How Kashmir is losing its spaces of dissent

By banning assemblies inside Pratap Park, the government has cracked another whip on dissenters. But is the walk in the park only domain in Vale that falls under embargo? 

Beyond the gun-cocked sentry scrolling visitors from a sand picket, a war-torn dissent space lies in ruins. The smoked walls, the burnt windows and the packed military house are the new identity of the place where the unbending Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani would once chant freedom slogans alongside National Conference founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. But the yesteryear’s dissent place has now become another building in Valley—that stands garrisoned.

The unbecoming of the Mujahid Manzil in the military predominant ambiance of Valley is being termed as another reminder of denied dissent cosmos to Kashmiris. It goes back to the eventful 1933 when decades old monument of resistance politics Mujahid Manzil, or House of Mujahids nested on Jhelum banks of Zaina Kadal was established by Moulana Masoodi and Sheikh Abdullah as space for organising and educating against the Dogra regime. The Manzil became a political hub of Muslim Conference with Saleh Khan appointed as its custodian and Moulana Masoodi as its supervisor.

Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah, then Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir addressing members of the General Council of All Jammu & Kashmir National Conference at Mujahid Manzil, Hd. Qrs. of the Conference in Srinagar, November,1949. (Photo: OSD Shri Bamzai/PhotoDiv Archive)

“It was the space,” recalls Ahmadullah Bhat, a ninety something elder from nearby Khanqah Mohalla, “where the oppressed Kashmiri suddenly found a voice against the century old treacherous Dogra regime.” Bhat has his faint memories of the place where he saw the likes of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, MK Gandhi, JL Nehru and others descending to deliver a loaded political talk—when the sub-continent was shaping new destinies of new nations.

Bhat recalls the time when the entire Kashmir was rallying behind Plebiscite Movement operated from the Manzil. Then 1975 accord happened, and the dissent centre became National Conference headquarters. Many discontinued visiting the place including Sopore’s Sofi Mohammad Akbar. “That Accord had many ramifications,” Bhat, the onetime regular at Manzil, continues. “It left many in vengeful huff who considered Manzil a treacherous place.” Though NC shifted its base to Nawai Subhah in uptown Rajbagh before armed uprising could break in Kashmir, but the structure—now the supposed “occupation strengthening house”—was reportedly torched by militants before being occupied by the military.

With that, Kashmir lost the Manzil, forever. Though in between, some alternate spaces emerged and tried to fill the gap, but they could never replace the historic hub.

People continued to protest in squares, Jamia Masjid, Khankah and other large spaces—like today. But absence of a space like MM is still seen highly suspicious in Vale where protest now symbolises bloody paths, body counts and failed government.

The cutting-edge embargo now falls on dissent inside Pratap Park—when Mehbooba Mufti regime (already in the centre of a political storm over her regime’s handling of protests) slammed shut its gates for protests in March this year. The move was taken to “safeguard the park” after MGNREGA employees started protesting there.

But in Kashmir’s post-insurgency period, the park attained prominence for hosting silent sit-ins by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) every 10th of the month. The closed gates, many say, means denying space to a harmless dissent rally.

Members of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and Relatives of the disappeared gather at sit-in protest at Pratap Park in Srinagar, Kashmir. (Photo: APDP Archive)

“Where will we go then?” asked Parveena Ahangar, APDP chairperson.“We don’t have a Jantar Mantar here. We don’t have any space where we can express ourselves. This was the park where we would peacefully organize our programmes and remember our loved ones.This park does not belong to Mehbooba Mufti or anyone. It’s for the common people. They have no right to deny us that space. This is a new law now. They don’t have any laws for BSF, CRPF or Kashmir Police. It is only for us. We will go to and protest outside the gates of the houses of these politicians.”

In its defence, the state managers say that parks aren’t meant for protests—not even Pratap Park was ever meant for it. It gained significance among protestors because of the Press Enclave, at a furlong distance from it.

“During Maharaja Pratap’s 40 year rule (1885- 1925),” says Zareef A Zareef, a poet-historian,“Pratap Park was constructed for the residents of the most congested areas of Kokar Bazar, Maisuma and GowKadal.” It was meant to provide relief to them in summers and safety during catastrophes like earthquakes, he says.“After Press enclave was constructed there, it gained significance among the protestors.”

So, is State killing the spaces for discussions?

Zareef says it does. As a former Information Department employee,he recalls how the state tries to shut down the voices of commoners—even journalists.“I remember the days when I would be in newsroom. At 10:30am, the summary of the newspapers, headlines, editorial subheads and content had to be reported to Resident commissioner. So, the thing is, we never had any democratic setup here.”

But Pratap Park was never meant for protests, says Waheed-ur- Rehman Parra, the ruling PDP’s youth president. The government, he says, will provide alternate space for dissent.

“If it is suggested by people—but, not at the cost of violence. Nobody is against freedom of expression. Even if the separatists want to do a peaceful protest, we don’t have any objection.”

But the young leader seen as the key-man in the present dispensation wants three things exempted from Kashmir’s protest calendar:development, education and welfare of people.

What about booking youth for posting, uploading their thoughts on Facebook?

“Only those netizens are being arrested who instigate violence and communalism,” he says. “Rest, the government isn’t choking any space for dissent.”

But not many agree with him. In today’s Kashmir, says Khurram Parvez, a rights activist, every dissent space is being increasingly choked. “But the more the space they chock,” he says, “the more people will rise against it.”

The activist says the state aren’t only creating hurdles during protests but also hampering activities like holding a press conference. “They have started this illegal procedure where they ask you to ask the DC for permission because Section 144 is imposed here (more than 4 people cannot gather at a public place). But, even at places like hotels/restaurants, we are not allowed to do our job.”

In last few years, the space has faced crackdown like never before. “You can see how people now go to encounter sites/ opt for militancy. It’s not easy for people to stay quiet. By denying the political space for dissent, young Kashmiri boys are being pushed towards militancy.”

But in Kashmir, says Mir Mushtaq, a college freshman, people aren’t living, but surviving. Decrying suffocation, government implements curfew—even when the protest calendar mentions ‘peaceful protests’, he says. “How do they know it’s not going to be peaceful? The strategies of the government push it to violence.”

To provide alternate spaces, Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian and developmental NGO, started a youth-led initiative ‘One Young Kashmir’ in Kashmir in 2011. It laid emphasis on creating space, bringing together youth of Kashmir to speak on issues.

A year later, in 2012, the state was back to its colours—says Hafsa, an attendant of the summit—when the NGO’s Kashmir head, Usmaan Raheem Ahmad, was deported from India. “The timing of his deportation only reiterates the fact that embargo will continue to deny Kashmir their dissent spaces.”

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