Kashmir for now is going through ‘demolition’ times amidst bone-chilling cold. The administration has announced a drive against ‘land encroachers’ in ‘Naya Kashmir’ post 5 August 2019. The Jammu and Kashmir administration has said ‘big sharks’ who have encroached upon government land will be taken to task, while the poor will not be harmed. Kashmiris, as usual, are keeping their hands crossed to see if promises will be fulfilled or if it would be another political ‘gimmick’ to which they have gotten used since 1947.
In Kashmir, a landmark popularly known as ‘Ghanta Ghar’ or clock tower in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk stands as testimony to the region's ever-changing times, which have been mostly turbulent over the last three decades. The clock tower’s location at Lal Chowk makes it significant. It is at this place, that promises never to be fulfilled were made to Kashmiris in 1948.
The unfulfilled promise made to Kashmiris by India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at Lal Chowk in 1947: ‘The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people. We have given that pledge and Maharaja (Hari Singh) supported it. It is not only a pledge to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not, and cannot back out of it’.
The Lal Chowk’s ‘Ghanta Ghar’ was built by Bajaj Electricals in 1979. It was when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as Chief Minister of J&K had invited them to set up a factory in the erstwhile state. The company had gauged how the landmark would be great for their publicity in central Kashmir’s commercial hub, Lal Chowk. Later, Bajaj’s logo was removed and Lal Chowk’s clock tower was taken by the government under its control.
In fact, Lal Chowk’s ‘Ghanta Ghar’ has been about control only. During the ’90s, the clock tower housed a bunker inside its basement. BSF men used to stay guard inside it. Besides, security forces started unfurling the Tricolour at the spot post 90’s on Republic Day and Independence Day. This was mostly to show the dominance and grip over the region in the heydays of militancy. In 2009, BSF vacated its basement and CRPF replaced the force.
There have been instances during the 90s when militants tried to attack security forces at the ‘Ghanta Ghar’. However, the clock tower was not harmed. It has stood tall.
There have also been instances where militants have tried to show their presence in the region through the landmark. It was sometime in 2018 when a group of militants splashed their photographs on social media at the city centre with the clock tower in the background. It was perhaps to show their might, to show how formidable their network was or perhaps to put the security grid in a tizzy. The clock tower has been testimony to scores of bomb blasts, curfews and gunfights between militants and security forces.
In Kashmir, where everything is caught in a war of narratives, it's ‘Ghanta Ghar’ at Lal Chowk that became a spot for sides to score political points and show their supremacy over one another. In 1992, BJP concluded its ‘Ekta Yatra’ when BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a flag hoisting ceremony at the spot on Republic Day.
In 2008, during summer agitation over Amarnath land row, when street protests in Kashmir were a common scene, there were several instances when a green flag was hoisted atop the clock tower by protestors. During those protest days in Kashmir, the government always used to seal the roads leading to the Lal Chowk clock tower, since separatists used to ask people to march to the landmark to hear their speeches and show their protest. In 2010, when Machil fake encounter killings generated public ire in Kashmir, the clock tower remained stuck in spools of concertina wires for many weeks for Kashmiris.
Even Bollywood was enticed by Lal Chowk’s ‘Ghanta Ghar’. The industry chose the spot to show Kashmir’s horrid situation. Be it Sanjay Dutt starrer Lamhaa or his Mission Kashmir, both movies got ‘Ghanta Ghar’ to present reel, Kashmir. However, it was Shahid Kapoor's starrer Haider that depicted Kashmir’s mood in one scene. The scene showing Shahid Kapoor narrating dialogue: ‘India Pakistan ne mil kar humse khela border border, koi humse bhi pooche hum kya chatee, with crowd reciporating Azadi…’ used the landmark to show Kashmir’s tragedy. Another thing Kapoor starrer film talks about the Kashmir is AFSPA—a law which gives impunity to security forces operating in Kashmir. The actor Kapoor referred to it as ‘chutzpah in the movie.
In real Kashmir, some days before, a family of a man from north Kashmir’s Kupwara held a sit-in at the ‘Ghanta Ghar’, demanding the whereabouts of his ‘disappeared’ son from security forces custody in Kashmir.
The iconic tower has also been witness to tearful faces of Kashmiri mothers, whose sons have ‘disappeared’ in the whirlwind of the region. The families of ‘disappeared’ have been holding silent sit-ins in Kashmir post-’90s. The wrinkles on their faces, their greying hair and their hands holding posters: ‘where are our loved ones’.
Over the years, the landmark has also inspired writers, particularly Kashmir’s very own story tellers. Be it Basharat Peer’s ‘Curfew Night’ or Shahnaz Bashir’s ‘Half Mother’, the writers of pain have used the landmark to write the stories of pain. Shakoor Rather’s ‘Life In The Clock Tower Valley’ also seems inspired by the landmark. The writers from Kashmir have used this ‘silent testimony’ of tragedies to picture Kashmir’s never told stories.
Post 5 August 2019, some unknown groups and unfamiliar faces have been holding protests or candlelight protests against Kashmiri Pandits killings in Kashmir. Their banners have been reading: ‘Aakhir Kab Tak’. They have also used the spot to show their concern for Kashmir.
Kashmiri Pandits who are also caught in the region’s quagmire have also been highlighting their plight at the spot. They have been yearning for the good old times at Lal Chowk’s ‘Ghanta Ghar’.
Lal Chowk’s ‘Ghanta Ghar’ location is also significant since its proximity to the Press Enclave, offices of political parties both mainstream and separatist, missionary schools, colleges and famous markets, make the spot vibrant.
A concrete podium which has now been dismantled used to be filled with people, occasional love birds who would make promises of never separating at the spot. The clock tower has been witness to promises, but mostly unfulfilled. It is a spot of both heartbreaks and romance.
The clock tower ‘Ghanta Ghar’ has been testimony to Kashmir’s cinema craze. The spot stands near famous Cinemas including Regal Cinema, Palladium Cinema and Naaz Cinema. It has seen movie buffs thronging cinemas in Kashmir to the people running for their lives during live bullets and bombs in real.
‘Ghanta Ghar’ is also witness to Kashmir’s sufferings, which it has been facing from time immemorial. It silently mourns the death of Robert Thorpe—the British Army Officer, who raised their voice against Dogra Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s brutal reign in Kashmir in 1865. Thorpe grave is in the adjacent vicinity to the clock tower. The clock tower has seen many heroes and anti-heroes falling.
It has also been witness to curbs on the press by state and non-state actors. Perhaps, the killing of renowned journalist Shujaat Bukhari in 2018, some meters away from the landmark was one of the gory times that had got inscribed inside the clock tower’s ‘tragic memory’.
‘Ghanta Ghar’ has also been a silent witness to narrative enforcement in Kashmir. It has also witnessed the forced opening of markets to project normalcy in Kashmir and many times witnessed to enforced shutdowns in Kashmir to show protest in Kashmir.
Recently, a ‘pheran’ fashion show was organized by some group at the clock tower in bone-chilling cold. However, the auto-rickshaw at the busy spot proved to be a show-stopper. Perhaps, the busy spot was not the place for the show, However, in Kashmir where everything is projected as ‘for the first time’ to get the eyeballs, the show was no surprise.
I have never seen its four clocks showing the right time ever. Many of my friends in Kashmir think it has been showing “right” since the time has ‘never been right’ in Kashmir in the past three decades ever. It has always been about tragedies. Kashmir’s time has been harsh.
The landmark has huge popularity in Kashmir. It is akin to Delhi’s Connaught Place or Jantar Mantar or Mumbai’s Bandra. Though later places are popular for entirely varied reasons, Kashmir’s Ghanta Ghar at Lal Chowk is mired in its chequered history. Perhaps it is the reason why some known and sometimes unknown faces are trying to hoist their flags at the tower to show their presence on Kashmir’s political landscape.
In Kashmir, politics seems to have suddenly brought some heat to the atmosphere amidst sub-zero temperatures. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi leading his Bharat Jodo Yatra in J&K has talked about the ‘healing wounds’ of Kashmiris. Only time will tell if is there a change for offing in Kashmir or ‘Ghanta Ghar’ will have to be witness to another joke with Kashmiris. Like it always has been!