December 05, 2020
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From Srinagar, A Tale Of 'Cabbage' And (W)Rath

It all started after the newly elected Mayor Junaid Mattu in a press conference made a controversial comment on wetlands, triggering outrage in Srinagar. Basant Rath also put in his two cents, presumably, calling the Mayor 'Cabbage'.

From Srinagar, A Tale Of 'Cabbage' And (W)Rath
Left: Srinagar Mayor Junaid Azam Mattu; Right: IPS Officer Basant Rath
From Srinagar, A Tale Of 'Cabbage' And (W)Rath

Never has leafy green vegetable cabbage and its health benefits evoked so much interest in the Valley as it did recently. Immediate trigger for the “cabbage talk” is the much talked about transfer of Inspector General of Police, Traffic, Basant Rath. Rath would be credited for popularising cabbage in the Valley. Doctors are writing its health benefits and prodding the population, which is addicted to meat, to have  more of it. Others are making memes of cabbage and more adept internet users are making memes of new mayor of the city, Junaid Azim Mattu, putting a cabbage cap on his head.

When Mattu took over as mayor of the city on November 6, he held a press conference, flanked by Sajad Lone. He never knew his press conference would create cabbage storm in the city and it would spread across Kashmir. During the press conference, on a question of constructions coming up on wetlands, Mattu reportedly said, “people see the building of a showroom and not 300 people working there.” “We will strike a balance between development and ecology but that does not mean putting a chastity belt around the city. Wetland Kya Karna Hai... Chidiyan Ko Dekhna Hai? (What we need wetlands for, to show them to sparrows?).”

Environmentalists expressed outrage over Mattu’s comment. Mattu was earlier National Conference spokesman and outspoken critic of the BJP. He is now joint candidate of the Peoples Conference and the BJP. But Peoples Conference rejected criticism over Mattu’s comments and termed the outrage as a conscious effort to create confusion and frenzy by deliberately distorting facts and selectively misinterpreting statements and institutionalising employment of fallacious propoganda. There was a clear pronouncement of “balancing ecology with development".

Mattu too chipped in: “No. I haven't said 'what do we need wetlands for'. I have said commercial growth can't be stigmatised and frowned upon. We need to strike a balance between the commercial needs of Srinagar and maintaining its ecological balance.”

The next day Basant Rath tweeted: “Wetlands are precious and a vital part of our ecosystem. Only a cabbage will think otherwise.” This triggered a cabbage tsunami against Mattu, more so on social media. The cabbage comment went viral and netizens started taking a dig at Mattu and applauding already popular Rath.

At the same time the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav visited the Valley and interacted with Mattu and Sajad Lone among others. Rumours spread that the IGP Basant Rath would be transferred. Eventually, he was transferred yesterday.

Born in 1972 in a village in coastal Odisha, Rath studied sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University and his love of literature is known to everyone. He is a 2000-cadre Indian Police Service (IPS) officer from Odisha. His Twitter handle @Kangricarrier has not stopped even after his transfer. Kangri is Kashmir fire pot which keeps people warm during the severe winter months in the Valley. His transfer has evoked anger in the Valley and his popularity has grown.

IAS officer Shah Faesal wrote on his Facebook page, “the best farewell to Basant Rath would be that from tomorrow, when he is no longer on the streets, we start following traffic rules and ask others to do the same.” While as journalist Peerzada Ashiq described transfer of IGP Basant Rath as “nothing but a vindictive step, with clear link to the recent spat with the political class".

“His transfer brings home a single point: anyone who is acceptable to people is unacceptable to the rulers. The Viceroy wants Kakar Khan-like policemen to be the face of the even traffic-regulating cops,” said Ashiq. (Kakar Khan was Afghan ruler in Kashmir, who is known for his oppression.)

He is the only IPS officer of the State for whom youth would mob him in Kashmir to take selfies. An unconventional officer, he rarely seen in his uniform. During recent football league match in the Valley, Basant Rath’s entry created a frenzy at the Polo View stadium as youngsters rushed toward him to take selfies. This has not happened earlier.

The police and other security agencies have spent large amount of money for public outreach programmes but people usually don’t show any interest in such programmes. Here was an officer, without uniform, who was liked by people for many reasons. He was the first person to take on elites, even taking on erring Army and CRPF vehicles for traffic violations. In fact, he fined many of them. His rules applied for everyone, including elites and political class.

After joining as IGP, Traffic last year, he wrote a complaint against senior IPS officer’s son and took to social media to announce it: “Friends, I got an Audi car (CH01 BK 7900) seized today. The driver was a young friend with whom I used to play lawn tennis when I was young a century ago. His father is a colleague and an IPS officer in J and K. I’m sad. And I’m happy.”

This was unheard in the State where powerful and people having connections can trash any rule in the book. Basant had habit of checking vehicles himself. He would, at times, travel in minibuses. There are reports that he recently travelled from Batmaloo to Budgam alone in a minibus full of passengers. Imagine an IGP level officer travelling in a bus from Batamloo to Budgam in conflict hit region and nothing happens to him!

Rath often refers to Polish poet Maria Wislawa. “Wislawa says I look nice. I know she is being nice.”

Basant Rath has also written a moving poem, "An elegy for a Bridge.” His love for Srinagar is known. He calls Srinagar his second home. The name of Rath’s first poetry collection is “Own Me Srinagar”.

‘Own me, Srinagar.’

I pray every evening.

Do I own her?

She must be guessing.

Today it is not only Srinagar but the whole Valley that is surprised over his transfer after his “cabbage” spat with Mattu.

“The soul of democracy is accountability & public scrutiny. A dangerous trend is being set in Kashmir where '1% representatives' know they are accountable to none and can get away with anything. The result will be disaster,” reads a Facebook post on Rath’s transfer. In fact, the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) elections didn’t get as much attention in the Valley as did the public reaction and outrage on the transfer of Rath who remains popular as ever. Rath is getting more Facebook posts in his favour than total the votes polled in the ULB elections.

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