Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lal Chowk- one day before 'Lal Chowk Chalo'



The streets of Lal Chowk covered with wilted Chinar leaves crackle under the feet of soldier’s heavy boots. The cold wind gushes through the deserted streets touching, on its way, the ‘forbidden’ Ghanta Ghar (Clock tower). It is one day prior to the ‘Lal Chowk rally’ scheduled for October 6 and Kashmir is under Curfew for the third time in last two months. And Lal Chowk- the Red Square of Kashmir is transformed into a cantonment.  


The base of the historic Clock tower is coiled around by rusted barb wires and the broken glass frames at the top lean out from the tower. Every road leading to the clock tower is barred- by red traffic cones, by white iron barricades and hundreds of AK- 47 wielding soldiers.


Lal Chowk or the ‘Red Square’ has a place in the history of Kashmir and more importantly in the political changes in Kashmir. It was here at the feet the clock tower that Sheikh Abdullah in front of thousands of Kashmiris recited a Persian poem of love, saying “I have become you and You have become me” to Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India. Then with the beginning of militancy in Kashmir, Lal Chowk became the site for frequent encounters and attacks between security forces and militants. And, two months back, it was atop the same clock tower that half a million people armed with banners and placards hoisted green flags.


After the recent wave of mass protests in Kashmir, the separatists in the valley called for a peaceful march to Lal Chowk on August 25. But on August 24, the state arrested all separatist leaders and clamped strict curfew in the valley lasting for nine days. The security forces had, at that time, blocked even the view of clock tower with tin sheets fixed on iron bars and concertina wires rolled on the streets of Lal Chowk for several meters.


The call for ‘Lal Chowk Chalo’ was revisited by the separatists keeping it after the month of Ramadan and Eid. This time as well, the state machinery came down heavily imposing curfew in the entire valley one day prior to the day of the march. Lal Chowk is again surrounded by armored vehicles and the Clock Tower is out of bounds.


The roads are silent except for the snarling wind and raucous laughter.  And there are voices of distant screeching tyres, piercing shouts, mellowed voices and of reverse gears. 

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