SRINAGAR: India’s Independence Day may no longer bring in harsher military restrictions yet it continues to be a “consensus shutdown” in Kashmir. Not any years ago, the day would haunt Waheed, a 29-year-old Kashmiri used to sell provisions near the heavily fortified Bakhshi Stadium in Srinagar, before his shift to his present homecare business. Due to security restrictions put in place before August 15th, when the state government celebrates India’s “tryst with destiny”, Waheed used to open his provisions store late in the mornings and close down before dusk.
Now, Waheed lives far away as the road has been widened, removing his home as well the shop. But he still recalls the horror the Independence Day would bring with it. “We would be prisoners a week ahead of the main event on August 15th. In the afternoon of the 14th, we would even think of any business. Troops would take positions at the rooftop of our house. It was simply no business for two days,” recounts Waheed.
The state government, which supports Kashmir’s largely disputed accession to India in 1947, has all along been organizing flag-hoisting ceremonies and armed parades across the state on the eve of India’s I Day. However, even after sixty-seven years of accession to Indian Union, a visible disconnect between the Kashmiri people and the Indian state continues to render the I Day celebrations in Kashmir to a mere security drill.
Local elders from Haft Chinar, Sarai Bala and Wazir Bagh recall the peace days when the disgruntled youth would try to sabotage the show with little violence.
Waheed’s grandfather Muhammad Saleem says, “I was a young boy in 1967. I still remember the incident when the local pro-India parties had managed a small gathering of local people in Bakhshi Stadium. Some youth stormed the venue and hurled a homemade petrol bomb. There was stone pelting and I saw tear-smoke shells flying wildly. It was chaos. The Police beat up people indiscriminately. There were random arrests and my aunty forced me to go underground lest I should be rounded up.”
Saleem depressingly compares his boyhood memories to the miseries his grandson has encountered in past decade. “Then,” he adds, “The degree of fear was less. At worst, we could expect an arrest. Now it is the total reverse. You never know what will happen before this day. Now there is an armed movement going on. There are unlimited powers for hundreds of thousands of Indian armed forces to arrest, kill or torture anybody they suspect.”
Waheed was born in 1985, when Kashmir was raging with an armed uprising, which had evoked a brute response from Indian armed forces.
“I don’t know why the government puts so much into this (Independence Day parade) when people continue to boycott it. They should do something that ensures people’s willing participation. That would at least relieve us from all this,” Waheed fumes.
The recent government circular making it mandatory for all state employees to attend the August 15th function along with their subordinates, appears to be the official acknowledgment of Kashmir’s political situation.
Bakhshi Stadium falls in the heart of Srinagar. It remains awe inspiring while the state prepares for I Day. It involves a multi-tier security set up with all roads, leading to the venue, blocked days ahead of the ceremony. The deserted three-mile strip leaves the press photographers’ with limited choices.
Mubashir Khan a local photojournalist says, “When I choose to cover the preparations, I always want to capture life around the Stadium but it is always missing. Then, I decide to have a soldier in the foreground so that I am not dubbed as graveyard photographer.”
A top security official that the security paraphernalia around the venue had been necessitated by repeated militant strikes. “Few years ago, militants had planted a solar rocket there. It did not cause damage yet it was a question mark on security. We have to be doubly sure.” About the repeated cordon and search operations, the official says that the measures were aimed at providing security to the people.
Civil Society members continue to resent various forced events. Besides loathing celebrations across the state, Sumaya Qadri, a young social activist resents the way Indian paramilitary forces hoist the Indian flag in the City’s central market, Lal Chowk. She says, “This is broadcasted on TV. We see armored vehicles, guns and sandbags. The only human presence there is of the uniformed soldiers. What is the fun? Do they want to convey that they have conquered us? This will give a wrong message. It is provocative. If India is swearing by the peace, such measures are a bad advertisement of this claim.”
Top security officials insist that the armed militants find it a handy opportunity to make news. “They want to become heroes by attacking the Independence Day parade. They have made bids in the past. There was a bomb blast in Jammu (Kashmir’s winter capital) in which the then Governor had a close shave with death. If militants don’t strike now it is because of proper arrangements we put in place.”
Separatist politicians have been calling for a total strike on August 15th ever since the armed insurgency broke out in 1989.
Many here believe that the separatists hardly need to sponsor a strike for the war-like security measures that throw life on Aug 15 completely out of gear.
Observers perceive that the Indian Independence Day in Kashmir is a grim reminder of the world’s oldest disputes craving for attention. After more than six decades of uncertainty and of late two decades of violence, armed resistance forces and Indian security forces remain tied down in an unending “war for victory”.
“Militants could not secure Kashmir even after 17 years of armed resistance. Indian rule continues to suffer the crisis of credibility, even after sixty years. New Delhi has a firmer control over Kashmir now yet it lacks legitimacy and every year the preparations for August 15th provide a bitter reminder,” said a top pro-India leader who did not wish to be quoted by name
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