Kashmir Golf course, upgraded over the last five years, is now mired in a big controversy. The utterances by the Chief Secretary, Chairman of the Club, in press conferences and publicized meetings has given rise to doubts and ramified the plain and simple sports affair into accusations of hegemony and a narrative that links it with a more sinister agenda of political and ethnic divide of the small Kashmiri Muslim community. One comment on face book by a senior journalist, Peerzada Ashiq, is both alarming and instructive.
“After urban-rural divide, Kashmir-Gujjar Muslim binary, now comes well-constructed new fault line, elite-ordinary. Opening of the Kashmir Golf Course to general public is not motivated by the fact that locals get entry into an elite space to bridge the gap. It is to push the class divide deep into our psyche, to nudge narrative that elite kept ordinary under their shoes” If a discerning commentator like Mr Peerzada Ashiq views the whole episode like this, people in power would be well advised to take note.
Now why these discordant voices? These unfortunately emanate from the utterances of the highest functionary of the State Government. He seems to be to believe that by waiving the membership fee, golf becomes a peoples sport. It is really not so. Once one elects to be a golfer, he has to learn the game, in golf parlance called ‘practice’. The fee per day for the instructor and the caddie is around Rs.500 and that is if he picks up a local senior caddie, not a proper instructor. This goes for at least 60 sessions. Expenses for a game each day adds up to another 500.00 for the caddie and the golf balls. The equipment cost, one time, is around Rs.50,000 including sports gear that is if he picks up the cheapest golf set. Also golfer needs a four wheeler to carry the golf set daily to and from the golf course. Surely an elementary reality check with any of the senior civil and police officers who are regular at the sport would have given this wisdom to the State Government.
Now some history. The course came up during the colonial period around 1886 AD and is listed in golf literature as the second oldest golf course outside UK. This course has in the past found mention in the tourism promotion literature in India Tourism campaigns as a heritage course and the most favored tourist destination, especially in summers. The course is a valued intangible tourism asset and till its closure it has been attracting golf enthusiasts all over the country who have been evocative and sentimental about the course as also its heritage value.
The land on which the course has been laid, 52 acres at present, was part of Maidan Maisuma that extended up to Chinar Bagh which at that point in time was a favorite camping site for English men, mostly British Army offices on vacation. Subsequently a formal Club was set up in about 1905 AD. This course was not accessible to Kashmiris, elite and non elite, up to 1967 AD. It was a preserve of Punjabi merchants, their friends and occasional army officers. They had allowed 3-4 Kashmiris the playing rights. One of them had a guest from Delhi and he requested the club management to allow the guest entry which was denied. The matter came to the notice of the then chief Minister. He immediately ordered takeover of the club and in 1967 Mr. Hindal Tyab Ji , a J&K cadre IAS officer was designated as Secretary. Among the first kashmiri members were a mix of senior Government officers and some members of business community like Muhammad Amin, Ahmad Bakhshi. Mir Nasarullah and others. The first Chairman was Mr. P K Dave, IAS, an illustrious civil servant posted as Chief Secretary. He and Tyab Ji laid down the foundation and the rules for managing the club including the criteria for admission of members. Till then the club was known as Srinagar Golf Club and Mr. Dave renamed it as Kashmir Golf Club. No member of the so called elite has had any hand in framing the admission rules. These rules were tailored on the Delhi and Tolly Ganj Golf clubs.
This club, till it got the bear hug of the Government through J&K Bank, was the most democratic public institution where elections were held regularly for the Secretary and the executive members. The committee ran affairs of the club reasonably well even during the turbulent years till 2015.
The Club was adopted by JK Bank under CSR and its up gradation was completed early 2018. Since then the State Government did not find time to decide on its opening. Now when the Bank came under the scrutiny and gaze of present administration, the up gradation was misconstrued as wasteful expenditure and a pandering to the unspecified elite of Srinagar. A common man versus elite debate was generated which initially seemed to be linked to the affairs of the Bank , not the club.
Shah Faesal, the young politician has commented on Ashiqs’ post that why he is protecting the domain of Khojas. Most of the members of the club are senior and middle level civil and police officers. Also our Khojas have historically been the most sports unfriendly class. They have never taken to any sport, not even the people’s sports like football and cricket. Yes, by its very nature of being a pricey sport, only the affordable class among the business community have taken to golf. Almost all of them are post 50s entrepreneurs from average business families, hardly any of them from the known Khojas. They earned their money out of the newer openings in the economy and opportunities like the business men of rest of India. They have become rich due to both patronage and hard work. This happens in all growing economies.
Another comment has come from a middle level Government officer who also felt that the course has been a preserve for few as he was denied membership for the last five years. This comment seems to be more to second the utterances of the Chairman than a genuine grievance. The course was closed for this period as it was under up gradation and therefore no new members were taken. It was only the restaurant where members met. Also the condition precedent for a member is that he has to have learnt golf. He and any new aspirants are better advised to learn the sport to qualify for member ship.
The purported decision to open the course membership indiscriminately as reported in media will lead to spoiling a genuine and a prized sports and tourism asset. It will lead to crowding the course beyond its carrying capacity. Also for reasons of lack of sporting skills and affordability, the new entrants will be tempted to use only the non golfing facilities that are otherwise an intrinsic part of golf clubs.
A word about the J&K Bank engagement. They have converted a semi natural course into a designer course requiring high maintenance. This has been done without giving a thought to the ability of the club to have resources for its maintenance. Now this is a fait accompli and the present management has to find ways to meet the maintenance cost. In the history of this club, all previous chairmen have contributed their bit to improve on what has been handed down to them. The present chairman would be well advised to improve on its management and the attendant facilities. This is a 120 year old asset of Kashmir and every effort should be made to preserve its heritage and its sports value.
(The writer is former Director General Tourism J&K and former Chairman National Monuments Authority, GoI)