Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lal Chowk freed!

M Ashraf
For the first time in last 19 years no flag was hoisted by Paramilitary in Lal Chowk. If they have called it a day, the other side too needs to respect the truce! M Ashraf The historical square named after the Red Square of Moscow by BPL Bedi, the author of Naya Kashmir, had become a bone of contention between the security forces and militants during last two decades. After the first flag hoisting by Murli Manohar Joshi of BJP in early nineties, the paramilitary forces had made it a point to hoist the National flag with big fanfare on every Republic/Independence Day. The ritual had no official sanction but was just a continuance of BJP agenda by the paramilitary. At the time of the first hoisting the entire valley had to be put under siege. In spite of the strictest security measures, militants were able to fire some rockets towards the venue of flag hoisting. In fact, over last few years some confusion has been created about the exact spot known as Lal Chowk. In reality, it is the spot in front of Palladium Cinema. It used to have a circular podium which had a flag post, which used to carry the State Flag.
Later on a clock tower was built near the Tyndale Biscoe School. The flags have always been hoisted at this spot. The original podium at the place of the true Lal Chowk has been totally erased. Lal Chowk has been a historical spot for Kashmiris’ struggle for freedom. About 63 years back Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru embraced Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah at this place. Sheikh Abdullah recited a Persian verse, "Man tu shudam, tu man shudi; Ta Kas na Goyed, man degeram tu degeri" It can be translated as: "I became you and you became I; so none could say you are separate from me".......... Nehru gave a pledge to a mammoth gathering of Kashmiris that they would be free to decide their future. Incidentally, the official website of J&K Government carries photographs of this gathering and reproduces Pandit Nehru’s words, “India will never let down Kashmir!” In regard to all the political movements in Kashmir Lal Chowk is the emotional and sentimental heart of the valley. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah must have addressed dozens of rallies at this spot. All the national and international dignitaries who have visited Kashmir from time to time have been taken to this spot. It has the same importance for Kashmir as the Red Square has for Russia. It figures in every historical epoch connected with Kashmir since 1947. There used to be frequent peaceful rallies at the spot. During the peak of militancy it had become probably the most violent town centre in the world. This was because of some paramilitary bunkers located around the spot. These were the prime targets of militant grenade attacks. These attacks were more done for media mileage than to cause any major harm. Any news about trouble in Lal Chowk would get instant coverage through all channels. In most of the incidents, the greatest sufferers have been innocent civilians caught in the cross fire. While as the struggle for dominance of the spot has carried on between the opposing parties, it has in the meantime, become the business hub of Srinagar. A number of hotels frequented by tourists and businessmen are located here. Before 1990, all rallies by different political parties as well social organisations were mostly held in Lal Chowk. Because of militancy, the venue of all public rallies organised by the mainstream parties had been changed to Sher-i-Kashmir Park. This is a better manageable place for security agencies. It can be easily cordoned off and sanitised. There have been violent incidents even here but the collateral damage has been minimal. Similarly, the opposite camp has also preferred to hold their gigantic rallies in Eid Gah. That place can accommodate massive crowds without any problem. Lal Chowk came again into limelight during 2008 Amarnath and Muzaffarabad Chalo agitation. After massive rallies in Tourist Centre Grounds, and Eid Gah, a call was given for Lal Chowk Chalo. The Government became panicky and virtually Lal Chowk was hijacked. It was put under complete cordon and the whole valley was put under “undeclared” curfew. This gave the opposite camp an easy handle to embarrass the government. Every time they wanted the valley to be put under siege, they would give a “Lal Chowk Chalo” call. The government panicked every time and prevented a massive gathering in this historic Chowk. They were scared and unnerved by the massive marches for “Azadi” during those days. Having a similar gathering at this spot where India’s greatest leader had given a promise to Kashmiris may have been a huge embarrassment. It would be a total reversal of history. However, this repressive measure put Lal Chowk in more limelight and resulted in many militant attacks. The last one which took place very recently resulted in the destruction of a hotel apart from the human loss. The stoppage of flag hoisting on the plea that it was not an official function appears to be an admission by the government that dominance of civilian areas by paramilitary is not the correct path to peace. Such actions have only acted as a red rag to the bull! It vindicates Kalhana’s contention in Raj Tarangni that Kashmiris cannot be subdued by the force of arms. The measures of neutralising Lal Chowk as a battle field need to be taken to the logical end by totally demilitarising the spot. In addition, the procedure needs to be repeated for all civilian areas, especially the popular shopping and business centres. The other side should also not take it as their victory. The main consideration for the action seems to have been the promise of demilitarisation given to the local people following their threat of an indefinite shut down of all markets in the area because of harassment during the recent encounter. For a change it may be worthwhile to declare Lal Chowk as a zone of peace and allow it to function as a tourism and business hub. One may get the feeling that the Lal Chowk has been finally “set free” but it will be so only when both sides honour the tacit truce. Common people surely deserve some respite in the unending atmosphere of turmoil and uncertainty. They are pinning for peace. Will they get it? Well, that surely is a million dollar question!

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