The Right to Define our Place

By Dileep Kumar Kaul

January 2011

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.

We can 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 is painted. It is the picture 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 say?

When I reached platform 1, on the left side there was a glow sign (not glowing at all), telling 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 had to say more than this.

During election times, political parties try to define public places through their posters. The number of posters gives an impression who has got more power. Getting control of public places is so important that the activists of political parties clash over the fact that other political parties paste their 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 sign boards painted in green and white and no language but Urdu was to be used. This was to create an impression of an Islamic country. In the process it was forgotten that urdu is an Indian language that developed and flourished in India. But it was put forward as a muslim language and green colour was defined as muslim colour. It is this mindset that is at work at Jammu railway station.

Jammu is famous for vaishno devi shrine to which pilgrims come form all over the world. It has religious, social , cultural and economic significance and the finances generated are certainly more than the Hazratbal shrine. But on jammu Railway Station the painting of Hazratbal shrine is not only to put the burden of secularism on Jammu , it is to overmask the cultural identity of Jammu. The dominance of Kashmir is being forced here. Just paint the Vaishno Devi Shrine any where in Srinagar and see what happens. This painting suggests that Hazratbal is everything even in Jammu. The cultural identity of Jammu is being kept at bay. It is dissolved in this painting of Hazratbal shrine. This fact is to be kept in mind that the existence of this painting on Jammu Railway station is important because it is among the most important public spaces in Jammu. Many people may have noticed it but hardly anything has been done about it. This is a good example showing how attempts to define public places are made by those in power and how people take these attempts for granmted.  Even in USA Obama government tried to define public places. It was proposed that a mosque would be built at the ground zero of 9/11. The twin towers  that were razed to ground defined USA as a place. Those towers defined USA as a superpower, as an economic giant and that is how American citizens visualized their place. They resisted the attempts to put at that place a symbol that represented the forces which razed the symbol of American power to ground. Voices were raised against the mosque and it could not be 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 which were 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 remember the terrorist attack on Raghunath Mandir, Jammu. Political parties as usual defined the temple as a religious place and the attack on it naturally was explained as an attack on religious sentiments of Jammu. It was conveniently forgotten that Raghunath Mandir was a place of Sanskrit Learning and most probably still lodges a library of ancient manuscripts. Raghunath Mandir has been an important seat of the intellectual culture 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 a lot 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 expansion of Jammu as a place and will establish its cultural link with Kashmir which separatists are trying to sever.  If these points are highlighted it will give new definition to Jammu as a place and it will not remain as a place of soldiers and warriors only which it, of course has been but that is not the only part of the culture of Jammu as a place. The politics in Jammu also suffers from victim mentality. The main thrust point is that Jammu has been ignored and all the attention has been given to Kashmir.  Here again Jammu is defined as a subordinate place and within this discourse Kashmir is being constantly strengthened and Jammu weakened. The identity of Jammu as a whole, Jammu as a place is no where. 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 dominance of Islam. Jammu has not been able to emphasize that it has been a cultural resistance against this onslaught in its own way. It has done so not only through sword but intellect as well.

Public place is defined through the type of symbols you fill it with. Public place in Kashmir is defined by protests. Protests have become the identifying factor of Kashmir as a place and the likes of Arundhati Roy side with Geelani like people. These people do not treat Kashmir as a place but take it as a political entity as is inherent in Indian constitution also. This also shows what manipulating of public spaces can do! For many months the public space in Kashmir was filled with protests and deaths, blames on security forces and GOI. It was sustained for months altogether and Kashmir got a different meaning as a place. 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 a 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 author is a prolific writer and a poet.)