Showkat Ahmad Kuchay likes to boast that Srinagar’s Centaur Lake View Hotel has not been closed for a single day in the turbulent decades of its existence.

The staff ensured it stayed open when the militancy was at its peak in the 1990s, when a mass uprising broke out after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, and even when Covid-19 forced the country into a lockdown, claimed Kuchay, who has worked at the hotel since 1992.

For maybe the first time in its history, the Centaur Hotel is shut. The Jammu and Kashmir administration took over the 252-room hotel on the banks of the Dal Lake and sealed it on June 14.

Kuchay and about 160 staff of the hotel may now be out of work. “We begged the officials as our hotel was completely occupied at that time,” said Kuchay. “We were worried about our guests but they didn’t listen to us.”

Sajad Ahmad Bhat, the hotel cashier, recalled the “heartbreaking” sight of elderly guests dragging their luggage out, scrambling to find another hotel.

While the hotel now stands deserted, its employees – most of whom have worked there since the late 1980s and early ’90s – demonstrate in Srinagar to be allowed to go back to work.

“The government is so considerate about inviting tourists and Centaur is famous all over. Is this how they will serve the tourists?” asked Kuchay.

But the Centaur is not just a draw for tourists. For close to four decades, it has been a home for political visitors. In August 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370, it also became a political prison.

An arrangement

The 252-bedroom building was constructed by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 1984. In 1982, it had already been leased out to the Hotel Corporation of India, a body under the Union ministry of aviation, for a period of 99 years.

As it sealed the hotel 40 years later, the Jammu and Kashmir government claimed the corporation had “violated” the lease agreement and the Jammu and Kashmir Land Grants Act, 1960 by sub-letting the premises to a third party without consent from the government.

The government cited a “management contract” between the Hotel Corporation of India and the Mumbai-based DB Realty in 2010. “The idea was that the group would manage the hotel and do some renovations in order to attract more tourists,” explained Kuchay, who is also the spokesperson of the Centaur Hotel Employees Union.

But the hotel employees opposed the deal in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, fearing privatisation and job cuts. Eventually, the deal never materialised.

However, according to Kuchay, the Jammu and Kashmir government was the first to break the original arrangement with the Centaur Hotel. In the mid-1970s, the state government built the picturesque Sher-i-Kashmir Convention Centre, managed by the tourism department, to host high-profile conferences and events attended by heads of state and foreign dignitaries. The understanding was that the Centaur Hotel would house such visitors. But after 1989, the state government walked out of the arrangement, Kuchay said.

However, the hotel continued to thrive. High profile guest still poured in. Central government departments, banks and other corporations used the hotel as quarters for their staff in Srinagar.

Centaur Hotel employees protest against the sealing. Photo: Umer Asif

Ringside view of history

Not surprisingly, the staff at the Centaur Hotel have witnessed political history first hand. “From India’s prime ministers to its presidents, we have served all the top dignitaries of the country visiting Kashmir,” remarked Kuchay.

He rattled off a list of other visiting dignitaries – a princess of Thailand, a head of state from the United Arab Emirates and several Bollywood celebrities.

In 2005, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service – connecting the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control– was flagged off. A delegation from Pakistan that visited Srinagar at the time was hosted at the Centaur Hotel.

“It was a whole other experience,” said a senior member of the staff who did not wish to be named. “We were seeing them in Kashmir as official guests for the first time. It was new to us.”

That brief rapprochement soon faded and the bus service has been suspended since 2019. That year, all eyes were on Centaur Hotel for a different reason.


On August 5, 2019, as the Centre split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and gutted Article 370, it arrested almost the entire Kashmiri leadership, including former Union Ministers, chief ministers and cabinet ministers, veteran leaders of pro-India political parties and other activists. The Centaur was converted from hotel to gaol.

“As far as I remember, the government hired at least 50 rooms for the detainees – a single room for each detainee,” recalled one of the hotel staff, who did not want to be named. “On the night of August 4, 2019, we were told the hotel has been declared as a jail for the detainees.”

In Kashmir, the sudden legislative changes came as a shock. But the staff at Centaur got to work, regardless of how they viewed the decision to jail almost the entire Kashmiri leadership.

“We treated them just like our guests. We were told to give him a particular food at different times and look after them,” said the member of the hotel staff.

Police officials moved into the premises to watch the detainees, but it was the hotel staff who engaged with them the most, trying to make their incarceration a little better. “We chatted with them,” said the staff member. “Some of them were ailing and didn’t like hotel food. But we couldn’t help as they were not allowed home-cooked food.”

They also saw the food habits of Kashmir’s political elites up close. The leader of one Kashmiri party had a hearty appetite. A former minister demanded home-cooked food, which was not allowed at the time. Another leader complained there was too much oil in the hotel food.

Those were chaotic times at the three-star hotel, usually known for its beautifully appointed rooms and manicured lawns. In September 2019, at least two detained leaders were bitten by rats in their rooms. Outside, there were long, anxious queues of relatives waiting to see the detainees, being frisked as they entered.

Through it all, some of the older permanent guests – for whom the hotel served as staff quarters – stayed on. The attention to the new guests irked them. “They told us that we had forgotten them and only served politicians and leaders,” recalled the staff member, smiling.

Three years later, many of their old guests were empathetic as they witnessed the sudden eviction and the plight of the hotel staff. “Some of them were telling us to take money but we were too shattered to take it,” said Bhat.

The eviction was so sudden, Bhat said, that he did not even have time to credit an amount of Rs 4,400, paid by a guest, to the company account. “I still have it with me. I don’t know if I will get a chance to give it to the company,” he said.

Visitors waiting to see politicians detained at Centaur Hotel in 2019. Photo: Safwat Zargar

To the courts

The eviction notice was served on April 5 and the government had sealed the premises by June 14. In the meantime, the employees union had moved the high court, challenging the eviction order and asking that they be allowed to continue working even if there was a change in management.

“The employees have served at the hotel for decades and their families, old parents and kids are dependent on their salaries for survival. Therefore, their services shouldn’t be discontinued,” said Mohammad Iqbal Dar, the legal counsel for the employees’ union.

Before the high court could hear the matter, listed for June 21, the government had moved in. Still, in an order dated June 22, the court asked the employees to make a representation of their case to the government within two weeks. In the meantime, the government was directed not to take any “adverse action” against the employees.

The employees submitted their representation to the government on July 1 – a reply was expected within a week and a reply is still awaited.

Meanwhile, the Hotel Corporation of India has moved to the Supreme Court in a separate petition regarding the dispute over management. On June 30, the Supreme Court directed the government to maintain status quo on the property for six weeks, which would give the Hotel Corporation of India time to move the high court for “interim relief”.

A delayed takeover

While the government takeover was swift this time, it has been a decade in the making. Previous Jammu and Kashmir governments have long tried to take the Centaur away from the Hotel Corporation of India.

In 2012, soon after the employees stalled the management contract with DB Realty, the state government issued an order announcing it would take over the hotel “along with its employees who are permanent residents of the state”. “Permanent residents” were people who were considered native to Jammu and Kashmir. The bureaucratic category was demolished in the legislative changes of 2019.

The 2012 order was passed in a meeting chaired by then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who would be imprisoned at the Centaur Hotel in 2019. According to the order, the government would take responsibility for the hotel employees so long as they agreed to serve in “any institution of the state” and abide by the rules and regulations of state employees. It also promised to look into retirement benefits of such employees and what liabilities the Hotel Corporation of India and the state government would bear.

Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, the treasurer of Centaur Hotel Employees Union, said they had constantly been in touch with the government over the proposed takeover. “But it never happened until recently,” he explained.

However, he alleged, the old assurances to the hotel employees appear to have been forgotten. “If the government is implementing the takeover order of 2012 now, why are they forgetting the conditions about the employees and their jobs?” he asked.

A senior official in the Jammu and Kashmir government, who did not want to be named, said, “We have just followed the orders and done everything legally.” As for the government’s future course of action with the employees of Centaur Hotel, he said they had received the representation but no decision had been taken on it yet.