Of Latthe Thaan & Surrendered Cylinders


Showkat Jan, a dear friend, is my primary source of fables on Kashmir. This one he narrated to me in contemporary context. Here it goes: in good old days Maharajgunj used to be the main commercial district of the city. Apart from the few local businessmen, Wanis, the wholesale trade in all items of daily use was in the hands of non Kashmiri Hindus popularly called Khatris. Khatris by the way dominated trade in most towns as well where they enjoyed a monopoly on trading of local produce like walnuts, wool and woolen products, small forest produce like guchhis etc and of course the sale of the rest apart from acting as grameen banks. The institution could not survive the post 90 turmoil though we mercifully still are left with some noble souls among in the city. But that is beside the point and only for the benefit of my younger readers.

According to Showkat Jan once a group of retailers from rural Kashmir was busy shopping at a large wholesale shop at Maharajgunj. The provisions like salt, spices, tea, candies, sugar, cloth, kerosene, edible oil all would be supplied from one mart. Confusion would at times pave way for shop lifting. The salesmen of the Lala as Khatris would reverentially be called detected that a roll of cotton cloth, ‘lathe thaan’ in local parlance was missing. All the customers were held back for a search. Lo and behold the cloth roll was found in the sack of one of the rural retailers. It created a stir among the large crowd gathered around but the culprit was undaunted. Instead of expressing regrets or offering himself for punishment the man decided to brazen it out. “O Lala ho gaya munh kala? Latthe Thaanie droyi kineh beyi kinh” he shouted. Though its nuance and acidic impact is hard to convey through translation the sentence can in English rendering loosely be like: Lala aren’t you ashamed that you could find nothing more than a cloth roll (that I had stolen)?

The cloth thief’s crime was cognizable and can never be compared with a modern day misdemeanor like having more than the permissible number of cooking gas connections. But since this morning after I read chief minister Omar Abdullah’s tweet I could not avoid connecting the spirit of two actions. Nobody can and should try to deny our chief minister the credit for the voluntary surrender of extra connections. But the fact that it took a media ‘exposure’ to achieve this raises some issues of important nature.

If an elected chief minister needs media to tell him what cooks his food in his own kitchen is he expected know what happens to the ordinary folks by the huge crisis caused by disappearance of even unsubsidized gas. While CM of a state living in the splendid isolation of his dream world may not have any use even for that lone cylinder that he retained the fact determines the distance he has to travel to connect with his subjects as he has just yet to connect with his own kitchen.

Second, the chief minister has asked the media to do more exposes on gas and come out with the entire list of offenders like him. What does the chief minister presiding over one of the heftiest administrations think of media? Should it be doing what his police and the most organized public distribution system in the country is not able to perform? Media raises the issues and it is the job of a government to respond and act. The chief minister cannot get away from the mess he has created on the gas front by trying to play to galleries yet again and not mentioning his administration even by way of passing on the buck. This brings back the memories of his balidaan last winter when he asked the electricity department not to restore his power connection until the last subject got it. That was notwithstanding the fact that the VVIP is served by the largest generator in the area as of course is the leader of opposition living on the same street.

But the most outstanding irony is that Omar Abdullah made the voluntary surrender of gas connections on a day the newspapers carried a challenge from Mehbooba Mufti to appoint a commission to probe assets of all politicians who held a public position post 1975. The statement had mentioned how the Abdullah family is sitting on the costliest estate which is not inherited but acquired through the most brazen act of nepotism and favoritism. It is said Maharaja Hari Singh paid compensation for every inch of land he acquired to construct his palace in the area. But how the previous occupants of Gupkar estate were evicted to make room for the new royals is a more painful part of the story.

One would have expected him to respond to the serious debate over how politicians are growing fat and rich without doing anything except politics but what happened is the usual degeneration of sublime to ridiculous. Or was it the brazenness of the retailer caught stealing the lathe thaan? After all CM’s apologists can turn back and henceforth respond to every question on AFSPA, Haji Yusuf, Cricket scam, employment, corruption, maladministration, atrocities on youth or the colossal power failure with the line ‘gas connection hi nikla ya aur kuchh?’

And for next two years the surrendered gas cylinders could appear alongside the count of cabinet meetings held as the great achievements of NC led coalition with the ‘munh kaala’ taunt to the media and opposition.

—-Author is the chief spokesman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)

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