Kashmir history is incomplete without Lal Chowk (Red Square). If Kashmir is the body, then Lal Chowk is its soul. Kashmir has witnessed many ups and downs, so has Lal Chowk. Kashmir, once famous for its diversity, has now gone into a slumber. There are numerous historians, intellectuals and keen observers who have watched Kashmir and Lal Chowk changing its colors. One such keen observer is Abdul Rashid Wani.
From early age, Wani was interested in books and newspaper reading. An ardent reader of Urdu literature, he has an immense knowledge and hold on Urdu. With age though, Wani has forgotten many essays, phrases and names of the books and authors. At 73, he has his own newspaper-cum-book stall that sends many Kashmiris down the memory lane. Since 1972, he has occupied an area that has its own history — Ganta Ghar opposite the famous Tyndale Biscoe school.
This is the place where the first prime minister of free India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, promised plebiscite to Kashmiris. The promise was never kept.
Wani says Sheikh Abdullah was in jail when he as a young man came to Lal Chowk to establish his business.
For more than 40 years now, he is into newspaper business and has been witness to historic events from Sheikh-Indira Accord to Mufti-Modi Accord to every other government or anti-government activity that happened in Lal Chowk.
He has witnessed the rush of tourists, and as he calls it, times of tranquility of 1970s and 1980s, and the brutal crackdowns of 1990s.
“I still remember the times of peace in Lal Chowk when all the hotels here ran out of rooms. Tourists used to sleep on the side of Boulevard,” Wani says.
As per Wani, 1970s and 1980s was the golden period of Kashmir.
“It was the time of peace and tranquility,” he says.
Going down the memory lane, Wani says: “It was fun to have lived those wonderful days. We used to say it proudly and loudly that we have a small stall in Lal Chowk. At that time, Lal Chowk was considered to be the crown of Kashmir and Srinagar city was compared to Switzerland.”
Once buzzing with night life, Kashmir has no night life now and almost entire city things come to a standstill by 9 pm and other town shut even earlier.
Wani who has witnessed the night life of Kashmir for more than two decades says, “Entire city used to light up with Boulevard and Lal Chowk witnessing a tourist boom and houseboats in River Jhelum would glitter with lights.”
He says there was no fear among the people and everyone would roam freely during nights.
“I used to close my stall at 12 in the night and would reach home by 1 am or 2 am after hanging out with friends,” Wani says. “My wife would ask me, ‘Who do you love more, me or the stall?’”
Before the outbreak of militancy, 12 cinema halls were operating in the Valley which included Broadway, Neelam, Shiraz, Naaz, Palladium, Shah, Firdous, Regal and Khayam, all situated in Srinagar besides Heewan in Islamabad, Thimaya in Baramulla and Samad Talkies in the apple town of Sopore.
However, the inception of militancy led to the closure of cinemas in 1989. After closure, most of the cinemas were occupied by Army, BSF and CRPF.
Although not a very ardent fan of movies, Wani was lured by friends in 19060s to watch movies at Palladium cinema.
“The first film of my life was Shami Kapoor’s Junglee,” he says.
By late 1980s, New Delhi’s dreadful political maneuvering in the political affairs of Kashmir changed everything. The two main events, which happened, were the political coup of Farooq Abdullah’s government and the rigging of 1987 assembly election which set the ball rolling for militancy in Kashmir. By 1989 Kashmiris were up in arms against New Delhi’s rule.
“Year 1988 changed everything in Kashmir. There was absolute chaos in entire Kashmir. We had thought that everything will be normal soon but we were wrong,” Wani says.
During the early years of militancy, Kashmiri were introduced to a new language of conflict and words like crackdown, encounter and curfews became common. During this period, people had to face hardships as curfew would remain in place for days together. All the publication was stopped by the authorities. It was followed by brutal crackdowns to hunt down militants.
“During the early years of militancy, my family had to go through lots of hardships as all newspapers were banned by the then Governor Jaghmohan,” Wani says. “Authorities had to first take newspaper copies to the Deputy Commissioner’s office to scrutinize the material before sending it to the print. If there was any objectionable material, it was edited. This exercise was carried for three months and I had to struggle a lot to feed my family.”
Gunfights, crackdowns and arbitrary arrests were a routine and Wani was one amongst those who survived the brutal years of 1990s.
“Many policemen were killed during 1990s in front of the main gate of Tyndale Biscoe School. In 1995, around 4 pm, I was about to close my stall when two policemen were killed by unknown gunmen at the same spot. I was detained by police and interrogated. I was released after interrogation at 12 in the night.”
Those who survived arrests and gunfights would become victims of grenade blasts.
Wani though survived a number of grenade blasts.
“I survived thrice but was badly injured twice. Once shrapnel pierced by throat and on the second occasion, my leg was injured badly,” he says.
Once known as ‘Venice of East’, Kashmir has turned into a ‘Beautiful Prison’. From the hustle and bustle of tourists to the wailing of mothers and half-widows, Kashmir has seen it all.
“I am living last years of life and have witnessed everything. I am not hopeful that life would return to Lal Chowk again,” Wani says.
Whether Kashmir continues to plunge into the abyss of pessimism or regains the zenith of its lost glory, only time will tell.
The author is the Op-ed Editor of Rising Kashmir. He can be mailed at email@example.com