Shrill Sounds

Sloganeering in Srinagar

Hindi is the other name for Indianness’, declares a slogan in Hindi on a board put up on the otherwise bare wall of a makeshift chamber that one passes through as one makes one’s way out of Srinagar’s heavily fortified airport. An odd way, surely, for the Indian state to stress its claims to genuine respect for cultural and linguistic pluralism and to seek to ‘win the hearts of the Kashmiris’ as the tired and trite phrase goes – heavily Sanskritised Hindi of the Government of India variety not only being a totally alien tongue in Kashmir but also being seen as a potent symbol of Hindu chauvinism directed against Muslims. Is it then any surprise that the hegemonic version of Indian nationalism that this slogan represents has few, if any, takers in Kashmir?

Equally shrill slogans greet one as one drives out of the airport through Srinagar’s suburbs and into the heart of town. ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘India is one, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari’, ‘Hindustan Zindabad’, ‘Kashmir, the Crown of India’, ‘CRPF, the Keepers of Peace’ and so on scream these slogans, painted on bunkers located at road crossings, behind which stand gun toting soldiers guarding the Indian flag. Few Kashmiris, needless to say, take these slogans at all seriously and a visitor from Delhi is still referred to as having come from India, for despite the obvious decline in violence in the region, for many Kashmiris India is still a foreign country and its armed forces an occupying power.

‘Thanks to Smt Sonia Gandhi for Nominating Jenab Ghulam Nabi Azad as Chief Minister of J&K State’ announces a sprawling billboard just down the street from the Tourist Reception Centre in the heart of Srinagar. It was obviously hurriedly put up just in time for Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Srinagar in March when she came to inaugurate a tulip garden in town. Care was taken that Ms Gandhi be duly informed about the man behind this outpouring of loyalty to her, his name, his picture and his designation as the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Youth Congress being prominently displayed in the centre of the board. Is one to understand, as the board seems to suggest, that the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir owes his position not to the people of the state but rather, to the munificence of a woman from outside who clearly has no mandate to do so?

Few Kashmiris take these slogans at all seriously and a visitor from Delhi is still referred to as having come from India, for despite the obvious decline in violence in the region, for many Kashmiris India is still a foreign country and its armed forces an occupying power

The tulip garden which Ms Gandhi flew in to inaugurate was greeted with much indignation in large sections of the Kashmiri press although obviously this was carefully left unmentioned by the Indian media that reported on it, which exulted in the claim that this was yet another sign of the conflict torn region returning to ‘normalcy’, with the flowers back in bloom. The sprawling garden, extending over several dozen acres and located in the lap of the thickly forested hills of Zabarwan on the banks of the scenic Dal lake, was the brainchild of the chief minister and has obviously cost the public exchequer an enormous amount of money. Ghulam Nabi Azad, needless to say, strategically chose to name the garden after the late Indira Gandhi and to invite her daughter-in-law to inaugurate it. Obviously, the choice of the name found little or no support among the denizens of Srinagar, most of whom, in any case, cannot afford the hefty entrance fee and were also understandably upset over newspaper reports that government officials were literally forcing schoolchildren to visit the park.

‘Inaugurated by the Vice-Chancellor’, announces a granite slab at the foot of a pillar that forms part of a new boundary wall that has come up at the entrance of Kashmir University. The man who managed to have his name inscribed therein is thankfully no longer in charge of the university but before he left he obviously made it a point to commemorate himself for the sake of posterity despite the fact that he was not known for his academic achievements, my university friends describing him charitably as even less than mediocre.

With elections in Kashmir around the corner, sloganeering politicians have been seeking to make waves by raising issues that they generally promptly forget once polls are over. So, as the Kashmiri press reports, some have demanded that Pakistani currency be allowed to be used in Kashmir, others have called for free trade across the Line of Control and all of them are branding the others as having betrayed the Kashmir cause and as allegedly working as Indian or Pakistani agents or even both, as the case might be.

Heated sloganeering also shrouds the raging controversy over a report recently released by the Srinagar-based Association of the Parents of the Disappeared (APDP) which claims that over a thousand unidentified graves located in the border tehsil of Uri in Kashmir’s Baramulla district might be those of innocent civilians done to death by the Indian armed forces and then branded as ‘terrorists’. The Indian authorities, predictably, have sought to hush up the issue while human rights defenders continue to insist that stern action be taken against the perpetrators of these crimes.

The truth however seems to lie somewhere in between. On a visit to the mountain village of Bijhama, located seven kilometres from the Line of Control, I was informed that while the APDP report speaks of some 200 unidentified graves in the village graveyard, just 13 of these are of men labelled by the armed forces as ‘militants’, mostly intruders from across the border, while the rest are actually of local inhabitants who died natural deaths. That, of course, is not to deny the reality of fake encounters in Kashmir involving the Indian armed forces but, as a human rights activist pressed upon me, if the authors of the APDP report are not to lose their carefully built up credibility they ought to have done their research more carefully.

Two weeks in Srinagar and, as usual, I’ve been subjected to a heavy overdose of sloganeering. We drive down to the airport although I, as always, have mixed feelings about leaving a place that I love so much. We stop at the Iqbal Park to take a photograph of the poet Iqbal (adored by many Kashmiris particularly because he was of Kashmiri origin), set against a strawberry pink board. Below his picture is a verse from him in Persian which talks of Kashmir as being the rose in a garden. Below that, in English, the board declares, ‘Make your own world from the clay of India’. If that is meant to be a translation of the Persian verse, it is obviously erroneous and misleading. But then the board has been put up by the Central Reserve Police Force and so, presumably, no one can dare question it.

The airport is abuzz with activity. Planeloads of tourists and soldiers are heading back to Delhi. Srinagar airport is unique. In no other airport in India is one forced to submit to lessons in Indian nationalism. ‘We are Hindis and Hindustan is Ours’, ‘India is One’ and so on scream slogans painted on little blue plastic boards placed haphazardly all over the waiting hall.

Slogans galore, but then that is part of what the whole war over Kashmir is really all about.

Archived from Communalism Combat,  May 2008, Year 14, No.131 – Agenda



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