Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah in Srinagar in 1948 (Photo: Alamy)
ON JANUARY 29, ON the last leg of his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi unfurled the Indian national flag at Lal Chowk, the main market square in Srinagar, Kashmir. It was done under a tight security cover, with the entire area sealed off. Since the repeal of Article 370 in August 2019, the sight of the Tricolour has been quite normalisedintheValley. Still, theCongress event marks a change in the attitude of non-BJP political parties (and those allied to it), who have largely desisted from identifying themselves with the nationalist cause in Kashmir.
For years, Lal Chowk itself has remained a symbol of the Western media’s lopsided representation of Kashmir, with its exaggerated depiction of concertina wire and the Valley’s portrayal as one of the world’s most militarised zones. Though Rahul Gandhi distanced himself from BJP’s position on Kashmir, he unfurled the flag calling it a promise made to India. Later, during a press conference, Gandhi acknowledged how his family left Kashmir to settle in Allahabad and how he felt that he was now making a reverse journey.
With this unfurling, the Indian national flag’s journey in Kashmir has sort of come full circle. It was 75 years ago that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru—Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather—stood roughly at the same spot with Kashmir’s tallest leader, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The year was 1948 and the war against Pakistan had been won. As the flag was hoisted, Nehru climbed on a table serving as a makeshift podium and spoke about Kashmir’s union with India. He recited a Persian couplet to mark the occasion: “Tu mann shudam, mann tu shudi, taqas na goyad, mann degram tu degri/I became you and you became me, and no one can say we are separate.”
The union of Kashmir with India had almost not happened. A year earlier, in 1947, a few months after India attained independence and was divided into India and Pakistan, the latter had sent tribesmen aided by its army regulars to annex Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir’s Maharaja then signed the Instrument of Accession with India, paving the way for the Indian forces to land in Srinagar.
The city was saved by a whisker. Some area was lost, but the rest of Kashmir, under the influence of the Sheikh, chose to stay with India. As the war ended, with Nehru’s blessings, the Sheikh took over Kashmir which was accorded a special status.
But this bonhomie was short-lived. The Sheikh changed gears quickly and, as a result, had to be imprisoned by Nehru. In the meantime, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh had started a movement against the special status of Kashmir. Rising against it and calling for one flag (since Kashmir was accorded its own), the party’s Syama Prasad Mookerjee defied prohibitory orders and was arrested on the Punjab-Jammu border. He died in custody.
By the early 1960s, the anti-India sentiment in Kashmir ran high. A secret communication from the office of the British Deputy High Commission in Calcutta, dated July 24, 1965, quotes a local man, G Nayeem, who had visited Kashmir and had reported (to the British) that the Indian Army is so despised there that there have been assaults on individual soldiers, forcing them to venture out only in groups. The letter quotes Nayeem saying that a favourite sport among the Kashmiri (Muslims) was “rolling boulders downhill at army convoys on mountain roads.” The man also referred to an incident in Srinagar when an Indian official expressed concern over the sight of Pakistani flags atop some buildings in Srinagar but was told that these were Islamic flags.
In the 1980s, the burning of the Tricolour and hoisting of the Pakistani flag became a normal feature in Kashmir. By the end of 1989, as armed insurgency broke out in the Valley, the Pakistani flags and the flags of terrorist organisations (like JKLF) took over along with graffiti saying “Indian dogs go back”.
In 1992, as BJP was gaining popularity, the party decided to change the status quo by going to Kashmir and unfurling the flag there. On the senior leadership’s call, around 50,000 people landed in Jammu, led by BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi. Though many of them were ignorant about Mookerjee, the workers invoked his name with the slogan: “Jahan hue balidan Mukherjee, wo Kashmir humara haiwo hai/Where Mukherjee was martyred, that Kashmir is ours.”
In the end, only 70 people made it to Lal Chowk under heavy security.
The unfurling of the national flag turned into a spectacle. The pole of the flag snapped in the middle and Joshi’s bearded deputy, who was also the coordinator of the yatra, had to tie it with a handkerchief to keep it erect.
This deputy paved the way for the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019.
After 1992, BJP made another attempt in 2011 to turn the unfurling of the flag into a political event. But it was thwarted, and many senior leaders, including Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, were arrested for violating prohibitory orders.
After August 2019, the Tricolor was pressed extensively by the government as part of its muscular policy. Initially, it would be hoisted or unfurled by people who saw a certain political promise with BJP, trying to gain some mileage out of it. In some of these events, people would be caught on camera, either with covered faces or with their heads down, to evade being identified. Such open love for the Indian symbol could mean death.
The process gained momentum with the government pushing its Har Ghar Tiranga campaign in Kashmir on a massive scale. The Army took it up big time, and a huge flag was put atop the Shankaracharya Hill, visible from everywhere in Srinagar. It was followed by a 100-foot-tall flag in Kashmir’s Gulmarg. Last year, a 150-foot-tall flag was hoisted in the deeply radicalised Shopian area in south Kashmir, making it the tallest flag in the state. In 2021, on India’s Independence Day, social media went viral with a video of the slain terrorist commander Burhan Wani’s father hoisting the flag in the government school where he teaches. Tiranga rallies were held under the aegis of the local administration in every district.
Last year, Kashmiri politician Mehbooba Mufti accused the Modi government of forcing people in Kashmir to hoist it or face consequences. It was after BJP’s young MP Tejasvi Surya unfurled the flag at Lal Chowk in July, enroute to Kargil to celebrate India’s victory in the Kargil War of 1999.
Now, since the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan is running full-house in the new cinema hall that has opened recently in Kashmir after three decades, one hopes that it becomes a normal feature in a state torn by violence. Maybe it’s time the sight of the national flag was not seen as something extraordinary.