The Tall Mute Witness to History

THE RED SQUARE

The idea of a clock tower symbolizes something that binds time and space together, giving birth to metaphors thus gathering its own importance over the years of its standing tall. These structures also live in public memory, not only for their importance and significance vis-à-vis history but through people who associate their personal memories with them, good or bad almost every individual has a story to tell and a mention to make.  Over the years, decades or centuries they seem to absorb the energies as the societies emanate, thus espouse a sort of responsibility. The clock tower at Lal Chowk may not be as old as its other counterparts like the Big Ben in London or the time building at the Time Square in New York City, but it undeniably has had its share of stories to be a part of and moments in history to stand witness to.

As far as its own history is concerned, it is said to have come up around 1980, when NC was in power and Bajaj Electricals was given an order worth corers of rupees, which had been pending for some time and given a final go ahead only after one of the ministers was ‘gifted’ with six water heaters (geysers) by the company or its representatives for erecting street lights and turning ‘night into day’ in the city of the sun. The group is supposed to have made a huge profit from the project and as a token of goodwill provided funds to the municipality and the tower was erected soon after. It probably also worked for the Bajaj group as an advertisement in those days, as their logo stayed up there. The arms of the clock never moved since, but the time weaved a story around our clock tower in Lal Chowk similar to its people.

The Ganta Ghar at Lal Chowk has a life of its own and it has come to be seen as a symbol too. It might have been seen as a sign of the modernity (progress) or urbanization of Kashmir in those days, but it’s meaning has changed and all these years of peoples resistance in the valley has added a whole new dimension to this modern monument. It has withstood turbulent political weather, seen unnatural human calamities and gained significant importance as it was, ‘the place’ that became a face of Kashmir as the world media pounced on it asking their camera brigade to get this ‘symbol’ of Kashmir shot from every possible angle. And why not, it did manage to remain in news for numerous reasons.

In 1990, a sea of people demonstrating and demanding rights promised to them by the supreme body of the nations passed by, people chanting slogans, emotionally surcharged and out to get what they have been denied for decades, their rights, their freedom. The tower stood witness to this raising, biggest Kashmir had ever seen, this was the beginning of the new phase of people’s struggle for justice that is two decades old now.
The hoisting of the Indian flag on every year on 15th august (Indian Independence Day) by a small group of men in uniform amidst blackouts and strikes kept it in news too. People questioning the very notion of ‘freedom since 47’ they are supposed to ‘celebrate’, gave way to crackdowns, parades and inhuman treatment of humans around this symbol of modern Kashmir which became a routine. Sight of few hundred men made to sit there, beaten and humiliated for hours before some among them bundled in gypsies and taken for unknown destinations was common.

Throughout these years there stayed a bunker too, inside and around it and the clock tower became a favorite spot for a grenade attacks, the trigger happy soldiers would retaliate, firing at the ‘unseen enemy’ always resulting in civilian casualties. On many occasions a tyre burst was enough before a volley of bullets from the bunker would leave innocent men, women and children rolling in blood. It was in these times that our clock tower became a symbol of death. It stood like a demon of those folk tales who would eat people everyday; the only difference was that no Saint would come for the rescue and bring the demon on its knees.

Well Saints never showed up but some self styled ‘Sadhu’s’ did. When saffron wave swept India in early 90’s, Ganta Ghar was chosen as a venue by the hindutva brigade to display their patriotism, the ‘atoot ang’ rhetoric was taken further, a right wing politician whose party came to power latter by emotionally blackmailing Indians on the name of religion and playing a communal card, showed his josh and came to hoist an Indian flag and claim victory over Kashmir, accompanied by half of the Indian military might that was there to provide moral support to this ‘bhalwaan youddha’ in case a ‘videshi atankwadi’ popped up from some where.

Quite marched the Veyth and firm stood the tower witnessing life drifting by, people attending funerals, running after busses, getting married, going to schools, waiting for colleges to get over, vehicles increasing, shops and hotels in depleted buildings around it changing hands, the property rates soaring, rush of people increasing and it stood there, a testimony to the fact that whatever happens, life surges ahead.

Yes, life goes on and history gets made with each passing day and as they say, it sometimes ‘repeats itself’ too. Ganta Ghar again saw a huge rush of people gathered around it, some youngsters found their way up on its top, hoisting a flag, green in colour with a crescent in the middle, the image flashed across television channels and news papers the next morning. The symbol of progress progressed further, modernity changed its meaning, and the demon of death was run over by the young ‘saints’ and our tower got another idiom attached to it, it became an expression in itself, a symbol of resistance and the might of peoples will that shook the state and its players.

The event was significant, the tower at the Lal Chowk also became a representative of the voice of the generation next, the youth of Kashmir with tinted spikes and vintage Levis’, mp4 phones and Nike trainers had joined in, they had began to take responsibility towards their nation. The future was here, but only for those who could see it.

But not everybody has the foresight, there are some who don’t want to see a thing, even if it is right in front of their eyes, latest announcement by one of the banks that the clock tower is about to be demolished and replaced by a new structure points towards this fact, which became clear when the plan to replace clock tower was made public. The new proposed structure will be a sculpted Arabic word made of black marble, devrr kani (local stones) and panjer kaari(lattice work), something like the one in badam vear and will be  called the Minar-e-Kashmir and a whooping ten million will be spent on the project by the bank under corporate social responsibility ( hard to understand how it comes under that).

So many questions pop up in mind as you come to know about this decision, one cannot help thinking that, is demolishing the Ganta Ghar an attempt to wipe off from our memories what the tower has come to represent? If the new structure is a religious one, as announced, then doesn’t doing so go against the (pseudo) secular attitude of the politicians, bureaucrats, corporate heads and the like, and why use one of Allah’s names in the design? Is it a strategy to stop the hoisting of green flags on top of it as people may restrain from climbing on the monument? Or do they rather prefer people stepping over the name of God?  Will there be a fee to see the new monument, as the bank has been doing so in the past hence robbing the poor of their neighborhood spaces on the name of CSR? And who will be dedicating the monument to the people of Kashmir? Mr S K Sinha or Mr L K Advani?

These questions need answers and even then if a new structure has to come up, these matters cannot be decided in AC cabins of corporate headquarters in presence of hordes of yes men, this has to be discussed in public domain. The minar or tower whatever may it be, has to represent Kashmir, it has to reflect in its design the essence and the passion of the people it belongs to, just naming it so, or using devir kain or panjer kaari won’t do.

(Arshad Mushtaq is a Srinagar based film maker and a theatre director. Feedback at aarshadmushtaq@gmail.com)