On October 25, 1947, Vappala Pangunni Menon, India’s envoy par excellence, gifted a car to Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Dogra king of Jammu and Kashmir (hereon J&K). Or did he? The exact details of the events of that fateful era are lost behind a perennial fog of war. Some people say that the Maharaja had actually bought the car from the British. That it was one of the numerous vehicles used to transport Muslims of Jammu to the new, temporary border in Akhnoor and Ranbir Singh Pora, where they were disembarked, dismembered and massacred. The charons driving the vehicles would quickly turn them around to pick up and transport more people. The car was so efficient during the exercise, these people conclude, that the Maharaja thought it might impress even somebody like Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. So the Maharaja tried to gift the car to Menon; but he refused to take it, reasoning that it might serve more useful purposes in J&K. Alas! A written copy of the purported gift deed has not survived, so we can only speculate about the nature of the agreement. One thing is certain though, the car became a ubiquitous fixture in Indian-controlled J&K.
Originally painted a faint buff colour, like a sun-kissed Mountbatten, or a Trojan horse made of deodar wood, the car has an octupusesque quality of camouflaging itself with non-descript and diplomatic colours. It is powered by an all-weather engine adept at handling diverse turfs. Its robust wheels were originally of steel, covered with tyres made through a special vulcanization process known as the Sita-method, and provided immense durability and traction. The car had a state-of-the-art steering and axle system that could give the impression that it was going left when it went right and that it was going right when, in fact, it took a left turn. So it could only be driven by knowledgeable insider hands. It used a waterless coolant, purchased in a black market selling United States-made goods, that did not boil off easily and also caused minimum corrosion. The coolant stayed good upto minus 20˚C, so it also worked as an anti-freeze. With such best-of-the-class specifications, a compromise on one of the components was inevitable, and it came in the form of the braking system. Once in full flow, it is difficult to stop the car, as many innocent bystanders have found out the hard way over the years.
But by far the supreme feature of the car is its design. Through a marvellous feat of engineering it has been made to look like a mini-bus or similar public transport vehicle when, in fact, it is the very definition of luxurious private transport. Its hackneyed design hides plush interiors—handmade woollen Kashmiri carpets as flooring; pashmina upholstery over walnut furniture; and silk drapes, peacock-blue with motifs in blood-red thread on the inside, and a pale government-yellow on the outside. There is also a chessboard on the mantelpiece, and its pieces are said to have been assembled from Australia, Britain, Israel, Ireland, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Africa, United States and USSR. The mundane exteriors assist the car in disguising itself even better. Additionally, they make it spacious, increasing its carrying capacity, a feature invaluable during emergencies.
It is said that Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, Indian-controlled J&K’s first Prime Minister, was fond of the car and was often seen being taken for a ride in it. He always boarded the car in clothes befitting a leader, with a karakuli to boot, but never learnt to drive. This handicap would come to haunt him for a long time. On August 5, 1953, the car drove Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed down to Raj Bhavan in Srinagar. Bakshi was the Deputy Prime Minister of Indian-controlled J&K. Three days later, Sheikh Abdullah was removed from office by Hari Singh’s son Karan Singh (who had been appointed the first President of Indian-controlled J&K), on the pretext of losing the confidence of his cabinet. He was refused an opportunity to prove his majority on the floor of the house and promptly arrested on charges of conspiring against the Indian state. Handcuffed and humiliated, a tired Sheikh Abdullah was made to walk from his home to the police station. No more car rides for him.
A decade later, Bakshi himself had to alight from the car under the Kamaraj plan. Ghulam Mohammed Sadiq became a frequent commuter, as he oversaw the downgrading of Indian-controlled J&K’s highest offices from Prime Minister and President to Chief Minister and Governor respectively. He died an indifferent man in the car in 1971, wearing a black sherwani matched with a karakuli of the same colour, and was quickly followed by a peshawari-chappal wearing, pedestrian Bakshi in 1972.
After India’s defeat at the hands of China in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Rameshwar Nath Kao, a Kashmiri Pandit from Varanasi, was seen taking Indira Gandhi, herself a Kashmiri Pandit from Allahabad, and the then Prime Minister of India, on regular rides in the car. Gandhi would wear sarees with teal prints over red blouses or an all chocolate saree-and-blouse ensemble on these trips. Kao would wear three-piece suits of a hue matching the paint of the car, which made it look as if the car were driving itself. These long drives culminated in the formation of Research and Intelligence Wing (R&AW) in 1968.
After the game-changing Indira–Abdullah Accord of 1975, the privilege of riding shotgun in the car was restored to Shiekh Abdullah and remained in place till his death in 1982. He would famously declare his carless days as “siyasi awaragardhi” (political maundering). Following his death, the car became the vehicle of choice for Girish Chander Saxena, first as R&AW’s fourth secretary and then as Indian-controlled J&K’s seventh Governor. Amarjeet Singh Dulat, R&AW’s thirteenth secretary, is also known to have been partial towards the car.
By this time, the car had been in service for more than half a century. Every part had been overhauled and refurbished many times over. During this era, however, even more radical refurbishments were carried out as the car started to diversify from its traditional route (Jammu or Srinagar to Delhi), increasing the frequency of its trips to cities like Gandhinagar, Mumbai and Nagpur. On the recommendation of Brajesh Mishra, India’s first National Security Advisor, the engine received massive upgrades and could now accelerate from standstill to total domination in less than 15 minutes. A new coolant, indigenously prepared from water from the Ganges, was introduced. It helped radiate heat competently, but it was a tad bit corrosive and also ineffective in extreme cold. The tyres had to be augmented as well, to make them strong enough to handle the new mechanics. Thankfully, the road network in both J&K and India had improved vastly by this time, which allowed the car to traverse rapidly. The braking system remained unchanged though. Such sweeping changes raised the problem of the Ship of Theseus, but if the hands which change the parts never change, isn’t the problem moot?
This was a busy era for the car. Farooq Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah’s son, became Chief Minister before and after the beginning of an armed uprising against Indian rule in J&K. Following in his father’s footsteps, Farooq Abdullah did not learn to drive, so the car was frequently seen transporting him from one place to another. During this era it also transported military and paramilitary officers; sleuths and mukhbir networkers; ikwan leaders and special task force officers; counter-insurgency and psychological warfare experts; academics and social workers; track-two diplomats and a new crop of collaborating Kashmiri politicians; film-makers, journalists, photographers, poets and writers; and many, many clueless victims of the war games afoot in J&K.
In early 2001, Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri pharmacist and surrendered militant, was picked up, tortured for months and forced to carpool to Delhi with a person known only as Mohammed. Mohammed was later gunned down outside India’s Parliament on 13 December 2001, in what came to be described as the Parliament Attack. Afzal Guru was nabbed for criminal conspiracy and waging war against India and a death sentence was passed against him. His repeated pleas of not boarding the car wilfully were conveniently ignored and he was hanged secretly before dawn on February 9, 2013, while his oblivious son and wife were still asleep back home.
I had a personal encounter with the veritable vehicle of change during the time it was tightening a noose around a hapless Afzal Guru. There was an insurgent in our village by the name of Bilal Wahab. He obtained military training in Azad Kashmir in the early 1990s and rose through the insurgent ranks to become a sort of local legend. While other insurgents were going down like ninepins, Bilal survived encounter after lethal encounter with Indian soldiers. A rumour spread that he had earned a powerful spell which made him invisible to the soldiers. By 2000, almost all insurgents in our area had either been martyred or captured. Bilal’s brother started to obtain big PWD contracts. It was very unusual for a family member of an insurgent to be awarded PWD contracts; usually they are made to spend their days running from pillar to post for even the most basic necessities of life. The tide of rumours turned. When Bilal went for training in Azad Kashmir, had the car dropped him off at the Line of Control? The question was answered soon enough when Bilal came out of make-believe hiding and started to roam around in the car openly.
This is when I caught a glimpse of the car. There was a wedding feast in a neighbouring village and I had gone there to help my cousin, who was a videographer. Bilal had been invited to the feast. He arrived in the car and we wouldn’t even notice the masterpiece of masquerade had not a boy—no more than 15—come by and asked us where he could find Bilal. We looked around and saw Bilal sitting in the car, talking to someone on his cellphone. We pointed in the direction of the car in unison. The boy walked upto it carefully and tapped on the glass. Bilal rolled down the window. The boy asked, “Are you Bilal?” Bilal answered in the affirmative. The boy took out a pistol and shot him in the head matter-of-factly, and then calmly walked away. The car was unharmed.
I have been unable to see the car ever since, though its shadows rev up the nights in Indian-controlled J&K. In 2013, there was one Machil-like episode when the shadow of the car lengthened dangerously over my home again; 17 young men between the ages of 17 and 25 were captured by Indian soldiers in a neighbouring village. Over the course of the previous two years, these boys had been recruited for Hizbul Mujahideen and were being readied to be sent to Azad Kashmir for military training. Or so they thought. On the day they were supposed to begin their journey, the car appeared and they were promptly bundled into it. A friend, not usually given to hyperbole, remarked at the time, “Is India running the tehreek now?”
On January 10, 2019, Davinder Singh, a Deputy Superintendent in Indian-controlled J&K’s police force, was detained while travelling in the car on the main highway connecting Srinagar to Jammu. Two men, alleged to be insurgents, are also said to have been commuting with him. DSP Singh, awarded a gallantry medal by the Indian government in 2018 for his services, is the same cop who had forced Afzal Guru to carpool two decades ago. Of course, this is a standalone fact and has no bearing on anything. DSP Singh and the two alleged insurgents are purportedly being interrogated.
In the meantime, a policeman discreetly drove the car back to Srinagar.