BJP's Lal Chowk itch

It was a different Kashmir in 1991 when the then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi decided to raise tri-colour at Lal Chowk. Militancy had overrun everything.  There was hardly a facet of life which the militants, then hailed as mujahideen, didn’t control. They could get the people to set their watches back by half an hour to coincide with Pakistan standard time. And in one case, they could even order people not to smoke publicly and get people to obey it.

On the other hand, the army and paramilitary forces engaged in crackdowns, mass arrests and the gun-battles were the only symbol of the government. Kashmir police which now  deals everything from the fight against militants through stone throwers to peaceful protests had no role.

It was in this context that Joshi decided to unfurl tricolour on the Republic Day at the conclusion of his Ekta Yatra from Kanyakumari to Srinagar. He had taken over as president from BJP stalwart L K Advani who in his Rath Yatra through eighties had set BJP up as a viable political and ideological force which in mid-nineties would rule India. So, in a sense, Joshi’s yatra and the decision to raise national flag in Lal Chowk was an effort to emulate his more prominent predecessor and try to be one up on him. But this was not to be. Not only his yatra could not mobilize the crowds on the scale that Advani’s had done but his flag ceremony in Srinagar proved a damp squib. He could barely manage to do it amid the  unprecedented security which still proved inadequate when militants succeeded in launching a rocket in his direction which just  missed  the target.

However, what flag ceremony did was bring a world of attention to Kashmir. In the end, it only helped prove to the country and to the larger world how Kashmiris hated unfurling of tricolour on their soil. And nineteen years later, BJP is again set to prove to the world that this situation has not changed in the state. On January 26 this year, youth wing of BJP has made Lal Chowk the flag hoisting destination of one more yatra – this time from Bengal to Kashmir. And to the BJP’s delight, JKLF supremo Yasin Malik has decided to lock horns with the party and vowed to raise JKLF’s flag at the place. This has enhanced the news value of the event by several notches and the BJP riding on the still unfolding UPA scams can hope to use flag event at Lal Chowk to further burnish its nationalist credentials.

But how will the event play out in Kashmir? Perhaps, hardly any different than the way it did in 1991 and for the nineteen years ever since. That is, it will be an event whose countdown will begin a week before with every successive approaching day witnessing gradual disappearance of crowds and the consolidation of the security. And on the RDay itself, Lal Chowk virtually turns into a ghost market with only security personnel in attendance. And this year, BJP will only further add to this desolation.
There are three ways one can look at the whole issue. One, BJP is trying to project the flag hoisting as a patriotic gesture. And on that count contradicting the move is like speaking against religion. And those who will still try to criticize BJP or in some way try to prevent the flag ceremony  will  only be playing the party’s game. This will set BJP up more patriotic than others.
Second, while BJP might mask its decision as patriotic but it is driven by political considerations. The move is essentially underpinned by the cold, calculated party politics. A party that has ridden to power on deeply polarising issues from Ayodhya to Gujarat couldn’t let go off a handy opportunity in Kashmir. More so, when Kashmir can always be counted on to generate emotions on a mass scale. It will give the party a good political mileage in a country where corruption – no matter of what monumental proportion – doesn’t involve people beyond a point.
And then there is the Kashmir angle. Here, it will come as yet another example of New Delhi forcing its will on Kashmir. And hence be a fresh source of anti-India feelings. What should be of concern to New Delhi is that this feeling is  now getting crystallized around the tricolour itself and Lal Chowk is getting iconized as a citadel of resistance which needs to be forced into submission. In fact, setting Lal Chowk up as a synonym for Kashmir problem has been a singularly BJP project. The process that was set in motion by Joshi in 1991 is coming a full circle with the manufacturing of fresh confrontation over the right to raise a flag over the place. However, what will be more telling on the day is not that BJP will again hoist tricolour under state protection but that JKLF will be kept away from doing this. This hardly needs any guessing who the real winner will be. BJP, yet again, will expose to the country and the world how difficult it is to hoist flag in Lal Chowk. And for once, it will be easier for the world to make sense of what Kashmir problem really is, shorn of its India, Pakistan baggage, that is.