Every January in Kashmir, amid the bone-chilling cold, there is a perceptible increase in activity by security personnel. They set up more checkpoints and a larger number of vehicles are stopped and searched.
On January 26 every year, the streets of Srinagar are empty and few people venture out because of the traditional shutdown called by separatists. Mobile networks are suspended for security reasons.
This super-heightened state of security lasts approximately till noon, about the time the hum of celebrations in Srinagar’s Bakshi Stadium – an island of activity in a funereal city – die down.
Besides the Srinagar celebration, where all attendees must register themselves before hand to get passes, the day is also marked in isolated pockets within the Valley.
The state government subsequently declares that Republic Day has passed off peacefully, and security forces largely retreat to their pre-January state of alertness.
A ‘black day’ in Valley
January 26 is the day India adopted its Constitution, which guarantees each citizen’s right to life and personal liberty. Republic Day celebrates the Constitution. However, January is also the month in which Kashmir has witnessed a number of tragic events and incidents of violence.
It was on January 19, 1990, when Kashmir’s minority Hindu community began their exodus from the Valley after a night that reverberated with dire warnings. A few days later on Srinagar’s Gaw Kadal bridge, at least 50 civilians were killed by security forces. Four days later, security forces killed at least 26 more civilians in North Kashmir’s Handwara. Three years later, on January 6, 1993, in North Kashmir’s apple town of Sopore, Border Security Force personnel killed at least 55 civilians, burning down at least 250 shops and 50 residential houses, after separatists ambushed a patrol. The following year, on January 27, Army soldiers killed 27 civilians, allegedly for observing a shutdown a day earlier, on Republic Day. In 1998, militants killed 23 Kashmiri Pandits in Wandhama village of Ganderbal district on January 25.
This year, as in previous years, Kashmiri separatists have called for a black day on January 26.
“We have no animosity with India or its people and they have every right to celebrate Republic Day within its states,” said Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads a faction of the Hurriyat, in a statement issued on Tuesday. “But despite their rhetoric about democracy they have no ethical or constitutional right to celebrate this in Jammu and Kashmir as our democratic rights have been smashed and trampled [upon].”
In a video message, the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen has warned people attending Republic Day celebrations of “exemplary punishment”.
A different Kashmir
Arshia Malik, a blogger and teacher, who used to live close to Gaw Kadal, said that from her reading of history and photographs, large crowds attended Republic Day celebrations in Kashmir in the 1960s.
The following decade also saw robust celebrations in the Valley.
Rahul Jalali, a senior journalist, said that his fondest memories of growing up in Kashmir in the 1970s was of the huge Republic Day celebrations. That was a time when Kashmir was very different from what it is now, he said.
The crowds started thinning from the eighties, and post-1990, civilians started staying away from the celebrations, said Malik, who has moved out of Kashmir since.
Today, Republic Day celebrations in the Valley had “no moral ground given the statistics of half-widows, orphans, as well as mass graves found and documented by human rights groups”, said Malik.
She added: “As depicted beautifully in the movie Haider, almost an entire generation dead, disappeared, tortured, maimed, and clinically depressed does not mean the idea of India.”
David Devadas, journalist and author of In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir, said that Republic Day should be about celebrating and promoting the ideals of the Constitution.
“That is the content,” he said. “Parades are only form, and those forms can end up alienating people rather than including them if they’re seen to be insensitive.”
Devadas said that events like the Gaw Kadal massacre and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits were a “black mark on those constitutional values, which have not always been properly implemented”.
He added: “We cannot just depend on the state to do it. We the people must. This is not so much about parades and celebrations as about each of us committing ourselves afresh to those values…The values our Constitution upholds is what they achieved through their sacrifices.”
Sheikh Qayoom, a senior journalist, said that the unrest in the Valley compelled the state government to hold public displays such as parades in order to convey a sense of normalcy in the region.
“Ever since the accession of J&K to India these functions have always been held here,” he said. “We can, however, debate whether these are really people participative functions or not.”
Joshi, Modi in Lal Chowk
In 1992, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was in the Opposition, ended its national Ekta Yatra, or unity march, by hoisting the national flag in the Ghanta Ghar area of Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s main square.
This was the time militancy was rampant, and the participants, who had started out from Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India some 40-odd days earlier, were apprehensive about what awaited them in Kashmir.
According to a report on Newstrack, a video news magazine popular in the 1990s, a young Narendra Modi, then a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, backtracked on his earlier statement that all participants would proceed to the Valley by road. Security forces had warned the yatris that taking the road from Jammu into the Valley was dangerous because of the threat by militants. Claiming that a landslide had blocked the road, Modi eventually decided that a section of participants would take a flight into Srinagar, said the Newstrack report (starts from 7:06).
In order to facilitate the flag hoisting by BJP leaders in Srinagar amid the heightened threat of militancy, the entire Valley was kept under a strict curfew for two days before Republic Day that year.
When January 26 dawned, an anxious contingent led by Murli Manohar Joshi, surrounded by members of the administration and security forces, arrived at Lal Chowk for the ceremony. Much to the embarrassment of Joshi and Modi, who aided him, the flag pole broke in several places as they attempted to hoist it.
Joshi finally unfurled a flag that had previously been fixed on a makeshift flagpole set up by the Army in Lal Chowk. The contingent was then swiftly whisked away. The New York Times reported that Joshi and his team were in Lal Chowk for “exactly 11 minutes”.
Residents living near Gaw Kadal recalled being cooped up in their homes due to a stringent curfew and shoot-on-sight orders that year.
In the years that followed, paramilitary forces hoisted the national flag in the same square every year on January 26. But very few civilians participated, and all shops remained shut.
In 1993, Bakshi Stadium was attacked by militants to disrupt the Republic Day function. In 1995, multiple blasts rocked the Maulana Azad Stadium in Jammu during the Republic Day function, killing eight people.
Wajahat Habibullah, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer who served as the commissioner of Kashmir Division between 1990 and 1993, said that Republic Day and Independence Day are seen in Kashmir as days for people only in other parts of India to celebrate.
“[This has] stemmed from the failure of Kashmir to be allowed to benefit from the full application of democratic governance, which has been a dynamic, expanding concept in its application to the rest of India,” said Habibullah.
Jalali said that Kashmir had changed since his childhood in the Seventies. Kashmir has acquired a unitary identity, he said, adding that the turning point came in 1989.
“Overnight it changed and we are all suffering [since then], whether it is the people who live in Kashmir or the Pandits in exile,” he said. “A lot of Muslims who don’t call themselves exiled are living outside Kashmir too because they don’t see opportunity or a society conducive to their existence. We have lost Kashmir. That is the biggest tragedy.”