Lal Chowk Square in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir

Lal Chowk
Lal Chowk

Lal Chowk

Congress party spokespersons gave the explanation that they did not want to be a part of the “RSS agenda” when they decided not to hoist the Tricolor at Lal Chowk when Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra culminated in Srinagar. Instead, they chose to display it at the party headquarters. Now, a Tricolour is nearly always fastened to the top of the clock tower. The tower is coloured in the flag’s colours at night. Flying another Tricolour there would just amount to a “me too” at a place where the party and the country have tremendous symbolism stretching back 75 years.

In September 1946, a year before the Kashmir issue would rip open a fault line that still plagues India, Jawaharlal Nehru sought to identify the struggle for Kashmir’s freedom from Dogra control as inextricably tied to the Indian freedom movement.

The Kashmiri rulers are trying to put an end to their own people’s thirst for freedom just when India is on the approach of becoming independent. They are completely unaware of this. A true people’s movement can never be put down in this manner, much less when India is herself overthrowing foreign rule. The narrative will continue until it comes to its logical conclusion, which can only be Kashmir’s establishment of freedom within the greater framework of an independent and free India. (Andrew Whitehead, “The Rise and Fall of New Kashmir,” Kashmir: History, Politics, and Representation, Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Prior to that, the NC itself had not given much thought to this issue, as Whitehead points out, even in New Kashmir, its 1944 party manifesto with Soviet influences that outlined its goals for the state. No other political party in the area had one at the time, and it was this manifesto that served as the foundation for many of the progressive policies that the state underwent under his administration.

Although the NC document makes no mention of Pakistan or India and seems to be predicated on the idea that J&K is an independent state with its own national identity and operates under a constitutional monarchy, Jinnah’s advocacy for a separate state for Muslims was only beginning to gain traction at the time.

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Only two years later, the NC would launch its Quit Kashmir campaign against the Dogra kings, but it was still unclear which side to support.

Maharaja Hari Singh authorised J&K’s admission to India in October 1947, after Pakistani tribesmen penetrated the princely state ahead of the Pakistani army. As a result, Sheikh Abdullah was officially placed in command of the state as the head of an interim administration. The National Conference politician was imprisoned by the Dogra ruler in May 1946 for supporting the effort to end the monarchy in Kashmir, but he was freed in September 1947 when the Maharaja lost control of the state’s activities.

The first India-Pakistan conflict was formally declared over by Nehru and Abdullah in 1948 at Lal Chowk. While they were battling the Pakistani invasion, the NC militias gave Lal Chowk the moniker Red Square after Moscow. In particular, B.P.L. “Baba” Bedi, a member of the Communist Party of India, and his wife Freda Bedi, who are the parents of the actor Kabir Bedi, had a significant effect on the NC. Lal Chowk is claimed to have derived its name from them.

They are not mentioned in a report from November 8, 1947, in the Times of India, which nonetheless captures the occasion: “The National Conference crimson flag… decorates every public building in the city. Workers and regular citizens congregate under the enormous red flag flying from a tall mast in the city’s central centre, now known as “Red Square,” at all hours of the day to hear the latest war updates and trade political rumours. Whitehead cited in Zutshi (2017)

Abdullah quoted Amir Khusro’s lovely couplet to express Kashmir’s union with India when India’s Prime Minister raised the tricolour there in 1948, giving the realpolitik of the time a poetic flourish that has not been matched to this day: Tu mann shudam, mann tu shudi, taqas na gyed, mann degram, tu degari (I became you, and you became I, no one can say we are separate).

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Of fact, Nehru also pledged to hold a referendum there, but in politics, a week is a long time, and Kashmiris view Nehru’s broken pledge as the first major betrayal. Then, in 1949, as the Cold War took hold and that particular round of the Great Game played out in this region of the world, Nehru first persuaded Abdullah to let Baba Bedi, who held no official positions within the J&K administration but served as an advisor, to step down. Abdullah would be imprisoned for treason in the Kashmir conspiracy case four years later.

Over the years, Lal Chowk became increasingly important to the politics of and surrounding Kashmir. A mob that was protesting the alleged theft of a sacred relic from the Hazratbal Shrine in 1963 while Ghulam Mohammed Bakshi was the chief minister turned the area into a violent battleground. After the war of 1971 and the independence of Bangladesh, Abdullah was at peace with the new geopolitics of South Asia and returned to the same place in 1975 to explain his agreement with Indira Gandhi to a large gathering. He had previously talked so movingly on Kashmir’s unity with India.

The Palace, which once served as Lal Chowk’s primary landmark, may be seen in the background of pictures taken at the historic Nehru-Abdullah rally there. A large poster of Sheikh Abdullah was torn down in 1985 at Lal Chowk by a group of young people who had just left the theatre after seeing the 1981 Anthony Quinn-starring film The Lion of the Desert, which was about the Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar who fought the Italian colonial rulers. At the time, public apathy in Kashmir was high and the first signs of militancy were already in the air. The state had to impose a ban on the film.

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Following the emergence of militancy, the “conquest” of Lal Chowk by various parties to the conflict came to represent Kashmir as a whole, turning it into a battleground for militants and security forces.

M K Mattoo, a contributor to the J&K daily Early Times, recalls that in 1990, militants who had held the square placed a colour television set there and made a wager that whomever raised the national flag there would win the television. He said the NSG commandos won the competition, and the TV was kept on display in their mess for many years. Lal Chowk is referred to by Mattoo as Kashmir’s “political soul.”

In 1992, the BJP threw its support behind the campaign, sending veteran leader Murli Manohar Joshi on an Ekta Yatra to Kashmir with the specific goal of flying the Tricolor at Lal Chowk. Joshi successfully raised the flag in the square on his day off. A young Narendra Modi and other BJP members, according to Mattoo, “walked gently” into the chowk while being guarded by many layers of security, “quickly unfurled” the flag, and were then “bundled into bullet proof automobiles” and hastily driven out of the area.

Raising the Tricolor there has been viewed as a courageous display of patriotism in the wake of Lal Chowk being “occupied ” by demonstrators at various points in time. However, over four years after the government repealed Article 370 on August 5, 2019, and implemented a severe crackdown to make sure no one would object, the area no longer has the same tense atmosphere. It sounds more bold that the Congress chose to raise the flag at its party office with the obvious undertone that it still has supporters in the state.

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