Srinagar, July 29: Some 25 kms from Srinagar, a quiet and serene village on Srinagar-Bandipora Road, at first glance, looks unassuming. The village is nestled among beautiful fruit orchards. It was once home to one of Kashmir‘s most cherished fruits – indigenous Kashmirmelons.
Close by flows the River Jhelum, in its broadest width in the valley. It is a place where British and Indian travellers would stop by on their Jhelum boat journeys between Baramulla and Srinagar. In the 1990s, the area was part of the dreaded Ikhwan militia’s area of influence. The people in the area have gone through times of intense mayhem.
This village is not just another village of serenity and beauty of Kashmir. This is the place where one of India’s most successful business houses made its initial fortunes. And it is a story that few people in Kashmir and elsewhere in India know!
Welcome to Shilwath, where Indian business tycoon Vijay Mallya‘s father, Vittal Mallya‘s United Breweries grew hops for producing brew for the company’s most popular brands and made fortunes. Yes, it is here, in this small village of north Kashmir, where the fugitive Vijay Mallya‘s family made their initial fortunes.
Meanwhile, the London High Court declared Vijay Mallya bankrupt on July 26.
“As at 15:42 (UK time), I adjudicate Dr Mallya bankrupt,” Chief Insolvencies and Companies Court (ICC) Judge Michael Briggs said in his ruling during a virtual hearing of the Chancery Division of the High Court in London.
This is seen as a way for a group of Indian banks led by the State Bank of India (SBI) to seek a worldwide freezing order to seize Vijay Mallya’s Indian assets in order to recover debt owed by his now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines.
Mallyas’ Kashmir Connection
Mallyas’ connection with Shilwath village dates back to the time when he and his family was known to be the ‘kings of good times’. It started around 1972 when Vittal Mallya‘s foreign agro advisers are said to have told him to explore Kashmir to grow the company’s brew. Hardly anyone in Kashmir at that point of time had known that Kashmir could grow hops.
“When Mallya approached the then J&K government for the first time, he sounded to be more interested in exploring Kashmir‘s agro potential”, a retired government official, then looking after the region’s agriculture, told Ziraat Times.
“And then one fine day he proposed to grow hops here. And, looking at the potential of the initiative in creating jobs, the then government accepted the proposal”, he adds.
People in the know of how it all started insist that the permission of starting hops cultivation was done with the understanding that the liquor brands grown out of the brew produced in Jammu & Kashmir would not be marketed in Jammu & Kashmir.
“At that time, just like today, liquor was a taboo in Kashmir“, says Abdus Sattar (name changed), a farmer who worked at one of breweries in Shilwath.
“All the brew was transported out of Kashmirto the company’s factories in South India. Most of the workers did not know who the owners were. We were strictly not allowed to sell or market it locally”, says Sattar.
Initially, Jammu & Kashmir Government leased out two acres of land to the Mallya‘s company to start a nursery, that was supposed to provide seedlings to farmers to grow hops. From the nursery farmers would get the hops plants and then grow on their lands. There was an understanding between the United Breweries and farmers that the latter’s produce would be bought by the company.
“It was not just Shilwath village. Several other villages in north Kashmir grew hops for the company. It was done mostly in an obscure manner because religious preachers and elders in many areas were against the practice”, said Jalal-ud-din Bhat, another elder of a nearby village.
United Breweries had also constructed several breweries in Shilwath and some surrounding villages. These breweries were mostly run on steam boilers. Although most of the workers there were from Kashmir, oversight and quality control was also done by professionals from outside the state.
As the production of hops and brew grew, United Breweries got almost complete beer market monopoly in India.
With the onset of armed militancy in 1990s, hops cultivation abruptly stopped. The distilleries were burnt down. Some people who worked in the distilleries had to go into hiding. There are unconfirmed reports of some workers having been subjected to physical torture by armed fighters so as to discourage them from engaging in the business.
“First militants warned locals to restrain from cultivating hops, few listened but other continued. One fine night, militants in large number came and burnt orchards having hop plants. It created fear psychosis resulting in other also cutting hop plants as a result of which hop cultivation in Shilwath died natural death,” locals said.
Today, in Shilwath and surrounding areas, youngsters have no idea of the hops cultivation. Elders tend not to talk of the past because it remains a cultural taboo in the area. Most of the people Ziraat Times team tried to speak to avoided talking about the past. Today, they are more interested in value-added cash crops other than hops.
Most people don’t want to even think of the past.
“Whatever was being done then was not in line with our faith and culture. Although locals did not consume the beer, yet it was wrong to get involved in something which is prohibited in Islam in the first place”, a religious preacher in the area told Ziraat Times.
Hops are the flowers (also called seed cones or strobiles) of the hop plant Humulus lupulus. They are used primarily as a flavouring and stability agent in beer, to which they impart bitter, zesty, or citric flavours though they are also used for various purposes in other beverages and herbal medicine.
Hops have been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes and to brew beer. They require specific soil and climatic conditions to grow well and these are found in Jammu and Kashmirand elsewhere in northern India. Hops are used for brewing as they have preservative properties which ensure that the beer retains its freshness for longer. Jammu and Kashmiris a Himalayan region in north-western India famous for its mountain scenery and lakes.
Extent of cultivation
Although, there are no authentic figures available about the exact quantum of land on which hops was grown, people in the area say that cultivation of Hops was going on thousands of kanals of land in the area.
“Not one, but almost every orchard in our area was cultivating hops. It was a widespread practice after Vijay Mallya’s firm gave seedling of hops which then became a preferred crop for locals in this village as it fetched good returns those days when rates of other fruits was not so high,” said Ali Muhammad Dar, a Shilwath resident.
He said from young to old men, people used to eke livelihood from hops cultivation which was processed into a local unit which was situated outside the village where non-local workers who were experts in processing hops used to convert it into a sold form like shape of cake, then transported outside state in a special carriage facility.
Bashir Ahmad Wagay, who is now in his 40s, said that children were debarred from visiting these orchards where hops were cultivated.
“Children used to be curious why we were not allowed to visit orchards, then later on we realized they are being used to make beer,” he said adding that most of the illiterate villagers didn’t know that they were supplying this hops for Vijay Mallya‘s company.
Wagay, joined by another villager, Nazir Ahmad said that still our elders believe that this hop was used for medicinal purpose. “Had they know it then it is used as a raw material for liquor, I doubt they would not have cultivated as liquor consumption, trade is prohibited in our religion.”
Did J&K state tax the produce?
A retired Commercial Taxes official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Ziraat Times that Mallyas’ managed to export the raw material for their liquor brands from Kashmir in huge quantity without any tax.
“Hop is an agricultural produce, which is tax free. There were special arrangements for transportation to factories of United Breweries for brewing beer”, he said, adding “the whole supply chain was designed in a manner that taxes were not applicable”.
Besides, hop cultivation, the United Breweries had also acquired 14 kanals of land in Industrial Estate Zainakote on the suburbs of Srinagar.
“We could not acquire it back as we lost the case in Supreme Court. He had given power of attorney to a local guy who is operating that unit now,” the then Managing Director, SICOP R.L. Tickoo, told Ziraat Times.
Noted industrialist and former President of Federation of Chamber of Industries, Kashmir(FCIK), Shakeel Qalander told Ziraat Times that before the onset of the armed struggle in Kashmir, Mallya‘s company indeed used to export hops from Kashmir, besides using the SICOP land for some production in Zainakote.
A renewed interest?
Interestingly, in 2009, during his visit to Kashmir, Vijay Mallya had created ripples in Kashmir when he had hinted that he would re-start hops cultivation in Kashmir.
It was a successful project, we produced the best quality beer from Kashmir hops and the then Kashmirgovernment had taken keen interest in the cultivation of hops, Mallya is reported to have said.
Observers believe that such a plan was never to materialise in today’s Kashmir. Moreover, Vijay Mallya‘s business collapse and the United Breweries’ major management changes were factors that would hardly make such thing happen again.
Interestingly, Walter Lawrence in his famous book “The Vale of Kashmir” mentions about the Hop cultivation in Kashmir.
“It is rash to pronounce any opinion on the future of the wine trade of Kashmir. The vineyards are under the direct management of the state, and in spite of supervision the vines do not receive the sedulous cultivation which alone can give success. The cultivators of the country have not taken up viticulture, and although Raja Sir Amar Singh and Diwan Amar Nath maintain vineyards and send their produce to the wine factory. I don’t think that the wine industry of Kashmirwill ever attain real importance until the villagers engage in vine-growing. The only market at present for the wines is Rinagar, as the long road carriage and the duties levied at the frontier make it difficult to land Kashmirwine in India at a moderate price; and, briefly, the business in present circumstances does not pay.”
“But hops, also introduced by Maharaja Ranbir Singh do pay, and the hop-garden at Dubgam below Sopur has within the last few years been reclaimed from the wilderness into which it had passed and yield a some return to the state. Eighty three acres were under hops in 1893, and the outturn amounted to 250 maunds. The soil of Dubgam is no way superior to that of the country surrounding it, and there is nothing to prevent a large extension of the area now under hoops. But as in the case of wine grapes so in the case of hops, the people have no taken up hop cultivation, and until some of the few wealthy landowners in Kashmirpay their attention to this most safe and profitable enterprise hop cultivation will remain in the hands of the state.”
And that seems to be an insightful commentary on the matter.