Kashmir was on the boil in August 2008. Protests had erupted over the transfer of 99 acres of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, which managed a popular Hindu pilgrimage site in the Valley. In response, groups in Jammu had blocked the highway to Kashmir, choking off supplies to the region.

To protest the economic blockade, on August 11, over two lakh people marched through North Kashmir’s Baramulla district towards the Line of Control with Pakistan. The security forces opened fire on them, killing five protesters, including a leader of the Hurriyat Conference, Sheikh Abdul Aziz.

As the news came in, Latief U Zaman Deva, the district magistrate of Kulgam in South Kashmir, summoned local officers from security agencies like the army and the police. He told them curfew was being imposed in Kulgam, much like the rest of Kashmir, “but with the direction that you will not use force in case it is breached”.

Deva, who hailed from neighbouring Anantnag district, understood the need to handle the situation carefully. He decided not to forcibly restrict people from protesting peacefully against Aziz’s killing the next day. “I allowed people to take out processions, assemble in Jamia Masjid Kulgam, deliver speeches, etc,” he recalled.

Instead of the security forces manning sensitive locations in Kulgam, civilian officers and friendly residents were deployed to guard public properties and keep the peace. Deva stayed in touch with prominent local leaders through the day.

“The net result was that despite protests and marches, nothing untoward happened in Kulgam,” said Deva, now retired from the Jammu and Kashmir cadre of the Indian Administrative Service. In the rest of the erstwhile state, 15 protesters were killed in firing by police and paramilitary forces that day.

No more J&K cadre

On January 7, the Union government promulgated an ordinance enabling the merger of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre of the All India Service officers with the AGMUT cadre. AGMUT stands for Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territories.

The All India Services include the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service. While most appointments to these services are made centrally through examinations held by the Union Public Service Commission, the selected officers can pick the state cadres they wish to belong to. An officer assigned to the Tamil Nadu cadre, for instance, will spend most of their career working within the state.

Like other states in India, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had its own cadre for the All India Services. Given its special constitutional status, however, only 50% of its All India Service officers were direct recruits chosen through the UPSC exams. The other half came from Kashmir Administrative Service officers who were promoted into the All India Services. In other states, 67% of the officers are direct recruits while only 33% are officers inducted from the state services.

When Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status on August 5, 2019, it also became subject to the 67:33 rule, reducing the number of positions available for Kashmir Administrative Service officers.

Now, with the Jammu and Kashmir cadre itself being merged into the AGMUT cadre, which represents three states and eight Union Territories, the presence of Kashmiris in key bureaucratic positions within the Valley stands to erode further.

“It means the officers from across the AGMUT cadre can be posted at any point of time in Jammu and Kashmir,” explained Mohammad Shafi Pandit, the first Kashmiri Muslim to clear the Indian Administrative Service examinations in 1969.

More often than not, Kashmiris who cleared the UPSC exams, like the former bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal, chose the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. This ensured Kashmiri presence even among the 50% of direct recruits into the All India Services in the erstwhile state. But this will change, since Kashmiris who opt for the AGMUT cadre may not be posted in their home region.

“Now, the government has a larger pool from which they can choose officers to serve in Jammu and Kashmir,” said a retired bureaucrat from Kashmir, who requested anonymity. “Put simply, Jammu and Kashmir will have more non-local officers serving here.”

The local factor

There is already disquiet over Kashmiris disappearing from the top ranks of government, as Scroll.in reported previously. The Union Territory administration is currently led by lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha, a Bharatiya Janata Party politician from Uttar Pradesh, and his advisors, none of whom is from the Kashmir Valley. A change in the composition of the civil services will only deepen the disquiet, said former bureaucrats.

Mohammad Shafi Pandit, who went on to become the chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir before he retired in 2009, said most governments understood the need for the presence of local officers at the higher levels of governance. “In a sensitive place like Jammu and Kashmir, which has had problems all along from 1947, it has always been necessary to have somebody who can comport with the local people and understand their problems,” he said.

Governments even strove to ensure “balance was always maintained both in Jammu and Kashmir”, he added. “Suppose in Kashmir, if you had one Muslim officer at the top, you would have one non-Muslim officer at other top rank as well… Those considerations seem to have lost relevance all together now.”

Even though many Kashmiris view civil servants with suspicion, indifference, even hostility, local officials stood a better chance of handling difficult situations, said former officials. They were able to forge informal relationships with key leaders. There are numerous instances when such relationships were put to use in favour of the government.

Former deputy inspector general of Jammu and Kashmir police, Ali Mohammad Watali, offered an example from his tenure as the police superintendent of Baramulla district.

“It was long before the militancy erupted,” recalled 88-year-old Watali. A religious leader had given a call to shut down the only liquor shop in Sopore town. “When I came to know about it, I went to Sopore and talked to people. I found a lot of support for the call.”

Before the chorus for shutting down the liquor shop in the volatile area could gain steam, Watali did the unexpected: he locked up the shop himself. “There was an uproar from many in the government [who asked] how could I do it. I told them it is my discretion and since its shutting down is in the interest of law and order, I decided to lock it down.”

While he had diffused a potentially volatile issue from spiraling into a larger crisis in his jurisdiction, the trouble was far from over. The leader was quick to extend his call to shut down all liquor shops in Kashmir valley. The next day, he led a massive procession in Sopore, gathering outside the police station to court arrest with his followers.

Watali told the leader since he had not committed any crime, he could not arrest him. “Since I knew him well, he whispered in my ear, requesting me to take him into custody as it won’t look good before his supporters,” the former police officer recalled.

But Watali wanted to go by the procedure under law – he told the leader that if he blocked the main road and brought transport to a halt, it could be registered as a crime. “You won’t believe it,” he said. “That’s exactly what he did and we arrested him.”

At the police station, Watali offered him tea and counselled him before letting him go. “I told him it doesn’t befit a tall leader like him to talk about small issues like alcohol ban and all.” That was the end of the anti-liquor protests.

“We restored peace by personal influence,” said Watali. “The personal influence depends on your relationship with the people and that can only happen if you are a local.”

The need for such interventions grew in the post-militancy years, said former civil servants.

Away from home

Another implication of the merger of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre into the AGMUT cadre is that Kashmiris who clear the All India Services Exams now have reduced chances of getting an opportunity to serve within their home region. “Even if Kashmir Administrative Service officers are inducted into the IAS, it will mean that they too will have to serve in different parts of the country other than Jammu and Kashmir,” said the retired bureaucrat.

This aspect could weigh on the minds of future civil service aspirants in Jammu and Kashmir, said Rouf Ahmad. The young man from Ganderbal district had made a bid for the Kashmir Administrative Services in 2016, but did not qualify.