Writing on the wall: why a popular calender has ignited a political debate in Kashmir
On 31 December, Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu unveiled the much sought after annual calendar of J&K Bank and it soon became the talk of the town. It went viral on social media as well.
The reason is the pictures of 12 "young achievers" it carries, one for each month. The January page depicts Tajamul Islam, gold medallist at the 2016 Junior World Kick Boxing Championship, and the December page that of Shah Faesal, the 2009 IAS topper. The pages in between have pictures of achievers from the three regions of the state - Kashmir valley, Ladakh and Jammu.
But why should this make the calendar a hot topic of discussion? The reason is that it is widely perceived to be implicitly pitted against the Hurriyat "calendar", which stipulates an elaborate weekly schedule of hartal and protests. Until the Hurriyat reduced the hartal to two days a week in the middle of December, Kashmir had observed an near uninterrupted shutdown for over five months after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.
By playing up "young achievers" on the state's most popular wall calendar, the state government has attempted to create an advantageous contrast as an upholder of constructive pursuits as against the Hurriyat, whose politics is thus deemed to lead towards destruction.
Drabu, a former chairman of the J&K Bank, said nothing in his speech that could position the calendar in opposition to the Hurriyat protest roster but he did praise the communication skills of the bank, which is owned by the state government. "In terms of communication, there is no better organisation than J&K Bank," he said. "I have always believed that not only do we (the bank) communicate very well, we are also the best firefighters of the world."
It was Drabu who, as the chairman, had upgraded the bank's press cell to a full-fledged communications department.
Drabu termed the calendar for 2017 as an "intervention in social space" and underlined the fact that with a print order of 13 lakh, the calendar will send a strong message when displayed on the wall of 13 lakh households.
Will it really? Not necessarily. At least in the valley, where this calendar is largely seen as an attempt by the state to divert attention from the killings and blindings of the past summer. In fact, on social media, there are already calls for a parallel calendar displaying the pictures of the killed and blinded in the unrest last year.
"Hurriyat Conference should launch its own calendar comprising 2016 martyrs, with a minimum price of Rs 20," posted one Junaid Ahmad on Facebook. "It will serve three purpose. One, as a mark of protest: People will use it at homes, shops and in offices as a mark of protest. Second, as a counter-narrative: It will be a befitting reply to those who are conspiring to spread false narrative. Third, the money collected can be utilised to take at least some of the blinded youth to a foreign country for treatment."
The Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani has already issued an annual calendar, but it carries injunctions from Quran. "After all, why is it that you will not fight for the helpless men, women and children who have been subjugated because they are weak," reads the verse on its top page. Alongside is a picture of the United Nations headquarters with the caption, "The basis of our right to self-determination."
True, Hurriyat's protest calendar which kept the valley shut for over five months has recently become a source of contention. Sections of the people are voicing their opposition to the hartal component of the calendar which is deemed to have pushed the valley to the brink of economic collapse. But this has in no way created any sympathy for the narrative of the state, which is finding it hard to move on from its record of human rights excesses during the unrest.
Also, in the ongoing assembly session, a united opposition is ensuring that the focus remains on the killings. In fact, National Conference leaders in the House repeated the slogans shouted by protesters during the unrest.
"Yeh pellet-bullet? Na bhai na. Yeh PAVA shava? Na bai na," go the slogans, referring to the pepper-based shells that were introduced during the unrest for crowd dispersal. "PSA sarkar? na bhai na."
"The government is hardly in a position to retrieve the lost public confidence in the near future," says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. "The only value of J&K Bank calendar is in the media attention it has generated because of its perceived implicit political message. That said, it might resonate somewhat with a section of people disillusioned with the Hurriyat's hartal politics."