At first look, it’s a bureaucrat throwing his weight around, literally. Maybe, a case of poor judgement. Or simply, bad optics.
But the official who was captured on camera being carried on a makeshift cot by residents of a remote village in a mountainous area of J&K, in an image that has gone viral on social media, insists it’s none of the above.
He says he was not sure whether he would be able to complete the trek after a colleague fell ill midway — and those who carried him were ensuring that he becomes the first senior official to visit their village.
The image was of Deputy Commissioner Showkat Aijaz Bhat, a Kashmir Administrative Service officer, visiting a village in the Chaka Kundi area of Ramban. It sparked outrage on social media and drew remarks such as “Modern Day Maharaja’’ and “Shri Shri Shri DC Ramban Ji going for an outreach program on a Palki’’.
But Bhat, and local officials, have a different version.
“Being an administrator, my job is to serve the people and that is why I went to their doorstep. They took me on a makeshift palki out of their love and affection as there was no other means of transport… I am 58 years old, I can have some health problem while on duty,’’ said Bhat, who hails from Shopian.
According to local officials, Bhat and other officers from the district headquarters had gone to the area, nearly 20 km from Ramban town, following requests from residents. With four panchayats — Chakka A1, Chakka A2, Sucheter and Bibrotha — the Chakka-Kundi area has a population of 7,000-8,000 people but no motorable road with the Public Works Department (PWD) unable to make any headway on a terrain prone to landslides.
Once part of Doda, Ramban was a declared a separate district in 2014 but most of its administrative offices are still in Doda. “There is not even a dispensary. Even for a fever, one has to trek nearly 8 km of mountain terrain along the Chenab to buy a tablet,” said Subash Chander, the lumbardar or headman of Kundi village, where Bhat reached Tuesday.
“Facing numerous problems like lack of roads, health facilities, power and water, we had been visiting the Deputy Commissioner from time to time. Last week, we invited him to visit the area… When he arrived at the government school, the villagers danced to the beat of drums. It was for the first time that a district administration head had reached there since Independence,” said Chander.
According to a team member, the 12-km journey from Ramban town to the Baglihar dam site near the Chakka Kundi area was smooth “because there was a pucca road”. “With 1 km to go, the motorcade could not move as the track was narrow and in bad condition,” he said.
The team decided to move ahead on foot. But after 2 km, Chief Animal Husbandry Officer Dr Sunil Seru, who is turning 60 this year, complained of breathlessness and dehydration. “They left me behind to take rest. I started of again after nearly 10 minutes because I am based in Doda and was visiting the area for the first time,” said Seru.
Headman Chander said that after covering nearly 7 km on foot, the Deputy Commissioner, too, complained of breathlessness and fatigue.
“Unable to walk the remaining half-a-kilometre, he sat under a tree and asked the villagers to meet him there. We insisted that he visit the village as people had been waiting in large numbers to see a Deputy Commissioner there. But he said he was unable to move, and we made a makeshift palki using a cot as mules were not available,’’ said Chander, who is seen holding an umbrella for Bhat in the photograph.
Referring to the outrage over the image and Bhat, Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) leader Shah Faesal, the first IAS topper from Kashmir, said: “Social media can be tricky, what appears need not be true. As a former colleague, I know him well. He is a very down-to-earth officer. That is why I was all the more surprised to see those pictures.’’