by Haseeb A Drabu

Today was the Yaum-e-Shuhda. This day, 89 years back, twenty-two people protesting the trial of an anti-maharaja activist were shot dead by the police force of Hari Singh.

A Kashmiri woman walks near the Naqshband Sahab Shrine in Khwaja Bazar on Monday, July 13, 2020. The shrine premises is home to Martyrs Graveyard. Authorities prevented special prayers at the cemetery. Kl Image by Bilal Bahadur

Earlier this year, the Union Territory administration, withdrew its long-standing state patronage of the Martyrs’ Day commemorated every year on the 13th of July. Today was no longer a government holiday. The customary wreath-laying ceremony at the Mazaar-e-Shuhda by the head of the government will not be the official protocol today.

Evidently, someone in the administration has read his/her, George Orwell, rather well. In his classic 1984, Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

For older Kashmiris, truvah July is not “learned history”; it is lived history. There was, and never has been, any mention of it in any of the prescribed history texts that are taught in the schools and colleges. This despite the fact that there is a consensus among historians that 13th July 1931, marks the beginning of the ‘freedom struggle’ of Kashmiris.

No More Celebrations: The police band tools at rest, a picture from 2015 by Bilal Bahadur

While the specific commemoration is for the twenty-two men who were shot dead, the symbolic remembrance goes far beyond.  It marks the historic moment when for the first time Kashmiris, predominantly Muslim, openly challenged the Dogra regime; the monarchy and the feudal system. Barely two months later, on 24th September 1932, armed with axes and lathis they protested in what is known as the Narchoo demonstration. The same evening saw the promulgation of the first “AFSA-PSA” type of an ordinance within the Srinagar Municipality.

These events shook the power structure. The demographic minority of Kashmiri Pandits, for instance, saw the prospect of becoming a minority in the political and economic power structure. All of a sudden, positioning themselves as a “beleaguered minority”, they petitioned the British that their “enlightened, educated and law-abiding community”, was under siege from the “barbarous and ignorant” local Muslims.  Till then, there isn’t any record of, or reference to, Pandits being seen as a minority.

Indeed, the emblematic importance of this day is in it being the trigger for the democratisation of Kashmir. The political demands presented to the Maharaja by the people on October 19, 1931, sought, “establishment of a democratic form of Government in Jammu and Kashmir with the establishment of a legislature in the state”.

Policeman guards outside the closed gate of the Martyr’s Graveyard as authorities reimpose corona-virus lock-down in parts of Srinagar, Monday, July 13, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Such was its impact that the British Government of India was forced to use its paramountcy powers and intervened in Kashmir affairs by setting up the Glancy Commission. The report of B J Glancy rattled the princely states from Bhopal to Bikaner who petitioned the British Secretary of State for India against its implementation.

Hence, over the years, the rituals of the commemoration of 13th July helped transmit these community histories from one generation to the next. It was a day when the past, across political groups, was lived in the present.

It was a pedagogical tool too. It did inform various generations about the anti-feudal struggle and cultivated their consciousness of identity across time. Placing a wreath on the graves, as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir would do rather ritualistically, embodied forms of thought and tradition which generated a record; even if it was an only a newspaper picture the next day.

All this transmitted ephemeral knowledge about people who have been often silenced and marginalized. It was a collective meta-narrative perhaps the first one to be constructed from within the civil society of Kashmir.

What started off as memorialising “death symbolized as a sacrifice” for freedom from the monarchy, gathered different hues of meanings and values along the way. Indeed, it served different purposes for different regimes with diverse ideologies. Just as, the negation of 13th July is serving the current regime an ideological purpose.

Locked gates of Ziyarat Naqshband Sahab in Khwaja Bazar area on July 13 martyrs day. Kl Image by Bilal Bahadur

In its initial years, the anti-feudal struggle in Kashmir was running parallel to the anti-colonial struggle of India. But the fall out of 13th July linked to the two; freedom from feudalism in Kashmir and independence from British in India. Subsequently, the former was almost seen as a subset of the latter as the Congress Party provided ideological, moral and logistic support to the Kashmiri freedom struggle.

Following the accession of Kashmir to India, National Conference used the salience of 13th July to play a central role in party building and indeed nation-building.

Early on, the National Conference had firmly appropriated the Martyrs’ Day through legend and lore to catapult Sheikh Abdullah onto the political centre stage. Sheikh Abdullah is said to have steadied the blood-soaked shirt of a martyr which was being carried by the protestors as a flag. The dying freedom fighter is said to have told Sheikh Abdullah, “We have done our bit, now it is for you to take it to culmination”.

Old-timers quote the famous Persian poet, Nazeeri Nisapuri, to convey the prevailing sentiment at that time:

“Kasay ki kushta na shud,
az kabeelaye ma naestz”

(Those who didn’t get their throats slit,
Do not belong to our community).

Evidently, in the collective conscience and social sensibility, it was nothing less than the Karbala of Kashmir.

All this resulted in 13th July becoming the most significant marker of “History-as-Memory” to memorialize the Kashmiri struggle against monarchy and feudalism.

Post-1989, the separatists made efforts to re-appropriate it from the mainstream parties who were seen as traitors to their main cause.

It is significant that until recently, whilst the commemoration of 13th July by the government did historicize the past of Kashmir, it in no way negated or contradicted the larger political association with India.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti attends a ceremony marking Martyrs Day at Mazar-e-Shuhada (Martyrs graveyard) in Srinagar, on Thursday, 13 July 2017. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

So what was the need to delist 13th July from the official protocol?

The act of refusing to acknowledge 13th July as Kashmiris Martyr’s Day is seeking to transform the history of Kashmir and erase the collective memory of its people. By not commemorating a day that evokes the indigeneity of Kashmiri political history is a thinly veiled attempt to strike at the roots of the Kashmiri identity. The systematic erasure of the symbols of the political and indeed material culture of Kashmir is a precursor, to subsuming the Kashmiri people’s existence as a legitimate political and cultural entity.

And that is the underlying idea is to snap those links with the past that engender identity and create an ethno-social continuity so as to impair people’s sense of inherited historical identity.

As such, 13th July is glossed over so as to assert an alternative relationship of Kashmiris at two levels; first, with nation-state by being made to share an unshared past. No wonder the national martyr’s day of 30th January is to be celebrated but the Kashmir martyrs day of 13th July is not! Second with their own past and indeed their own inherited history.

The “old” past is being discredited and indeed disowned as a form of false consciousness only to secure the “new” future. Only then will the present be seen as a structural break from a “mistaken, murky and messed up” past. What is not being recognised is that the legend of 13th July hasn’t survived and grown all these years because the past governments patronised it. It has survived because Kashmiris It forms part of the fabric of socio-cultural and political heritage – passed on from generation to generation through stories, poetry, symbols, and memories.

National Conference Vice President Omar Abdullah at the Mazar-e-Shohda (Martyr’s Graveyard), during a ceremony marking Martyrs’ Day in Srinagar, 13 July 2018. Authorities imposed strict restrictions in some parts of the downtown area of Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

On the contrary, with the withdrawal of state patronage, the UT administration may have unwittingly vacated the space that had thoughtfully been occupied to construct a shared past with Kashmiris for assimilating them into the larger nation.

Now 13th July may well have been freed from its ex poste encumbrances. It is very likely that this space will be appropriated sooner than later. Indeed, many must be salivating at the prospect of making it a marquee Kashmir event.

Now 13th July may well have been freed from its ex poste encumbrances. It is hoped that it is re-appropriated by the people of Kashmir to whom it actually belongs. Now that it is not a government event, diverse cultural producers can partake in allegorically besieging the cultural indifference to assert their existence. For nothing serves to oppose historical erasure better than memorialising.

(This piece appeared in Greater Kashmir today.) 


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