Bad Times?

In the last 40 years, the Kashmir government changed three sets of clocks on Srinagar’s landmark Ghanta Ghar, but none of them ever exhibited the real-time. Currently, the four clocks show four different timings and none of them is the real Kashmir time. Are the clocks exhibiting the time warp that many think Kashmir is passing through, asks Masood Hussain

Clock Tower (Ghanta Ghar ) (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)
Clock Tower (Ghanta Ghar ) (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Kashmir is going through difficult times, quite literally. The historic Ghanta Ghar (clock tower), located in the heart of Srinagar city, is perhaps the apt reflection of Kashmir’s current situation. Its four wall clocks show different timings and not even one of them is correct. With uncertainty a new norm, Kashmiri is putting up a brave face and moves on.

As the summer is at its peak, usually the Lal Chowk, where this clock tower is located, would bustle with tourists and locals. Markets used to remain open till late hours to a decent rush. Once in a while, one would come across a beaconed white car with a local lawmaker or a politician inside. They would zoom past onlookers, leaving a trail of smoke and broken promises behind. Now they seem to be gone forever.

Only people who now move around in these beaconed vehicles are officials. Even Farooq Abdullah, the maverick politician who defies age and sometimes the logic, would once in a while show up near the Ghanta Ghar to wave and greet none in particular. His visits are rare too. Last week, he was seen outside the Parliament with Hema Malini, the dream girl of the yore, extending him the umbrella cover.

Pigeons being fed by residents near the clock tower (Ganta Ghar) in Lal Chowk Srinagar on Thursday, August 27, 2020, amid heavy rains. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

For a native, a visit to Srinagar without visiting the Ghanta Ghar would always seem incomplete. But now, even these local visitors from both north and south of Kashmir are a few. They seldom travel given the curb on the highway that once connected Kashmir and Kashmiris. The market had already witnessed a dispersal, killing the centrality of the Lal Chowk. Now malls and markets have gone closer to the people in the periphery. But the footfalls are getting increasingly low. Lal Chowk now has more cars parked with people around. It, however, continues to get a couple of bird lovers who feed the pigeons every morning in the hugely concreted park at the centre of the Chowk.

The life around Ghanta Ghar, the busiest market space in Kashmir, with strong historic significance is as silent as the clock hanging on top of the tower. It has four clocks, and all of them show a different time, and none belongs to Kashmir.

It looks like Ghanta Ghar has failed to keep pace with Kashmir that it once represented. It is as silent as the Press Enclave, located not far from where Tower’s evening shadows fall. Surviving between two armed personnel vehicles – posted since the brutal assassination of Shujaat Bukhari in June 2018 – the Press Ghali is curiously calm to the noises of life on the Residency Road.

The Clock Tower holds its own historical importance but is now defunct for more than a year now. It doesn’t display time as it has come to standstill.

Lal Chowk came into being as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s token of love for the Russian Red Square. His era since the 1940s had a huge communist impact of which the land-to-tiller was just one outcome. The Chowk is a witness to the history of Kashmir.

But the Clock Tower is a later creation. It was somewhere in 1979, post-Indira Abdullah accord when top functionaries of Bajaj Electricals were invited by Sheikh Abdullah to Srinagar for setting up an industrial unit. Owing to the red tape that Kashmir bureaucracy historically exhibited, no unit came up. But before they took off for Delhi, they built the Clock Tower in Lal Chowk and installed about half a dozen fluorescent street lights for free. This obviously had a motive of publicity but it created a landmark. The company that built the tower and installed the clock would maintain it. But they stopped taking care of it once the officials took away the company logo from the tower.

Post-1990, the new security situation converted the basement of the Tower into a sand-bagged bunker as it remained in control of the border guards (BSF). It was only in 2007 that the government decided to improve its status. While some basic repairs were made, its Bajaj clock was changed and upgraded to digital systems. It was done by a private player who mounted four digital clocks on it.

Narendra Modi during the flag hoisting event on 26 January 1992 in Srinagar.

But well before that, the Tower had become a spot where people would unfurl flags. It started with the hoisting of tricolour by BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi in 1992, at the conclusion of the Ekta Yatra. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was part of that yatra, at the conclusion of which the BJP leaders were flown in IAF choppers to Srinagar for the ceremonial tricolour unfurling on the Republic Day.

Already, the landmark was with BSF. They would routinely unfurl the tricolour on Republic Day and Independence Day, a practice that stopped only in 2009.

By 2010, when the CRPF had replaced the BSF and spared the base of the tower – leaving it shrouded in the concertina wiring though, the Tower had a key spot for political workers to convey their messages. Every party would come with symbolic protests and make brief speeches for the TV near this Tower. Shahid Kapoor, in his Bollywood hit Haider, made his melancholic speech in front of the Tower, or at least it showed so.

For the first time, it was at the peak of agitation over the alleged transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board that protesters on June 27, 2008, scaled the Tower and shrouded it with green flags. During that agitation, the separatists wanted a grand sit-in around the Ghanta Ghar. It was stalled twice on August 11 and September 6. On October 7, when the Police found the real possibility, they used tons of corrugated tin sheets to create a huge football ground around the Clock Tower, to deny the space to protestors. The tower base was literally wrapped by many strands of barbed wire.

In 2010, it again became a prestige point for many protesters to ensure they reach the landmark and scale it. It was on the day of Eid on September 12, 2010, when Mirwaiz Umer Farooq led a huge procession to the Lal Chowk and made a speech. While leaving the spot, some of the protesters allegedly damaged the structure.

By then Omar Abdullah had repaired and refurbished it. After it suffered damage, it was again repaired. The Tower was literally rebuilt during the Omar era. It seemed more local than its earlier avatar that was typical plains architecture.

By early 2011, the BJP started working on another Ekta Yatra that was supposed to be concluded with the unfurling of the tricolour on the Tower on January 26. The state government took a serious note of it and prevented BJP leaders from entering the state. Some of them were arrested also and sent back.

On October 9, 2015, police had to rescue two Jammu young men who wanted to unfurl the tricolour and record it on video. As they started, a mob attacked the duo, forcing police to make efforts to rescue them safely.

Concerned that the Clock Tower was rarely showing the right time, Omar Abdullah, as early as May 1, 2005, had gifted a new set of clocks. They were installed but they stopped working after a few weeks.

It was on September 10, 2017, when the Clock Tower witnessed another intervention – a new set of four clocks was installed. These clocks manufactured by Maxima costing Rs 50,000 a piece, were sponsored by Time and Sound, a watch shop not far away from the landmark.

Azad Zargar, the sponsor, had stated that the clocks with 4 x 4 ft intra-dial size make it easier for commuters to check the time from a distance. The battery-operated clocks would run for three years on a single charge. The sponsor had agreed to oversee the repairs and change the batteries on a yearly basis.

Four clocks, four time settings: None belonging to Kashmir. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)
Four clocks, four-time settings: None belonging to Kashmir. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Now the situation is back to square one. The dial is there but not the time. And the four clocks show different time and none of that is local.

Mohammad Yasin Khan, who heads the Kashmir Economic Alliance, said that the “souvenir from our past” is being “overlooked” by authorities. “We are a tourist place,” Khan said. “What impression will they carry when they will return home with the memory of Kashmir key landmark not showing real-time.”

Khursheed A Sanaie, the SMC Commissioner said his team is working on its restoration. By the end of this month, he asserted, “new antique clocks” will be installed. But will they show the real-time or push Srinagar into a new time machine?

PS: SMC has started working to set the time right!

(Saba Gul and Shams Irfan contributed to the report.)


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