THE taking down of the Jammu and Kashmir flag from Srinagar’s Secretariat building on August 25 formally completed the end of the state’s special status, which entitled it to, among other things, a separate flag and a Constitution of its own.
In the exact words of the J&K Constitution, the state flag was “rectangular in shape and red in colour with three rectangular white vertical strips of equal width next to the staff and white plough in the middle with (its) handle facing the strips. The ratio of the length of the flag to its width shall be 3:2”.
The three strips represented J&K’s regions, Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh; and the plough the long struggle of the peasantry to free itself from the shackles of Dogra rule, which lasted 101 years.
The founder of the Dogra dynasty, Gulab Singh, had bought Kashmir, its land and people in 1846 from the East India Company for a meagre 75 lakh Nanak Shahi rupees (the currency of the Sikh empire) and an annual token of one horse, 12 shawls of goats of approved breed (six male, six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls, under a notorious sale deed called the Treaty of Amritsar. Gulab Singh had earlier been made the Raja of Jammu in 1822 by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, as a reward for his services to the Sikh army that he had joined in 1809.
While the people’s struggle against Dogra rule had substantial influence of the Left, because of the pre-eminence of the National Conference and its popular leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in it, the red in J&K’s flag had a deeper significance. It alluded to the bloody event of July 13, 1931, when 21 Kashmiri protesters were killed by Dogra soldiers in Srinagar. There are accounts of bodies of the protesters being carried by a procession where “a blood-drenched shirt of a martyr was tied to a pole” and raised as a flag. The killings led to an uprising, and hastened the fall of the Dogra autocrats, while July 13 came to be observed as Martyrs’ Day in J&K.
The J&K flag had another important but lesser-known aspect. In 1932, spearheading the movement against Dogra rule, Sheikh Abdullah had joined hands with Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah (Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s grand-uncle) and influential Jammu leader Choudhary Ghulam Abbas to form the All J&K Muslim Conference. The party adopted a green flag with a crescent and a star, similar to the flag of the Muslim League.
But, as the divide between the Congress and Muslim League in the rest of India grew, fissures also appeared within the All J&K Muslim Conference. Sheikh Abdullah was influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru (a Kashmiri Pandit), and consequently the Congress, as well as progressive leaders and the Kashmiri Pandit intelligentsia. Eventually, in 1939, Abdullah changed the name of the Muslim Conference to National Conference (NC), arguing that the movement against the Dogra autocrats had to be all-encompassing and secular.
The other two prominent leaders of the party, Mirwaiz and Abbas, didn’t agree and parted ways. But, Abdullah’s grip over Kashmir politics was so deep and strong that this major political and ideological shift didn’t make a dent in his popularity in the Valley. However, in Jammu, the change in Abdullah’s stance had devastating consequences. In November 1947, anti-Muslim riots broke out across Jammu in which tens of thousands (estimates vary from 70,000 to two lakh) people were killed and Muslims of the region displaced.
The Muslim Conference was then headquartered at Mujahid Manzil, and as soon as it became the NC on June 11, 1939, it adopted a new flag — a white plough on red. The idea came from two NC leaders. While Prem Nath Dhar suggested a red flag with a chinar leaf, Roop Lal Vakil sought the plough in place of the chinar leaf. This flag was called the National flag.
The conversion of the Muslim Conference, the first-ever political party of the majority Muslim population of J&K, into the NC brought the region’s Hindu and Sikh population, especially Kashmiri Pandits, into the fold of the movement. Consequently, Abdullah and the NC rejected the two-nation theory and supported India against Pakistan during Partition. Abdullah also ensured that the elder Mirwaiz and Abbas were exiled to Pakistan, thus ending all opposition to his leadership within the Muslim-majority J&K.
Abdullah’s only condition while supporting India was that J&K would enjoy special status, and have its own Constitution, prime minister, an elected sadre-riyasat (president), and flag, and that the state’s official language would be Urdu.
Once Hari Singh had signed the Instrument of Accession with Abdullah’s support, the J&K Constituent Assembly was convened in 1951, which adopted the state flag with a few modifications to the NC one.
Providing a context to the flag, Sheikh Abdullah said, “… it was the 13th July 1931 when for the first time the people of Kashmir raised their voices against the system which had trampled upon their hopes and desires… the symbol of all the desires and aspirations of a country is its flag. The red colour represents the working classes. The prominent and salient symbol of a peasant is his plough and that is why the plough must form a part of the flag.”
He also made it clear that J&K’s flag is in “no way rival” to the Tricolour, “to which we continue our allegiance as a part of the Union and will occupy (a) supremely distinctive place in the state”. Subsequently, the J&K flag always stayed subservient to the Tricolour. This is why separatists never attached any political or emotional value to it and for them it existed only as a relic of Abdullah’s “betrayal” in 1939.
On August 5, 2019, when New Delhi unilaterally abrogated J&K’s special status, the J&K flag too went down with it. It is unlikely to be hoisted any more. The pro-India political camp in Kashmir point to the irony in this: 80 years ago, the flag’s creators had conceived it as a symbol of unity — across classes, and religions.