The Right to Define our Place
by Dileep Kumar Kaul on 07 Feb 2011 0 Comment
We have the habit of taking public space for granted as if it has continuously been there. Yet public space is always the expression of the intentions of some person or institution. Purposes are given to a place by a person or institution and it is put forward as a place that has symbolic meaning. Many instruments are used to sustain that symbolic meaning. If we take a keen look at public space around us, we can see that it is a site social and political contestation and many other conflicting discourses.


Take Jammu Railway station as a typical public space. When we enter the station, climb up the stairs and reach the gate leading towards platform no.1, on the right hand side wall we see a picture painted - of Hazratbal shrine which contains an inlet showing the sacred hair of the Prophet of Islam. It caught my attention when I was leaving Jammu some months back. What was this picture trying to convey?


When I reached platform 1, on the left side there was a glow sign (defunct), saying something about the Vaishno Devi Shrine. In my previous visit I had seen a glow sign installed by a Hindi newspaper highlighting its success in the city of temples that is Jammu. But the picture of Hazratbal in a primary public place of Jammu was trying to convey something more.


During election time, political parties try to define public places through their posters. The number of posters gives an impression about who has more power (or resources). Getting control of public places is so important that the activists of political parties clash when other political parties paste posters in their area.


Controlling public places like this acquired a new dimension in Kashmir when terrorism began in 1990. It was made mandatory for all shopkeepers to get their signboards painted in green and white and no language other than Urdu was to be used (i.e., no Kashmiri which is the native language of the region). This was to create the impression of an Islamic country. Urdu was projected as a purely Muslim language and the green colour was defined as Islamic. It is this mindset that is at work at Jammu railway station.


Jammu is famous for the Vaishno Devi shrine which attracts pilgrims from all over the country, perhaps even the world. It has religious, social, cultural and economic significance, and the finances generated are certainly higher than at the Hazratbal shrine. Thus on Jammu Railway Station, the painting of Hazratbal shrine is not only to put the burden of secularism on Jammu, but to over-mask the cultural identity of Jammu. The dominance of Kashmir is being forced here. Just paint the Vaishno Devi Shrine anywhere in Srinagar and see what happens. This painting suggests that Hazratbal is everything, even in Jammu. The cultural identity of Jammu is being diminished.


Jammu Railway station is among the most important public spaces in Jammu. Many people may have noticed the Hazratbal picture, but hardly anything has been done about it. This is a good example of how attempts to define public places are made by those in power and how people submit to the same. In the USA, the Obama government tried to define public places by approving the proposal for an enlarged mosque-cum-community centre at ground zero of 9/11. The twin towers that were razed to the ground defined that place in USA. The towers defined USA as a superpower, as an economic giant, and hence American citizens fiercely resisted attempts to alter or modify that place with a symbol representing forces believed to be behind the demolition of this symbol of American power. Voices were raised and so far the new mosque has not been built at ground zero. Americans do not take their public places for granted. They kept the right to define their places with themselves. Building a mosque at that place meant appeasement of the forces believed responsible for the destruction. Public spaces are often filled with symbols of appeasement of destructive forces in many countries.


In fact, politics does not take into consideration any place as a whole. A convenient aspect is highlighted, emphasized and re-emphasized, keeping other aspects in the background. Just recall the terrorist attack on Raghunath Mandir, Jammu. Political parties as usual defined the temple as a religious place and the attack on it was explained as an attack on the religious sentiments of Jammu. It was forgotten that Raghunath Mandir was a place of Sanskrit learning, a famous library of ancient manuscripts, and an important seat of the intellectual vibrancy of Jammu.


But this point cannot be the basis of politics. This temple makes us remember Dogra Kings like Maharaja Ranbir Singh who had great respect for intellectuals and scholars and did much to preserve ancient manuscripts. All the Dogra kings held Kashmiri Pandit Sanskrit scholars in highest esteem. This point is very important from the point of view of the expansion of Jammu as a place and establishes its cultural link with Kashmir, which separatists are trying to sever. If these points are highlighted, it will give a new definition to Jammu as a cultural site and not a place of soldiers and warriors only, which it has been, but it is not that alone.


The politics in Jammu suffers from a victim mentality. The main thrust is that Jammu has been ignored and all attention showered on Kashmir. Here again Jammu is defined as a subordinate place and within this discourse Kashmir is constantly strengthened and Jammu weakened. The identity of Jammu as a place is nowhere.


Kashmiri Muslims have been able to project Kashmir as a place all over the world. They have tried to distort traditional Kashmiri icons to fit into the mould of Islamic dominance. Jammu has not been able to emphasize its status as a place of cultural resistance against this onslaught. Yet it has done so not only through sword but the intellect as well.


Public space is defined through the symbols you fill it with. Public space in Kashmir is defined by protests. The likes of Arundhati Roy side with Geelani types. These people do not treat Kashmir as a place but as a political entity. This also shows what manipulating of public spaces can do! For many months public space in Kashmir was filled with protests and violence, accusations against security forces and the Government of India. It was sustained for months and Kashmir acquired a different meaning.


This is an interesting example of how carefully social structures of violence are created and used, and how so-called intellectuals like Arundhati Roy are party to this structural violence which deprives other people of J&K of their rights in the state. Such machinations can be resisted only by visualizing our places of belonging in their wholeness, and exhibiting that wholeness in our public places through whatever means possible.


The writer is a PhD scholar of Delhi University, a Hindi poet and a linguist

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