The uneasy truces of Jammu and Kashmir have been tested by this year’s commemoration of Martyr’s Day.

In the state government, coalition partners, the People's Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party find themselves at yet another ideological impasse. The BJP said it would not join the gathering at the Martyr’s Graveyard because it did not think the 22 people gunned down by the Maharaja's army on July 13, 1931, were martyrs. Present-day separatists belong to the same political tradition as the dead men of 1931, the BJP contends, so any association must be avoided. The PDP, for its part, would happily trace its ideological lineage back to the incident. For the party to retain key constituencies, it needed to participate quite visibly in the commemoration.

July 13 was also to bring together the different streams of the separatist movement. Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s hardline, pro-Pakistan Hurriyat (G), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s moderate faction, Hurriyat (M), and Yasin Malik’s pro-azadi Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front were to hold a joint rally in Srinagar. This moment of amity between the separatist leaders is rare. The various groups, with differing political agendas, that converged in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in 1993 have long since gone their own ways. The protests sparked off by the Amarnath land transfer in 2008 had brought about a brief reconciliation, but the parties soon disagreed over speeches, slogans and the question of leadership of the separatist movement. How would this new rapprochement have played out? We won’t know because the rally never took place. On Monday, the state government launched a crackdown on the separatists, placing Geelani, Mirwaiz and Malik under house arrest.

Strained ties

With the arrests, the tenuous pact between separatist and mainstream parties is also strained further. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who “thanked” the Hurriyat for free and fair elections in J&K, now heads a government that wishes to keep separatists out of sight. In earlier times, the PDP had been anxious to be seen as a party that would accommodate separatist sentiments within the democratic process. Now, it seems competing claims for the legacy of July 13 have washed away such sympathies. For a PDP in alliance with the BJP, it may also be part of a delicate balancing act ‒ clamp down on separatists while appropriating the rites of remembrance.

More than 80 years after they took place, the killings of 1931, have the power to reignite the most fraught questions on J&K. These political contestations have much to do with how the day is remembered, what it still means for different sections of public opinion.

On that day in 1931, a crowd of protesters had gathered around the Central Jail in Srinagar to witness the execution of Abdul Qadeer, who had exhorted Kashmiris to rise against the rule of the Dogra maharajas. As the crowd grew restive, Dogra armies opened fire, killing 22. As Ab Qayoom Khan, retired IFS officer and member of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat writes in Greater Kashmir, it was the incident that “ignited the powder keg of history” and started the “inexorable march” towards freedom.

Except, for the protesters in Srinagar and their ideological successors, that freedom was Kashmiri. It defined itself primarily against Dogra rule, which was seen as oppressive and extractive. It prompted the political awakening that would see the rise of Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference, and the Quit Kashmir agitation of 1946, directed at the maharaja. As Sheikh Abdullah drew closer to the national mainstream in 1975, however, commemorations of July 13 also grew muted, with less mass participation.

The memory remains

In 1990, with the growing insurgency in J&K, Martyr’s Day would enter a new phase of significance. Separatist leaders reinvented it as a symbol of Kashmiri resistance against the state, calling for strikes each year. Successive chief ministers, meanwhile, have paid tribute at the Martyr’s Graveyard, as if, Qayoom Khan says, “the mission of Martyrs stands fulfilled”, drawing the mythology of July 13 into the rubric of the state. There lies one point of divergence.

Between the BJP and the political parties of the Valley, the memories of July 13 present a more radical difference. “The BJP regards the rule of Dogra maharajas in Jammu and Kashmir as the golden period,” said the party’s state vice president, Ramesh Arora. “Those killed in [the] 1931 firing had risen against a genuine ruler,” he added.

The separatist claim to July 13 has perhaps solidified the BJP’s long-running antipathy to the commemoration of Martyr’s Day. The BJP at the Centre has made it a point to take a tough stand on separatist groups, cancelling talks with Islamabad last year, when it emerged that the Pakistan high commissioner had met Hurriyat leaders ahead of the bilateral engagement. The aloofness of the state BJP seems consistent with this approach.

As the memories of July 13 grow polarised, the BJP might have found another reason to stay away from the function at the Martyr’s Graves. Mobilisations among Kashmiri Pandits have projected July 13 as a “black day”, when arson and killings were allegedly unleashed on the state’s minority community. Having courted the Pandits as a constituency, the BJP would  perhaps want to distance itself from functions that memorialised the fallen men as martyrs.

Over the decades, the evolving political landscape of J&K has seen some unlikely compacts, between parties of the Valley and those of the national mainstream, between those who participated in electoral processes and separatist groups which did not, between separatist and separatist. Some of these compacts grew out of political contingencies, some out of natural sympathy. But how fragile these truces were, how intractable the issues they papered over, is revealed when they seem to fall apart over a history question: who owns the memories of July 13?