On August 8, Jammu and Kashmir government issued a weekly order detailing Covid-19 containment measures in the union territory. Like previous orders that have been issued periodically since the second wave of the pandemic in the summer, it talked about the need to follow social distancing norms, intensify vaccination drives, keep schools closed and restrict gatherings to 25 people – barring one significant exception, Independence Day.

There will be no ceiling on gatherings on August 15 in Jammu and Kashmir, and schools have been asked to organise celebrations that day.

For decades, national commemorations have elicited a stony silence and indifference from the vast majority of Kashmiris. Since an armed uprising erupted against Indian rule in 1989, militant groups and separatists have routinely called for shutdowns on Independence Day on August 15 and Republic Day on January 26. As a result, these events have been relegated to high-security zones inaccessible to ordinary civilians.

But this pattern seems to be changing.

Ever since the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status and was downgraded to a Union territory days before Independence Day in 2019, the significance attached to national commemorations has been markedly more pronounced.

Last year in August, the government directed all officers above the rank of under-secretary to attend Independence Day celebrations held in Jammu and Srinagar, the two capitals, as part of their official duty. In the run-up to Independence Day this year, the campaign has turned more high-pitched.

Tricolour at every school

For the first time in Jammu and Kashmir, every government school has been directed to hoist the tricolour on Independence Day and upload videos and photos of the event. The education department order dated August 2 also instructs school authorities to organise cleanliness drives, plantation drives, community classes and gatherings in the days leading up to August 15. School teachers say they have even been asked to prepare students to memorise and sing the national anthem.

A teacher, who requested anonymity, said this is the first time in his career that schools have been mandated to organise such events around Independence Day. “Earlier, as government employees, we would be directed to attend the main Independence Day celebrations held at every district headquarter. Now, the celebrations have been decentralised and there is an eye on each and every school,” he said.

The government has also directed panchayati raj representatives to unfurl the national flag at the district, sub-district, tehsil level, as well as in panchayats.

According to grassroots leaders, this will be the first time all the three-tiers of the panchayati raj system will be involved in the celebration of Independence Day celebrations in the union territory. “Whether it is the sarpanch at the panchayat level, block development council chairman at the block level or district development council chairman, all of them will unfurl the tricolour,” said Mohammad Shafiq Mir, chairman of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, a body of elected Panchayat leaders.

From Gulmarg to Srinagar

This is also the first time that the tricolour is splashed across Lal Chowk, a public square in the heart of Srinagar city, which has witnessed scores of crucial events in the history of contemporary Kashmir.

For years, the clock tower in Lal Chowk was guarded by a contingent of security personnel who would unfurl the Indian flag on it, amidst a complete lockdown, on the eve of Independence Day or Republic Day.

This year, however, it was awash in the tricolour, a week before Independence Day.

For that matter, the tricolour is now becoming ubiquitous across Kashmir. Last year, lampposts fixed on the perimeter of world-famous Dal Lake had a tricolour attached to them.

In March, the Jammu and Kashmir government ordered that the flag be installed atop every government building in the Union territory within two weeks. A month before, it had directed the heads of the government schools to adopt “grey and white colour scheme” for school buildings, besides installing “a signboard of standard design with tricolour in the background”.

On August 10, the Indian army unfurled the national flag atop a 100-feet tall pole in the picturesque tourist spot of Gulmarg as part of its celebration of 75 years of India’s independence. “Gulmarg is one of the locations along the Line of Control wherein Pakistani troops had infiltrated in 1965 and owing to the prompt response of young shepherd Mohd Din, who alerted the security forces about the same, the Indian army was greatly benefitted in defeating the nefarious designs of Pakistan,” a statement issued by Colonel Emron Musavi, Army’s spokesperson in Srinagar, said.

On the eve of Independence Day, the government is also planning to install a tricolour atop Hari Parbat hill, which overlooks Srinagar’s downtown area, a bastion of pro-freedom sentiment in the city, famous for street protests and stone-pelting.

Celebrations and killings

An open display of Indian nationalism in a restive place like Kashmir, however, comes with its own risks.

On August 5, to mark the second anniversary of the Modi government’s decision to end the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, activists and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party held celebrations and unfurled the tricolour amidst tight security across Kashmir.

Just four days later, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader and his wife, also affiliated with the party, were gunned down by militants inside their rented accommodation in Anantnag district.

A militant group, the Resistance Front, which the police say is a rebranded version of Lashkar-e-Taiba, claimed responsibility for the killing. A statement issued by the militant group on social media called the couple were “traitors who celebrated 5th August recently and were staying put to attend 15th August occupiers function (sic).”

No wonder, many school teachers are anxious about the Independence Day events they have been asked to organise. A teacher, who requested that his identity be withheld, said he had encountered “strong resistance” from many students against the celebrations. “It’s very hard to convince them. They are aware about the politics of Kashmir and they simply don’t want to participate,” he said.

However, failure to adhere to the government’s directions could invite serious consequences, he claimed. “The government is serious about it. They have cancelled all the leaves until August 15 and attendance of every staffer is mandatory,” he said. In case a school fails to hold the event, its employees could be questioned and even fired, he claimed.

Such fears are not unfounded. At least 18 government employees have been terminated from their services since May without even an inquiry being held.

On one side is the prospect of losing his job, said the teacher. On the other, an even graver risk. “I am posted in a slightly volatile and pro-militant village. What if something untoward happens during these events. Who will be responsible?” he asked.

Mir of the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference also voiced similar concerns. “We intend to organise events at every level, but the security will be on our mind,” he said. “We have to see what arrangements they [the government and the police] make for us.”