The Narendra Modi government’s move to alter names of historical places and institutions is one more in a series of attempts to rewrite the political history of Jammu and Kashmir.
“SOME people say if you can’t beat them, join them. I say, if you can’t beat them, beat them, because they will be expecting you to join them, so you will have the element of surprise.” This oft-quoted wisecrack attributed to an anonymous source, best describes the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) current mood in Jammu and Kashmir.
After the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the BJP embarked on a mission to rename schools, colleges roads and buildings in Jammu and Kashmir, much the same way as it had done in the rest of India since 2014 to erase Mughal imprints.
In October 2019, the Chenani-Nashri Tunnel was renamed the Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Tunnel. Thereafter, the Public Health Engineering, Irrigation and Flood Control Department was renamed as the Jal Shakti Department. The Sher-e-Kashmir police medal for gallantry and Sher-e-Kashmir police medal for meritorious service was renamed as the Jammu and Kashmir police medal for gallantry and the Jammu and Kashmir police medal for meritorious service, by January 26, 2020, order.
While there has been no official communication, news reports indicate that the Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket Stadium and the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre are likely to drop the Sher-e-Kashmir part of their names with the former being renamed as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium.
Sher-e-Kashmir, or Lion of Kashmir, is a sobriquet given to Sheikh Abdullah, former Chief Minister and founder of the National Conference. He led the Quit Kashmir movement and is well respected for his resistance to the Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh as well as for introducing a radical land reforms policy. Despite being one of the finest leaders produced by Kashmir, the 1975 Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Accord, under which he accepted the terms set by India, is viewed by many in Kashmir as a betrayal.
Others like Mushtaaque Ali Ahmad Khan, a theatrician, film-maker and festival director, consider this as a move of Sheikh Abdullah to mark him as a great son of the soil of India.
Regardless of which position Kashmiris hold vis a vis Sheikh Abdullah, reports that his name will be removed from facilities and landmarks in Kashmir, has upset everyone. Mushtaaque Ali Ahmad told Frontline over the phone, “Generally, adding the names of visionaries and educationists to our schools and colleges is a welcome move, and I appreciate it. But removing Sher-e-Kashmir from places is not a great idea. He [Sheikh Abdullah] has done a lot for our great India.”
Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, echoed Mushtaaque’s views, saying that if the idea is to rename places after local heroes, then striking off Sher-e-Kashmir does not make sense. She told Frontline, “Sheikh Abdullah was one of the tallest leaders because of whom Kashmir continues to be a part of India. He should, in fact be eulogised [by the Indian government].”
The National Conference said it was another attempt at distorting Jammu and Kashmir’s history and a calibrated effort to trim every single symbol of its political individuality.
It said in a statement, “The present ruling dispensation in New Delhi, heaving with subjective prejudices and complexes against ideals revolving around the Indian Constitution and the spirit of its accommodative federalism, hasn’t ceased its witch-hunt against everything recognisable with Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. The present ruling dispensation still fears a leader who has physically left the world three decades back.”
The Congress, the Peoples Democratic Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were unanimous in condemning the move to remove Sheikh Abdullah’s name.
Proposals in the pipeline
Some of the other proposals in the pipeline include renaming the Government College for Women, Srinagar, after Prof Riyaz Punjabi, and the Boy’s Higher Secondary School Jawahar Nagar after Prof Hamidi Kashmiri. The Government Degree College, Hyderpora, is proposed to be named after Padma Shri awardee Moti Lal Keemu and Lal Mandi Road is to be named after Sahitya Academy awardee poet Zinda Koul, or Masterji.
Mushtaaque pointed out that some of these changes could not be termed as ‘renaming’ but as adding a name to institutions that did not have an iconic name and which used to use generic terms such as ‘government college’. But Anuradha Bhasin wondered why a women’s college should be named after a man? “There are several illustrious women who were part of the college. Ms Shaw was the first principal, Ms Mehmooda Ahmed Ali Shah was a distinguished educationist and very popular; why not name the college after our own cultural personalities, writers and saints who are revered by both communities? There is no dearth of local heroes in that sense,” she said. According to her, this is one more attempt at erasing history and memory.
Interestingly, the first time an attempt was made to change the name of the Government College for Women Srinagar was in 1973, by the Syed Mir Qasim government. People’s opposition to the move caught the administration on the back foot. The proposal was to rename the college as Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial College for Women. Recalling the incident, the historian Khalid Bashir Ahmad records the role played by Sheikh Abdullah in his book Kashmir: Looking Back in Time (Politics, Culture, History). “On 5 November that year, a function to announce the name change was organised at the college where the guest of honour was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who was then inching close to wrap up a deal with Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for his return to power two decades after his unceremonious sack in 1953. However, a fierce protest by students, during which Abdullah had to make a hasty retreat from the college gate, foiled the government plan. For the first time, slogans were raised against the ‘most popular leader’ of Kashmir and his retreating car was hit by several stones hurled by agitating students.”
In the post-Independence era, several such attempts were made to change names, sometimes to even remove the names of British imperial legacy and replace them with Indian or local heroes, according to Anuradha Bhasin. She said: “There was euphoria about independence, particularly in the Jammu region. Right now, there is no such euphoria. It is simply the BJP wanting to hoist its flag of victory [to show] that it has incorporated Kashmir into the Indian territory. It is being done at the cost of superimposing on local cultures and aspirations. It is an unnecessary attempt to deflect from real issues on the ground. In reality, the BJP has nothing to show for more than two years after Article 370 was abrogated. In fact, the problems in Jammu and Kashmir continue to persist and deepen. In both these regions and Ladakh, there is this great disappointment. This move is targeted at the right-wing constituency of India where elections will be contested in the name of Kashmir. Since they are not able to integrate the people of Kashmir, but only the territory, the BJP has to showcase its victory over the people.”
A July 29 notification from the administration added fuel to the simmering debate. The Divisional Commissioner’s office in Jammu directed all Deputy Commissioners of the region to identify government schools in villages and municipal wards that could be named after martyrs from the Army, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the police force. The letter that went out to the District Commissioners in Kathua, Doda, Poonch, Ramban, Samba, Kishtwar, Rajouri, Udhampur and Reasi said that a committee would be created at the district level comprising the SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police], the DPO [district police officer], the ADC [additional deputy commissioner], the AC [Assistant Commissioner] Panchayat [administrative council] or a representative of the Army.
It is a well-known fact that the Army has had anything but a clean image in Kashmir. So the move to name institutions after security forces personnel has sparked discontent throughout the region, including in the pro-India camp. The move increases the sense of humiliation that is prevailing and adds to the arsenal of discontent for Kashmiris, Anuradha Bhasin says. Many people in the Kashmir valley have suffered personal losses under the long military presence, which they see as an occupation. Victims of abuse by the forces view this move with immense foreboding.
The allegations of human rights violations by security agencies are numerous and disturbing— the Gawkadal massacre in 1990, mass rapes in Kunan Poshpora by soldiers of the Rajputana Rifles of the Indian Army in 1991, mass shooting in Bijbehara by the Border Security Force in 1993, and the Kupwara massacre in 1994. In recent times, several human rights bodies and international organisations, including Amnesty International, Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have taken note of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, fake encounters, mass graves, mind-numbing torture, sexual violence, killing of teenagers and blinding of people, including children, with the use of pellet guns. Some official investigations have indicted personnel from the police, Army, the CRPF and other agencies for involvement in rights abuses.
Explaining the everyday relationship of ordinary Kashmiris with security force personnel, Arif Ayaz Parrey, law graduate and writer, wrote in his article titled “Kashmir: Three Metaphors for the Present”, which appeared in Economic & Political Weekly (November 2010), “The disproportionate number of security personnel and the disproportionate amount of power and impunity they wield under the AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act] and other laws means that the everyday life of ordinary Kashmiris is turned into living hell. There is a bunker every few hundred metres and a camp for every few villages. There are so many security checks and so many orders to produce id proof that the whole of Kashmir is transformed into a jail for the natives. There are regular killings, rapes, molestations, beatings and an unrelenting dose of threat to life, honour, family and property, resulting in constant fear and humiliation. To an ordinary Kashmiri, even when the security forces are not indulging themselves in their privileges, the nature and the memory of the relationship the people share with the security forces is such that in a common space the former is reduced to an inferior class, further enraging the natives who see such degradation in their own land as one of the worst possible disgraces.”
Given this situation, the term ‘martyr’ has different connotations in Jammu and in Kashmir. On Twitter, some commentators termed this move as “another nail in the coffin of Indian oppression”.
When a long view of the history of Kashmir is considered, the reign of Sheikh Abdullah and the abrogation of Article 370 will be seen as some of the significant events that shaped the politics of the region. By comparison, the recent spree to change names will be a pale blip on the horizon. Nevertheless, this unilateral action of the Indian government is seen as one more in a series of attempts to rewrite the political history of the region. A septuagenarian, born in Srinagar, told Frontline that even the name Srinagar was a sanskritised version. “Names that end in nagar, such as Jawahar Nagar, Indira Nagar, or nag, such as Anantanag, or the more obvious Maharajgunj, Mandir Bagh, Sangam, Ramghat or Bhadrkali are Hinduised, but still very much in vogue. Or the Amar Singh College, Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, named after Hindu autocratic rulers, have been there for a long time,” he said.
Reflecting on the name change, Khalid Bashir Ahmad writes in his book, Kashmir Looking Back in Time: “Kashmir is not new to distortion and change in its place names. It is an old story. The very name ‘Kashmir’ is a misnomer, never accepted by natives as the name of their land. A Kashmiri calls it Kasheer, and himself and his language as Koshur instead of Kashmir, Kashmiri people and Kashmiri language, respectively. However, we are told of Kashyap Rishi, a mythical character who lived for ‘thousands of years.”
Khalid Bashir Ahmad states that Kashmiris as a people have generally exhibited a lack of concern for change or distortion of place names or for their corrupt forms to suit others’ phonetic convenience. Such cultural distortion has received public approval by silence. He admitted that one could understand a place name getting corrupted where it was difficult for a non-local ruler or visitor to pronounce it, but he asked where was the need for distorting Varmul to Baramulla, Panpar to Pampore, Pulwom to Pulwama, Vejibror to Bijbihara, Kopwor to Kupwara, Badgom to Budgam, Nayut to Nowhatta, Razay Kadal to Rajouri Kadal, and so on, especially when Kashmiris use these names in their original form in their speech.
Some members of the BJP and the Kashmiri Pandit community justify the renaming of places, viewing it as a move to de-Islamise the valley. Khalid Bashir says that renaming places, structures or institutions is a favourite weapon used by unpopular regimes to distort history.