I had been admiringly watching “that” red rectangular flag, with white plough in the middle and three vertical stripes, flying alongside the tricolour atop Kashmir’s expansive Civil Secretariat building for the three years of my graduation at Sri Pratap College.
Even before that when, as a child, my mother would take me to Lal Chowk for shopping. I continued to see it, the flag of my identity and of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as the three stripes on it symbolise (I won’t say symbolised), many years after that whenever I happened to pass by the building, from which a few hundred paces is located the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir.
I did, as I was coming of age, have my own questions as to why there should be two separate flags on the same building, but I don’t remember asking anyone around me for answers. It was only during my graduation I got to know about its origin and significance. That we enjoyed (here I will go with the past tense because we no more do so now) partial autonomy, had many laws of our own, and above all had our own constitution.
All that ended on August 5 this year.
The decision to strip the state of its autonomy did not sink in until I visited Srinagar on my two-wheeler after almost a month and a half of waiting restlessly. This visit, too, would not have been possible had my sister not told me to buy her oats and green tea wherever I could find them in Srinagar, when I expressed my desire to visit the city to see how things were going outside my small town.
Honestly, I would not have dared to go but the staccato movement of private vehicles on the roads made me decide in its favour. It is not that I was afraid of anything but given the blanket ban on all means of communication, I was reluctant to go, knowing if I were to get late, my parents, especially my mother, would die of worry.
On normal days (which are a rarity in my part of the world), when I returned home a bit late, despite informing my family over the phone of my whereabouts and when I would return, I would spot my mother standing against a pillar on the veranda looking in the direction of the road from where I would arrive. Sometimes, she would tell me that she was waiting for me and that I should be home earlier next time and sometimes she simply wouldn’t say anything.
It was Sunday and after lunch around 2, I left for the city. I rode slightly faster than a coachman could make his horse do after repeated whipping on its back. It was deliberate attempt to see what had changed in this period of time.
Although I could spot heavy movement of private vehicles, fuel stations were deserted. They would only open in the morning or in the evening. But, luckily, one could find petrol, which I needed for my two-wheeler outside the fuel stations sold at ₹100 a litre in plastic mineral water and fizzy drink bottles, mostly by small children.
The shops were shut and as you moved close to the city, the deployment of security forces seemed to increase. Instead of taking the straight road to Srinagar, I took a right turn at Parimpora, left behind SKIMS Bemina hospital and then, a certain distance away took left and reached Rambagh. While riding from home, it occurred to me that I would see my friend who lived there (Rambagh) and could also buy oats and green tea for my sister.
I entered a chemist’s shop, the only shop open at that time and to tell my sister later that I tried to see if I could buy the items from him. He did not have it but, and meanwhile, I also changed my mind to see my friend. I knew he won’t come to know that I was just outside his home and I did not bother to drop by, unless I informed him or when the communications services were restored.
I continued on the Rambagh bund towards Rajbagh, crossed Zero Bridge and took to the left towards Lal Chowk. My next stop would be Press Enclave, as I had some friends in the journalist fraternity who studied with me and were now working with different media organisations.
However, I did not go directly to Press Enclave, which was a minute’s ride from where I had stopped and where, to my amazement, I found vendors who had set up their stalls and people stopping by. This was a positive sign to my eyes which had not seen these many civilians going about their day-to-day activities in many, many days.
So, out of curiosity and to show my family later the signs of life returning to normalcy and which would mean that I could soon travel to Delhi (I have been working intermittently as a journalist and content writer for three years in Delhi) and above all, escape the life which is no life in any sense, I started clicking a few pictures of the not-so-conspicuous flea market locally called the Sunday Market.
I had only clicked a few pictures before a city police vehicle stopped by and two armed cops got down from it. They looked at me for a few seconds, snatched my phone and told me to follow their vehicle to the nearby police station. I did the same and parked my motorcycle inside the premises of the police station.
I followed the cops but soon lost sight of the officer who was given my cell phone after confiscation. I told the cop, who I spotted outside the officer’s room and who I knew took the phone from me, to allow me to speak to the officer, but he did not, saying that he was busy with his senior. I tried to convince him that it was okay with me to talk to him with his senior around him. However, it did not go down well with him so he told me scornfully to sit on the bench, which lay in the corridor, and wait.
Meanwhile, other cops, some uniformed and some in civvies kept coming and going about the corridor. One of them, when he heard from his colleagues the cause of my being there, said, “You shouldn’t have clicked pictures, especially given the present circumstances in the Valley. It is suspicious.”
I told him plainly that I had no ulterior motive and that it was only out of curiosity and I just wanted to show them to my family so that they too, know that things were getting better. “It is not acceptable,” he concluded.
“I am a journalist too but am not working as of now with any organisation. And I can’t send these pictures to anybody in the absence of the internet. It was, as I said, just to show my family,” I said as soon as he finished his last sentence. This brief interaction with the cop, however, frightened me and, as a result, I started to imagine the worst things.
I was now thinking, what if they didn’t give my phone back and kept me in the lockup? How would my family come to know about my detention?
Fortunately, I saw the officer going into his room and I also saw my cell phone with him. I requested a cop manning the door to tell him that I wanted to speak to him. He did the same and I was allowed inside. I stopped in the doorway and again sought the officer’s permission to enter. He nodded and then I was standing before his desk.
He asked me to enter the security pin of my phone, which I did, and straight he went to the photo gallery where he saw the pictures I had just clicked and those already in it.
“Why aren’t there more pictures of you?” he asked still looking at the screen. “The other photos you see are of my younger brother and other family members. I don’t like clicking my photos much,” I answered solemnly.
I kept repeating what I had shared with the cops outside and told him that I had no evil design. The young officer offered me the seat and told me to sit. He checked folder after folder, even the trash bin of the gallery, a feature unknown to me until then. When he was convinced that there was nothing suspicious in the phone, he deleted the pictures of the flea market and told me not to do it again. I thanked him and left. Outside, I waved at the cops and thanked all of them. This time, they responded with smiles.
I did not stop at Press Enclave but found a video journalist at Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) capturing the traffic movement in his camera. I did not know him, so I went on. As I reached the Civil Secretariat, I witnessed the lonely Indian flag atop it and the flagpole, which earlier bore the state flag, stood faceless.
It was quite visible from the road outside. I did not stop there, fearing I might be asked again as to why I pulled over. It was a sad scene, just like everything else unfolding in the rest of the state.
It is entirely a different story of how my family reacted when I reached home and narrated my ordeal. But, by then, I had already joined the flagpole in its sadness and plunged even deeper in memories of it being in offices and on official cars, side by side with the tricolour.