In the heart of Lal Chowk, Srinagar on a Friday morning (20th April, 2012), the Palladium Cinema bunker was dismantled in the presence of J&K Minister of State for Home and the Director General of J&K Police (DGP). This bunker-removing exercise was portrayed in the media as a ‘Peace Dividend’ for Kashmir. While this removal surely did give more space to the local market, but this move was seen merely as a symbolic one in the greater context of Kashmir. In reality, the CRPF personnel from the bunker were only shifted a few meters away to the garrisoned Akhara building; there was no move to decrease the footprint of the security forces per-se in the valley. Soon it was learnt that even though the bunker had been removed, the area would continue to be under the vigil of CRPF mobile bunkers, a police post likely to replace the bunker.
Lal Chowk being the virtual centre of Srinagar city, this particular bunker occupied one of the most precious pieces of real estate in Kashmir. During decades of conflict, the Lal Chowk bunker also became a primary target for scores of militant attacks, a ‘red tag for the matador’ of sorts. Most often, these militant attacks at Lal Chowk were dared for the news value of such acts. This town square often seen as a political epicenter of Kashmir, many mass protest marches would be aimed towards Lal Chowk, and more often than not, Lal Chowk would be sealed by the authorities to thwart them, strict curfew in place. Such was the focus on Lal Chowk because this place had been pivotal in the contemporary history of Kashmir, having seen major events of Kashmir being played here.
Lal Chowk, named such after the ‘Red Square’ by some young Kashmiris in the autumn of 1947, inspired by the Russian revolution. The ‘Russian Revolution’ was then seen to have been fought against the same issues of ‘rights of tillers, poverty and deprivation of the working class and the unending oppressions by the Landlords ‘Jaagirdaars’’. The ‘aristocracy and feudalism’ in Kashmir pre 1947 was equally (or more) oppressive as in the times of the Russian Tsar; hence many of these Kashmiri youth were drawn by influences of the Russian Revolution.
At the same Lal Chowk, on 2nd November, 1947, the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru addressed a large gathering of Kashmiris accompanied by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and promised, “The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people. We have given that pledge and Maharaja (Hari Singh) has 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”. This speech (among other instances of promises by India) has often been referred to by Kashmiris as ‘India’s repeated betrayal’. Although during the period of militancy, Lal Chowk became the symbolic ‘destination point’ for most incidents, political or militant, this town square had its brush with other major events before the onset of insurgency in Kashmir.
Post 1947, the first Emergency Administration of Jammu and Kashmir set up its operational office here at Lal Chowk (Palladium Cinema, on October 1947). The square outside the Palladium Cinema was the original Lal Chowk, used in later years for major political rallies. Even the 1975 Indira – Abdullah Accord, that ended decades of political wilderness of Sheikh Abdullah, also seen as a watershed in the political history of Kashmir, was announced from this square (Lal Chowk) by him.
In later years, the main podium outside Palladium Cinema was demolished, and a clock tower was built at a distance on the square near Biscoe School, erasing all existence of the original ‘Town Square’ of Lal Chowk. The Lal Chowk clock tower by ‘Bajaj’ came up in 1980, a clock which ironically displayed no time most of the time, reflecting the ‘frozen in time’ tragedy of Kashmir.
Lal Chowk saw one of the mass arson attempts by the Army, decades before militancy had set in Kashmir. On 26th July, 1980, Lal Chowk is reported to have been subject to widespread looting and attacks on civilians by a contingent of the Army. It was seen in retaliation to a scuffle near TRC, after an Army driver had hit a civilian. At Lal Chowk, anybody that the Army could lay hands upon were abused and thrashed, including some Kashmiri police officers. Some people even alleged that the Army had brought along petrol to set Lal Chowk on fire. Sheikh Abdullah is reported to have addressed people at Lal Chowk the next day and condemned the incident. An inquiry was ordered and consigned to the dust.
On January 26th, 1992, among unprecedented security, the BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi was flown to a curfewed Srinagar to unfurl the Tricolor at Lal Chowk. The national highway had been closed the previous day citing ‘landslides’, while the city was sealed under a curfew. In spite of the huge security arrangements and a strict curfew in place, the militants managed to fire rockets and gunfire towards the venue, which fell short of target, a rocket landing just meters away from the venue. And under the same security cover, Murli Manohar Joshi was escorted out, minutes after the flag hoisting ceremony. Seen as an exercise by the BJP to garner political space and votes in India, the BJP ‘declared victory’ at Lal Chowk, in a curfewed Kashmir.
A flag hoisting that could hardly change the status of Kashmir, was aimed to convey a political statement to Kashmiris. In the later years, in 2011, the BJP again attempted such a ‘yatra’, the state government promptly denying them permission to land at Lal Chowk.
Some of the biggest scars on Lal Chowk are from the April 10, 1993 arson of the town square by the BSF, after one of their abandoned buildings had been burnt. HRW (Human Rights Watch) 1993 report points at people attempting to flee the burning buildings that were found bolted from the outside (reportedly among the buildings burnt were about 260 shops and 50 residential homes). The report further stated, “Jammu & Kashmir police officers reported that the BSF commanders forbade them from helping the trapped civilians escape, saying ‘let them burn’, and even fired on them as they attempted to rescue trapped civilians”. Many lives were lost in the arson, while from the Jhelum River alone, 16 bullet ridden bodies are reported to have been recovered. The Palladium Cinema was reduced to rubble in this blaze, and continues to bear the marks of that tragedy till date.
In October 2008, Kashmir valley witnessed more than 50 hours of curfew, following a call by the separatist leaders to march towards Lal Chowk, to protest against the continuation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir. Lal Chowk remained totally barricaded and sealed to thwart the march. This ‘Lal Chowk Chalo’ march had been deferred earlier by separatists, in view of the holy month of Ramazan, after August month had been witness to unprecedented imposition of curfew by the state authorities. Five persons were also reported to have been killed when security forces fired on curfew defying protestors, who aimed to march towards Lal Chowk (Economic Times, 26th August, 2008).
On Eid day of September 11th, 2010, thousands of Kashmiris marched to Lal Chowk, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik. The huge protest march culminating into Lal Chowk took the administration by surprise. Later, arson in the PDD and state crime branch building was blamed by the state on these protestors. Pertinently, both these offices had high perimeter walls, situated in the high security zone just opposite the state High Court and close to the state secretariat.
Lal Chowk has been the center stage to major political events of Kashmir, and it is this symbolism that the militant attacks, flag hoistings and mass marches have been trying to score over. Irrespective of all the ‘in security’ flag hoistings or ‘barricaded and thwarted’ marches, none of these events have been able to break the status quo in Kashmir. At best, such acts have been aimed at making political statements, trying to score a point. Presently, Lal Chowk has been transformed by raising a stone and concrete ‘park’ at the site, which has eaten upon spaces and narrowed traffic lanes around it. Many see this as an attempt to demolish the remnants of the historical Lal Chowk. By changing the physical characteristics of Lal Chowk, the connections of Lal Chowk to the past historical rendezvous will not be cut off.
In spite of the many convenient political dissections that have been experimented on it, Lal Chowk shall always remain a historical milestone, not just any other town square.