Traffic had snarled up a little before Rainawari and, as I turned my head up I sighted the flag. A 100-ft high Tricolour that had been hoisted just the day before atop Hari Parbat, the hill that dominates many parts of the Srinagar skyline.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, in an article on this hoisting of the national flag in “the virtual centre of Srinagar”, asserts his personal fascination with flags, especially in conflict areas. He writes of their “utility to enjoin people, trigger patriotic passion, simply strengthen bonds, even bring more dignity to a situation or charge up an environment.”
Anna Burns, in her perceptive novel, Milkman, on the troubles of Ireland offers her own perceptions on flags and emblems. She observes that “flags were invented to be instinctive and emotional _often pathologically, narcissistically emotional.” In her astute observations on the “psycho political atmosphere” of Northern Ireland, she explores the many nuances of allegiance and the way words, names, associations, emblems, even one’s appearance comes with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification. One character in the novel briefly questions the subsumption of one’s own sovereign, religious and national identity to “national self-gratifying connotations.”
Interestingly, the top of the hillock from where the flag flutters and which is meant to enjoin people and “bring dignity” has been out of bounds for Srinagar’s civilian population for decades. It has been occupied by the Indian army since the nineties. Residents recall how some form of army presence here dates way back to the time when the Indian troops first flew into Kashmir in 1946 just before the accession. Intertwined in the spatial histories and political architecture of this place are, therefore, many varied strands of affinities and allegiances that come laden with social, cultural, political or then religious associations.
According to folklore, the hillock, separated from the main Zabarvan range, was created after Devi Parvati took the form of a mynah, who rained down pebbles to rid the region of demons. One pebble grew massively to assume the form of Hari Parbat and this myth of the origin of Hari Parbat is what links it to the temple of goddess Sharika, a form of the goddess Durga, situated on the western slopes.
For Muslims the vicinity assumes significance because of the shrine on the southern slopes dedicated to the greatly venerated Sufi, Sheikh Hamza Makhdoomi.
For the Sikhs, the region is holy because Guru Gobind Singh spent some days here during his visit to Kashmir. One of Kashmir’s most important Gurdwaras, known as Chatti Patshahi, sited near the Kath-i-Darwaza, at the base of the hillock was built to commemorate that visit.
Atop the Hari Parbat, also known as Koh-e-Maran, are the Durrani fortifications built in 1808 by Atta Mohammad Khan, the Afghan governor. The construction of a fenced wall or kalai for city settlements was begun in 1590 by Mughul ruler Akbar for a new capital named Nagar Nagar. In July 1931 the fortress was utilized to incarcerate Sheikh Abdullah, G N Gilkar, Chaudhry Abbas and other Kashmiri leaders who were arrested during the people’s uprising against then Dogra rule.
My own introduction to this place came long before I visited Kashmir. I “saw” it through the lens of celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who travelled through India in 1947, a time when it was fraught with political transition from British colonial rule to partition and the creation of India and Pakistan.
His capture of groups of Muslim women at prayer atop Hari Parbat has become an iconic image. Curator Russel Lord observes: “Isolating the group of figures against the mountains, Henri Cartier-Bresson arrests the moment when one of the women reaches out, in a gesture of prayer that looks as if she is releasing the distant clouds into the air like doves, whilst the sun rises behind the Himalayas.”
Lord, adds Cartier-Bresson, never intended for his photographs to fully articulate their own contexts, rather his goal was to make pictures that convey a sense of humanism, beyond the facts that brought this image into being. “While this photograph may remain mute as to the social and political backdrop of its subjects, Cartier-Bresson’s intuitive attention to the alignment of elements in front of the camera results in a picture that is rich with suggestion.”
Shifting my gaze from the heights of Hari Parbat, richly replete in its layers of history, to ground level I saw many more flags fluttering. It was Muharram and the reds, yellows and blacks planted on the street served as a reminder of how Islam has traditionally used flags in its aniconism and to present denominations or religious orders.
The Alam Gardani, a ritual in which Shia mourners carry flags and banners to form a procession during the mourning of Karbala, a powerful performative act of remembrance of Islamic history.
Javaid Ali Kazmi, a Shia youth, who has participated in many of these processions, explained the religious, socio-political interpretations of these historical events, which Kashmiris say resonates in particular with them.
The life and death of Hussain ibn Ali in the battle of Karbala, lays emphasis on sacrifice, standing up for justice and staying steadfast to values that imbue the true spirit of Islam.
Hussain, who was the grandson of Prophet Mohammad and the third Imam, refused to instituitionalize rule by the Ummayds and would not swear his allegiance to Yazid bin Mu’awiya, as the Caliph. He believed Yazid lacked the necessary qualities of piety, justice and egalitarianism, so crucial for a leader of the Caliphate.
Invited by the people of Kufa in Iraq who were opposed to Yazid and wanted to stage a revolt, Hussain was enroute when he learnt of the executions and torture of his supporters. He urged those in his group to leave and not put their lives at risk. With a small army he proceeded to a camping place called Karbala, where tragically a huge contingent of Yazid’s army arrived and encircled them. The final confrontation was brutal as Hussain and his people were slaughtered.
Hussain’s gallant fight is seen as one for human dignity and honour. He is revered by Shias for standing his ground against the shifting tides, at a time when he could not get support from Mecca and Medina. At the root of the battle for disputing the succession of Yazid is dissent. Hussin’s defiance against the rule of tyranny and oppression and his sacrifice are invoked in processions and acquire contemporary overtones and relevance.
“In Kashmir there is Karbala almost every day,” is an oft repeated refrain. Over the years, especially after 2016, Muharram has increasingly been seen as an act of resistance in a troubled homeland. Every locality has its own procession and in some villages of Budgam people have sported badges of Mazloom Kashmir. (oppressed Kashmir). Other processions have carried banners of Free Kashmir.
A handful of short, powerful videos shot in this year’s Muhurram is indicative of how the quest for Kashmiri identity has assumed a particular relevance in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370.
“A time comes when you lose all hope, when you are tired, when force is used to crush you…you are scared of your identity, then Imam Hussain gives us hope. If you stand with justice and speak truth they can’t defeat you even if they kill you…. .” Such poems of remembrance and rhythmic chants and songs that are such a strong assertion of Kashmir’s culture, rang out on Ashura (the tenth day of mourning). It was an affirmation of how the past and present can be bridged.
The dominant colour during this commemoration is black. It is the universal colour of mourning, of protest and grief but red flags are also deployed to represent the passion and blood of martyrdom. Yellow is the flag of the Hezbollah of Lebanon and its presence in many processions indicates solidarity with Palestine.
The remembrances with flags, processions and many other traditions involving the community, including the strong presence of women, have become ways of staking claim or then reclaiming public space in times of majoritarian political and religious hegemonies.
A contestation for space and assertion of identity had just taken place at Lal Chowk, the throbbing nerve centre of Srinagar, where I was headed. On the night of August 7, the famed Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower here, was illuminated with the colours of the Tricolour by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation. Mayor Junaid Mattoo tweeted it was for the first time in the history of Srinagar.
Later, that same night the communities from the Shia neighbourhoods, following tradition put up a big black banner stretching right across the road just near the Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower with the proclamation of “Ya Hussain.” It was the first thing that caught my attention as I entered.
In these interstices of public spaces, collective memory and flag waving, it is worth recalling another first. How it was a red flag that had fluttered at Lal Chowk more than half a century ago: a red flag, that was different from the Muharram red. One that had given the Chowk its name and bore the influence of the Russian Revolution. It signalled a time when Kashmir was not left out of ideas of socialism and justice that were sweeping across the globe and is indicative of its vibrant political history that embraced many ideas.
Lal Chowk, or the Red Square, named in solidarity with the Russian revolution, came about because of the way Punjab’s Muslim Leftists had carved out space in Kashmir. BPL Bedi, father of actor Kabir Bedi and his English wife Freda Bedi, were among those who had considerable influence with Sheikh Abdullah and are credited with the drafting of the National Conference party’s “Naya Kashmir” manifesto.
It was Prem Nath Bazaz though, a left leaning Pandit who had first convinced Abdullah into thinking about a secular force to challenge Dogra rule. A momentous turn occurred in 1939 when the Muslim Conference that Abdullah had founded along with Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas and Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah, changed its name to the National Conference to reiterate a secular approach. Even though the Sheikh was attracted to Communist ideals, he never questioned the tenets of his faith as Nandita Haksar observes in her book, The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism.
Local Communists included Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, the ideologue for the National Conference, Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra who led and organized the underground movement, Niranjan Nath Raina who took on a prominent role in local trade union movement, journalist Motilal Mishri and many others.
It is believed that Sajad Haider and some comrades first unfurled a red flag at Lal Chowk. The National Conference flag that was later designed was a bright red with the white plough, meant to strike a chord with the Muslim peasantry.
It was this very flag fluttering on the bonnet of Rajni Palme Dutt’s car that so impressed this British journalist and doctrinaire of the Communist Part of Great Britain as he drove from Rawalpindi to Srinagar in 1946. His journey to Kashmir, during his four-month tour of India, came at the behest of a personal invitation by Sheikh Abdullah. By the time Palme Dutt reached Kashmir, the Sheikh was behind bars; jailed for his role in the mass peoples’ protest against Maharaja Hari Singh.
Writing for the Labour Monthly, Palme Dutt declared, “The People’s movement of Kashmir is the strongest and most militant of any Indian state….” He attended and wrote about the trial of Abdullah for The Daily Worker which proclaimed in its headline: “Kashmir Leader on Trial is Undeclared King.”
Events hurtled at great speed and shortly afterwards Abdullah was out of prison and catapulted into power. The fall of Baramulla in October 1947 to the forces of the Pashtun tribe from the North West Frontier, who had poured into Kashmir at the behest of the dissenting Muslims of Poonch, fearing slaughter, forced Hari Singh out of indecision. The arrival of Indian armed forces, hurried accession and then departure of Maharaja Hari Singh for Jammu created conditions under which Sheikh Abdullah staked his claim to pick up the reins of administration.
On October 26, 1947 the National Conference moved out of its Zaina Kadal premises and moved into Lal Chowk from where an Emergency Control Room was set up. It functioned out of the Kashmir Guest House and Punjab Muslim Hotel. Militias, largely comprising of National Conference volunteers including women, were created and they patrolled the streets in and around Lal Chowk and a parade of the militia was held.
Shortly after the Indian army had driven out most of the tribesmen, Pandit Nehru visited Kashmir and on November 13 huge crowds gathered at Lal Chowk where after unfurling the national flag he made his promise of a referendum.
The Sheikh responded by quoting Persian poet Amir Khusro. “Mun tu shudum tu mun shudi: Mun tun shudam tu jan shudi: Ta kas na goyad baad azeen, mun deegram, tu deeagray.” (You became me, and I became you, I am the body and you are the soul; henceforth, let nobody say we are separate from each other).
The actual spot that came to be known as Lal Chowk was in front of the Palladium cinema which had a circular podium with a flag post but these landmarks have since undergone considerable change.
Indeed, a remarkable transformation of space and identity has taken place from the days of Dogra rule when this area was a cremation ground or shamshan ghat, known as Kavuj Bagh. Noted satirist, poet and repository of local history, Zareef Ahmad Zareef shared some stories of this evolution of Srinagar’s vital hub, when I visited his home, which coincidently is situated on the slope leading to the Makhdoomi Saab shrine of Hari Parbat.
Kavuj Bagh, he said, was named after kavuj (many of whom were Muslims) or those who burnt the bodies. It came to be known as Court Road after the chief courts or Saddar Adaalats were set up under the rule of Maharaja Ranbir Singh who also initiated the compilation of civil and criminal laws under the Ranbir penal code. This penal code remained in force until the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019.
In 1877, an institution known as Adaalat ul Sudur (or High Court) was established and its powers defined. The administration of the present judicial system, began from the premises of the old High Court Building which also housed the Saddar Courts until the disastrous floods of 2014 forced them to shift out.
Zareef Ahmad Zareef recounts the interesting anecdote of how a legal luminary, when questioned about the choice of a cremation ground for situating the judicial institutions, replied that it would remind those dispensing justice that one day they too would be interred into the ground or turned to ashes but that acts of justice would live on.
The geographic location of Lal Chowk gave it a vantage position and it became the hub of Srinagar politically, economically and culturally. Commercial establishments flourished; according to Zareef Ahmad Zareef, it was the go-to place for people from Downtown if they had to purchase anything from a radio, to a cycle or then shoes for the bridegroom during wedding preparations.
The entry of the intellectuals and party workers saw a flourishing coffee house culture in Lal Chowk and also marked the introduction of “Lipton chai” in restaurants according to Zareef. Earlier Kashmiris drank only nunchai or salted tea but now restaurants began serving the Indian brew. Among the noted hotels and restaurants that sprang up in and around Lal Chowk were Ahdoos, frequented largely by bureaucrats and the legal fraternity and Lalla Sheikh established in 1890. Ahdoos is known to be the only hotel that did not down shutters in the troubled nineties and many national and international journalists huddled under its roof.
Lalla Sheikh, was the haunt of progressive writers like Dina Nath Nadim, Bansi Nirdosh, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Pran Jalal and others who would gather and hold animated discussions for hours on end. It was also reputed to be a favourite haunt of MA Jinnah during his Kashmir pre partition holidays, according to Altaf, one of the great grandsons of Lala Mohammad Sheikh, the founder of the eatery.
In the nineties, when the political winds shifted, it is said that Yaseen Malik, leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, who hails from neighbouring Maisuma would often order his tea from the restaurant.
Then there is Café Hollywood, whose distinctive logo of Charles Chaplin was designed by American visitors and which also lent its spaces for conversations, play readings and intellectual exchanges.
The Coffee Board which had set up a coffee house with dosas and coffee at affordable rates attracted students and others. Today the Khan News Agency operates from the same building and is still a place for social interactions. Its owner Hilal Ahmad Bhat is reputed to be the custodian of many tales and historical lore.
The cinema houses that flourished in and around Lal Chowk were also witness to events of history. The Palladium, which Agha Shahid Ali immortalized in his poem, was burnt in the nineties by militants because it housed CRPF troops. It still serves as a bunker.
In the summer of 1985 Regal Talkies, a popular cinema theatre in Lal Chowk, became the catalyst for a mini rebellion. There had been a distinct shift in mood from the heady days of the 1940s when the Sheikh had been hailed by huge crowds. Growing resentment against Sher e Kashmir as he was known for his capitulation in signing an accord with Indira Gandhi was stoked by the film Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn, directed by Mustafa Akkad. It depicted the life of the Libyan Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar who refused to surrender before Mussolini’s Italian army even though he is brought in chains.
One day, during the afternoon show of the film, the audiences, comprising largely of youths, angrily began raising slogans against Abdullah, berating him. They compared him to Mukhtar and stormed out where they were joined by students of the Sri Pratap school and college. Crowds marched towards Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower bringing down posters of the Lion of Kashmir. The stir, according to the confession of one activist in the media, was not entirely spontaneous but had been surreptitiously planned by students. The film was promptly banned by the administration from further viewings.
Cinema halls, also came under attack from another direction. They began receiving threats from a lesser- known Islamic militant outfit, known as Allah Tigers who said showing movies was un-Islamic. Regal Talkies shut down in 1999 when a bomb was hurled killing one person and injuring others.
In the turbulence of the nineties, one of the most devastating incidents to affect Lal Chowk was the huge fire on April 10, 1993. Some 59 houses, 190 shops, 53 stores and five commercial buildings besides two schools were gutted and four civilians were killed. The government blamed locals and the militants. However, according to the Human Rights Watch report, the fire was a huge act of arson and reprisal by the Border Security Forces. The report says that police officials and civilians testified how BSF personnel retaliated after some locals set fire to the Sandam Dharam Sabha that was abandoned by the BSF troops that morning.
Enraged troops took up position all over and began firing. Fires also broke out in various parts of Lal Chowk including the Standard Hotel which was separated from the Sandam Dharam Sabha. Some people who tried to flee the inferno in shikaras across the Jhelum were also shot. A number of bodies were recovered near the river but a report by All India cited an official as saying that a shikara, carrying a large number of people capsized in the river.
Lal Chowk Chalo. The slogan for many political processions or protest marches gathered momentum and Ghanta Ghar or the Clock Tower, became the destination point. It also evolved into a site of political contestations, even though it had at first been conceived and viewed as just an ordinary clock tower built by Bajaj electronics in the eighties. It began to assume importance only when Murli Manohar Joshi unfurled the flag here in 1992 and had to be hurriedly whisked away to safety shortly afterwards when a bomb was hurled by militants. Since then Ghanta Ghar has become the place where assertions of identity and political statements are sought to be made. People have made bids to plant various flags; and laid down many dares and challenges. No wonder then that during the 2019 siege it too was swathed in concertina wire to prevent any proclamations.
In Kashmir’s imaginary both Hari Parbat and Lal Chowk have etched out a very distinctive space. There is a constant tussle for affiliations, allegiances, associations. And yet some images endure. Like the women at prayer on Hari Parbat in Cartier-Bresson’s image. As for Lal Chowk , one abiding memory of mine dates back to October 2019. It is in the early half of the morning. Already shops are closed or half shuttered in deference to the hartal or shutdown that is part of the civil disobedience, following the siege. Soldiers parade in their show of strength, armoured vehicles stand by, there is ugly wire and concertina coils everywhere but totally oblivious to this an elderly Kashmiri woman is hunkered down, scattering grain, to the pigeons, doing what she has probably been doing for so many years of her life.