Niwas Palace and make it as his personal residence was not auspicious.”

I wrote, what I had written in 2002 on page 122 of my book “Historic Kashmir” ,
published by Gulshan Books. I quote: Hari Singh had a great sense of aesthetic taste. He selected the shores of the famous Dal Lake for building his royal palaces. The place selected by him were the slopes of the Zabarwan hills which in the past was a site of Buddhist stupas. When the Shaivists got ascendancy in the valley the site was appropriated by the Hindu goddess of Doom, known as Shiksha Devi or the goddess of Shikas. She could not get any place in the whole of India and she got a refuge to settle in this corner on the banks of the Dal Lake. On both sides of the site were the shrines of two Muslim saints highly revered by the Muslims. The Maharaja was warned to desist from laying his palaces at the ominous and condemned site but as he was stubborn he refused to hear. His trouble started in the same year when he completed his palaces at the cursed site in 1931. His end also came from this very site when he was forced by circumstances to run away to Jammu in 1947. Before he ordered collection and transportation of his household to Jammu he is said to have cried  ‘the raiders are near, I don’t want to leave my people at my mercy, they want me to leave for Jammu. What can I do?’ I am writing all this to remind people who select sites for buildings to at least find the past of that place."

The foreigners may not believe Hasnain but the local people have absolutely no reason to ignore his observations. The palace has wreaked havoc with the lives of Kashmiris. They have been tortured here, killed, subjected to enforced disappearance and most probably buried in its sprawling lawns. It has not proved auspicious for a mother whose son disappeared after being brought in the palace in 1990. It has not been auspicious for the father whose son was picked up, tortured in this palace and killed.

In other countries torture centers have been preserved and probes have been conducted on them. But here the government’s policy has been to the contrary, says human rights activist Ghulam Nabi Mir. He said there are scores of testimonies of detainees who were lodged in these death chambers for months and years after which they had disappeared. It is still a mystery whether disappeared persons have been buried in the lawns of interrogation chambers or were taken to other places for burial, Mir added. He said the move was aimed to wipe out vital evidences which would have surfaced in future probes.

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