Why Kashmir's Lal Chowk is an eyewitness to wretched political history since 1947

The Ghanta Ghar located in the city centre is also a witness to a lot of bloodshed and violence for the past 26 years.

 |  5-minute read |   13-08-2015
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Many historians agree that Kashmir's Lal Chowk (Red Square) was named after the renowned Red Square of Moscow by a Sikh leftist intellectual BPL Bedi, the author of Naya Kashmir. Bedi, father of famous Indian film actor Kabir Bedi, was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's close confidant. And Naya Kashmir was an important constitutional framework for Jammu and Kashmir under autocratic Dogra Maharaja Hari Singh's rule.

Those days, historians say, Punjabi and Muslim leftists had a reasonable influence on Kashmir's polity. According to one historian, the actual spot which came to be known as Lal Chowk was in front of Palladium cinema. It used to have a circular podium which also had a flag post, and the original podium stands erased.

At a later stage, a clock tower was built in front of the Valley's well-known missionary school, Tyndale Biscoe.

The Ghanta Ghar or the famous Clock Tower located in city centre, Lal Chowk, is an eyewitness to Jammu and Kashmir's wretched political history since 1947. It is also a witness to a lot of bloodshed and violence for the past 26 years. That way, Lal Chowk is an appropriate name.

Many politicians have made fiery and passionate speeches at Ghanta Ghar, some made promises and pledges of plebiscite while others hoisted flags of either India or Pakistan to make a political statement, sometimes for mere symbolism and rhetoric.

It was at Srinagar's Lal Chowk that India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the Indian national flag (tricolour) in 1948.

Interestingly, it is the same place where he promised Kashmir is a referendum to choose their political future.

On November 2, 1947, Nehru said and made a pledge: "The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people. We have given that pledge and Maharaja (Hari Singh) had supported it. It is not only a pledge to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not, and cannot back out of it."

Yet it is the same place where Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah showered immense praise and displayed love for his bosom friend, Pandit Nehru, while reciting poet Khusro's Persian couplet:

Mann Tu Shudam, Tu Mann Shudi

Mann Tann Shudam, Tu Jan Shudi

Ta Kas Na Goyad Baad Azee'in, Mann Digaram, Tu Digari.

("I became you, and you I

I became your body, and you my soul

So none can say, we are separate.")

Four decades later, the then president of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Murli Manohar Joshi came to Lal Chowk to unfurl India's tricolour atop the famous Clock Tower (Ghanta Ghar) on January 26, 1992, India's Republic Day.

As a matter of routine which has ironically become a norm since 1989 on India's Republic Day (January 26) and Independence Day (August 15), the local Kashmiri population is caged inside homes and people's movement restricted by fortified security arrangements, and concertina and barbed wires.

With anti-India armed rebellion at peak in Kashmir in 1992, Joshi had to be whisked away in haste when a rocket fired by militants landed only few meters away from the Ghanta Ghar.

Since then, the armed forces continue to unfurl the tricolour on India's R-Day and I-Day though it is not officially mandatory to do so.

Since 1989 it has become politically very symbolic to hoist flags atop Ghanta Ghar, more particularly after Murli Joshi's 1992 experiment. Many politicians and activists have visited Lal Chowk with a desire in their hearts to hoist Tricolour or the Green flag atop Clock Tower, depending on which side of the political divide they represent and bear allegiance to.

More recently, some Kashmiri youth hoisted the Pakistani flag atop the Ghanta Ghar during the popular wave of anti-India demonstrations in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In this relation, some videos have also been posted on YouTube.

Do such flag hoisting acts mean anything apart from symbolism, muscle power and machoism? Do these acts strengthen competing and contradictory nationalisms?

I vividly recall what Arun Jaitley after participating in Narendra Modi's Lalkaar rally in Jammu in 2013 wrote in his blog.

"Jammu and Kashmir's integration with India is an essential part of the ideology of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and now the BJP," he wrote.

Suggesting that Article 370 has given rise to "separatism" in Kashmir, Jaitley blamed the Nehruvian vision: "The Nehruvian vision of a separate status has given rise to aspirations for the pre-1953 status, self-rule and even azaadi. The desire of proponents of these three ideas has weakened the constitutional and political relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of the country."

The BJP leader believes that Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee's vision of Jammu and Kashmir's complete integration with India is ideal. But can that desired integration be achieved with coercion? Can that integration be achieved without showing any respect to the ground realities rooted in history and context?

Meanwhile, India's 69th Independence Day is approaching. Security around Lal Chowk has been beefed up a week before. Fortified security arrangements are in place to ensure I-Day parade at Srinagar's Bakshi Stadium. Common people are being frisked on a daily basis; lives of students is being put to risk by making it mandatory for them to perform in Aug 15 parades, Kashmiris are facing a lot of inconvenience in the name of security on India's I-Day, and expecting women and their families face a lot of trouble because Lal Ded Hospital is located near Bakshi Stadium.

Does anyone care to think that such acts done with an apparent aim to strengthen nationalism end up alienating people further? Do you need to make people respect the flag through force and compulsion? Why is inconvenience and force a prerequisite to the idea of nationalism?

On this August 15 too, Kashmir's Lal Chowk will remain deserted. There will be concertina wires and barbed wires. Security personnel will be guarding every single inch. But there will be no people to accompany them to raise the flag atop the clock tower whose hands will quietly keep ticking and recording yet another chapter of history!

Writer

Gowhar Geelani Gowhar Geelani @gowhargeelani

The writer is a journalist, columnist and analyst.

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