Reliving The Past

As one of world’s oldest reel-news agency moves its 85000 motion films from safe houses to social media for free, Kashmir gets its bit of history live. R S Gull scans the archive to relive the past


In the pre-digital era, at the peak of militancy two militants barged into the state information department one evening. Firmly surrounded by the security apparatus, the three-story building housing the director’s office, the newsroom and the film division was up in flames within half an hour. No bullets fired. It was gunpowder that created a situation that the burning, half dead militants, jumped out of the building and died on the road.

Intervention in security affairs has always been a no-go area for the commoners. But some officials, that evening, had suggested the security grid to use other means to force militants out because part of the history was with the films division library. Every single reel went up in flames within minutes. Though some of it still exists in bits and pieces at various places, collecting it is a huge task that probably no policy maker will ever think of.

But part of the worries on this front is over. Pathé News that is one of the oldest producers of newsreels, cine-magazines, and documentaries has digitized 85000 of its news-reels in last few years and posted it on YouTube. Charles Pathé, who founded the company in 1896 in Germany has been acknowledged as the “pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era”. It has been operating from UK since 1910 and closed its operations in 1970. The company that changed many owners finally digitized 3500 hours of its archival footage with the help of National Lottery grant and posted it on the YouTube last week.

Pathé News does not have tons of coverage on Kashmir but it has very significant footage of most violent events in recent history – the 1947 invasion and the immediate follow up, arrival of various UN officials to Kashmir, and then the 1965 war.

Old-Pics-2Pathé News lacks any footage about the tribal attack, especially how they operated. But its coverage about the counter attacks by the Indian army is fantastic. Its 4.31 minute video Invasion of Kashmir offers visuals from the point when the IAF aircrafts landed, laden with soldiers and the ammunition. The camera then flies over Srinagar and records the battles near Srinagar. The smoke billowing from the villages offers some idea of what might have been happening on ground. Apart from showing the volume of air traffic and the number of soldiers being inducted into the battle field, this footage, in its concluding part shows lot many villages on fire.

For all these years, every historian has been writing about the panic that the fighting created in the British people living in Srinagar. While most of them were caught in Srinagar, a few of them felt trapped in Baramulla. Pathé News offers 41 seconds footage Britons Evacuated From Kashmir with commentary about how the English men and women were evacuated from Srinagar. In the backdrop of IAF fighters landing with solders and the war machines being oiled, the footage shows a British pilot from Royal Air Force escorting people into an awaiting aircraft to fly the people out to Pakistan.

It has two more collections on the fighting and about Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru. The first is a 5.42 minute footage Nehru In Kashmir that shows the arrival of Nehru in Srinagar. Welcome apart, he moves to the city, watches part of the devastation, interacts with Sheikh Abdullah and a top police officer and then he takes the ceremonial salute and inspects the guard of honour by the vigilantes whom National Conference (NC) organized against tribal in 1947.

The footage then pans out to some place where a group of young women in Indian dress are welcomed by soldiers. In their presence, they open some sacks and open some boxes. It does not offer any idea what is in the boxes and what it is for. Momentarily it seems either currency or some food material or some ammunition. The camera has also captured some of the life in the HSHS where NC men were seen parading carrying the party flags.

Apparently, in shot it seems as if Nehru and Indira are being shown some of the captured tribals somewhere.

The 1.03 minute footage Pandit Nehru Visits Scene Of Indian Fighting, that has a running commentary, Nehru is seen landing in Srinagar with his daughter and Maharaja Hari Singh. He makes a speech to a huge gathering, possibly Lal Chowk, as the commentator says the issue of plebiscite is settled as Kashmir has decided to vote for India. The commentary ends with the line: “India and Pakistan have not yet found a solution for peace”.

Old-Pics-3The collection includes 1.48 minute footage Kashmir 1948 with a caption ‘Kashmir celebrates its newly gained independence’. It offers a plethora of activity in a series of functions that Nehru presided. There are celebrating crowds, dancing and playing traditional instruments on Srinagar streets. Main function took place in the Polo Grounds. Those who were attraction of the function were the female vigilantes of NC. They organize a march past in honour of Nehru and the VVIP is seen saluting them. Some of them are carrying the banners: “We will defend out Mother Land with Young Blood”.

After Nehru makes the speech, he is being taken in a huge boat for a ceremonial ride and a river procession in Jhelum. As he is being followed by scores of small shikara boats, there are thousands of people greeting him from the banks.  Interestingly, there are boats which are being rowed by scores of people together – a rarity that no more exists in Kashmir, within and outside the Dal lake.

The 1951 footage UN Mediator Flies Into Kashmir is 2.10 minutes. It shows the landing of UN mediator Dr Graham alighting from a USAAF aircraft at Delhi and being received by the officials from UN and India. After shaking hands with Indian officials, he poses for photograph with them and later talks to possibly, reporters. He then moves to the Rashtrapati Bhwan for a meeting with the then President Dr Rajendra Prasad.

Another non-war footage that Pathé News has uploaded is Kashmir Goes To Polls, a 1.08 minutes 1957 coverage of the elections in Kashmir. This capsule has commentary as well.

Showing women with white shuttle-cock veils rowing their way to the polling stations in Kashmir, the commentary that runs in the background of this beautiful footage is more interesting.

“In spite of Pakistan’s protest and UN disapproval, India has gone ahead with the incorporation of Kashmir with the Indian state. Now by road and river, the people of Kashmir flock to the polling stations, in the first ever general election,” the reporter says.

Introducing NC as the most secular party cutting across the communal divide, the reporter says the party is unopposed in 38 of the 75 constituencies. “So it goes to the hastings with its victory already assured,” he says.

The commentator says the fingers of voters are indelibly marked to prevent voting twice. “Particularly the Muslim women who look very much alike in their tent-like-burkhas,” the reporter says. “The feature of this age seems to first annex the country and then promote the elections.”

Another footage that seems very exclusive is the release of Sheikh Abdullah from Jammu jail in 1964 after six years along with 12 others. The 1.08 minute video with sound Sheik Leaves Prison starts from the special jail with locked gates and then he comes into the frame. The camera gets a rare access into the jail as well. Once out of the gate, Sheikh is seen garlanded by his wife Begum Akbar Jehan in response to which he embraces her. Then a young Begum Khalida comes to embrace his father as a vehicle has his belongings being loaded.

The reporter then follows Abdullah to the streets of Jammu where he is being welcomed from people of a state with “four million population”.

The amazing part of the collection is the coverage of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. There are four small films. The one Raiders Fire Villages has a caption suggesting that it belongs to the clashes that took place in Khunmuh, in the outskirts of Srinagar. This 1.27 minute capsule with commentary opens with the horse-driven carts moving around in less congested streets. The commentator says the village – part of the most beautiful but bitterest troubled spots, was burnt because the residents refused to cooperate with the raiders.

The commentator says the villagers refused to collaborate and the raiders set afire their 100 straw-and-timber houses well before the army would arrive. In the ensuing battle a lot of raiders are killed and some captured. It shows some of them being driven blind-folded to some destination where they are being detained. “This could have gravest implication for the world peace”, the commentator concludes.

The 1.34 minute footage Trouble in Kashmir offers very close range coverage of the Indian defences in city outskirts. With shots showing women crying over the loss of their houses, the video shows the captured weapons, partly manufactured in China, from the raiders and the activities of the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan that was then led by Australian General R H Nimmo.

The exclusive part of its 1965 coverage is On the Kashmir Front, a 9.10 minute capsule is the actual war theatre in Uri and Poonch. The crux of this footage is capture of Haji Pir Pass by Indian army and the best part of it is young Congressman from Sopore Ghulam Rasool Kar, then the state Works and Power Minister, visiting the newly captured area, speaking to the people, distributing relief and clothes among the people living in the inhospitable terrain.

This footage apparently edited in Srinagar with Kashmiri music in the backdrop shows the Razakaars in “liberated” areas surrendering their arms and ammunition to Kar. It seems a grand function at the peak of Haji Pir. A young Kar is seen distributing sweets to the people. The residents are being given the Indian currency in exchange of Pakistani currency they owned. It was this era when India for the first time resumed its road connectivity with Poonch after clearing the Pakistani bulge in between – a gain that was later reversed by the Tashkent Agreement.

With these speaking motion pictures getting into the public domain, the history of a conflict has refused to die. It hardly matters if the custodians of history in Srinagar watch mutely the destruction of the records that are so fundamental to a society.


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