It is not only mental agony and physical confinement that the people of the downtown have been suffering for past almost three decades, but for curfews, restrictions, and shutdown their economy has been irretrievably ruined. Deathly silence has overtaken most of the carpet weaving centers- where best silken carpets that fetched millions of dollars to the state, woodcarving karkhanas and embroidery centers that pulsated with activities of thousands of artisans. From intricately hand-engraved silverware to polishing of gems and stones many an important crafts for which the old city was famous world have almost died- and artisans have been made to live a famished life. The centuries old whole sale markets that bustled with economic activities have almost become defunct, and many important traders have shifted to markets in “posh areas” that don’t suffer from the ‘seven police station syndrome’ that the state administration is afflicted with.
Sometimes, the debates on the social media are quite informative and challenging inasmuch as they call for a serious thinking. The past week a young architect posted a picture of a newly constructed gateway to the downtown Srinagar. Many say after the three gateways to the Mogul garrison city Naagar Nagari, it is first gateway that has been constructed in the city. For Kashmiri nationalists, the walled Mogul city was the first foreign army’s bunker in the city of Srinagar. Nonetheless, in the oral narrative of the downtown, it is often mentioned that a gateway to the old city existed at Khawaja Bazar up to Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s times (1856–1885). However contemporary histories make a no mention about it.
The gateway named Babul-Iqbal, after the greatest South-Asian poet of Kashmir ancestry Dr. Sir Mohammad Iqbal, has been constructed near the Baba Dawood Khaki Bridge on the banks of Brari Nambal- once most pristine blue lagoon. The architecture of the gateway with its arches blends with the minarets of Masjids and Khanqahs dominating the skyline of the ‘City of Sultans of Kashmir.’ For over about seven centuries the capital city of the Sultans has been a crucible of culture and ethos of Kashmir. For its exquisite arts, artifacts, crafts, rugs and grandest wooden architecture the city is known beyond the boundaries of the sub-continent. Almost up to 1947, till an invisible and temporary line was across the state, the city had been a meeting place for traders from various Central Asian countries –the Silk Route was the jugular vein of Kashmir for its trade and commerce. Perhaps, the idea behind constructing this gateway has been to bring the old city on the tourism map of the state and to showcase it as a heritage city and develop it as tourism attraction.
The young architect who posted the picture on the social med was aggrieved with the location of the gateway. He had tagged the picture to some people connected with preserving the heritage and promoting tourism and also to some denizens of the downtown. The post on the social network generated an informed discussion on preservation of heritage sites in the city and on the tormenting conditions as have been obtaining in the downtown Srinagar; which its inhabitants proudly call as Shahr-i- Khas (City of distinction). Nonetheless, it was a cartoon about the gateway Babul-Iqbal in the newspaper portraying the situation poignantly as has been prevailing for past couple of decades in the downtown. The abode of great poets, historians, scholars and revolutionary leaders- Spartacus’s in their own right who have challenged the mighty and powers and architects of modern Kashmir. Moreover, for having been epicenter of struggle against feudal autocracy, its bigoted rule and denial of basic rights to the overwhelming majority it continues to be recognized as the city of resilience and resistance.
The cartoon showing iron grill gates fixed in the gateway latched with huge locks reminded me of the city of “C” in a modern dystopian novel ‘the Curfew’ authored by a contemporary American novelist Jesse Ball. The story of a father and daughter living in fear in city embroiled in insurgency where even music is banned. On many counts, the scenes and situation portrayed in the novel have close resemblance to the tormented Downtown Srinagar- once famous for its Universities and Colleges throughout South Asia and Central Asia.
The huge locks on the gate in the cartoon endlessly reminded me of two lines from the novel, “There had been a jail once, but now there was no need for a jail. The system was very much too efficient.” These lines, in fact, sum up the life of the ordinary citizens in the downtown Srinagar circuitously often describes in the handouts issued by the state ‘areas falling under the seven police station.’ For past over two decades over half a million people residing in different Mohallas of the downtown have often been living under curfew that is euphemistically now called by the authorities as “restrictions.” The softened word “restrictions” that keep people indoors and prevents them from saying congregational prayers in Masjids seems to have been picked up from two sentences in the novel; “There was no curfew. There was simply declaration; GOOD CITIZENS PASS THEIR NIGHTS ABED.” There are lots of similarities between the city of C in the novel, where people cannot venture out after nightfall and the downtown Srinagar. It would not be incongruous to the plot of the novel if the letter ‘C’ is replaced with ‘S.’
The people in the old city strongly believe that they have been suffering collective punishments for their political beliefs. It is more than obvious once leaping economy is brought to a naught. So far no proper economic survey of the old city has been conducted by the government or any other institution, even if some individual might have done, it is not in public domain. Nonetheless, even a random survey reveals that the per capita income of people in old city has considerably dropped during past two decades. Many an artisans and craftsmen with deft hands are living below the poverty line. Even a man in the street attributes most of the troubles the “seven-police-station syndrome” and to the Friday-curfew-mindset of a section of administration and political establishment that for decades has been pursuing a policy of “collective punishment” towards the old city.
It was this mindset in the bureaucracy and a section of political leadership that has been working against the interests of the old city since the fifties. This mindset during Bakshi rule had subverted the idea of constructing the Secretariat and High Court at the foothills of the Afghan fort in the salubrious environs of famous garden of Waris Khan overlooking the Nageen Lake under the pretext that people living in the areas around the fort were hostile towards government. It had on grapevine in the corridors of the power that some influential bureaucrats has opposed the proposal says, ‘the area is as bad as enemy territory.’
Till the time this mindset towards the old city changes and the ‘Friday-restriction’ phenomenon ends, the idea of constructing of a gateway for showcasing the heritage city as a tourism destination sound absurd. The administration needs to revisit its policy towards the downtown with an open mind- it has the potential for emerging as hub of heritage tourism.
-Z.G. Muhammad is a columnist/ author. the titles of his books include, Kashmir in War and Diplomacy, Kashmir: Hope and Despair, Kashmir the Cindering Chinars, Srinagar: My City My Dreamland, Srinagar: The City of Resistance- Story of a Downtown Boy. He lives in Srinagar, Kashmir