Resistance as Art
The first cultural centre in Jammu and Kashmir opened on 12 January 2015 in Srinagar, summer capital (1) of the area of Kashmir administered by India. GallerY One was set up for artists to show their work, and students to learn. ‘There’s going to be a permanent space for art, finally now, here in Kashmir,’ said its young founder Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, who is a Muslim like more than 96% of people in the Kashmir Valley (2). Divided Kashmir State of Kashmir in 1947 1949 line of control. Administered by: Pakistan India China. Source: UN / By Sarah Cabarry The gallery was a surprising idea in a place where art struggles to survive. For more than 60 years rebel groups have been fighting the Indian army, which has 700,000 troops here. (Since 1990 they have been protected by a law that allows them to kill suspects and seize property with impunity.) Rizvi persevered. He was able to raise funds, and the local tourist authorities allowed him the use of a building with 460 sq m of floor space. But on 23 February 2015, without warning, the same authorities decided to shut down Gallery One by force, even vandalizing some of the works on show. Art is not a popular career choice in the Kashmir Valley. Rizvi says: ‘Here, when you grow up, you have to be a doctor or an engineer. There’s a reason for that. In other parts of the world, it gives you an income; here it gives you some security. I couldn’t do anything but art. It was ingrained in me.’ But art isn’t just a precarious way of making a living, it’s also dangerous: artists can’t easily detach themselves from the conflict. Rizvi says Kashmiris resort to violence, throwing stones or picking up guns, as a reaction to the conflict. ‘My reaction was art.’ He explains that the occupation is also cultural: ‘Art allows a social evolution in any place. So it’s obvious that an oppressive regime does not allow it in a place it’s trying to occupy.’ Rizvi now runs a café in Srinagar where Kashmiri artists read poetry, sing or play traditional or modern music, politically engaged or not. He says Kashmiri art is allowed to exist provided it does not declare itself as such: the University of Kashmir’s art faculty ‘was relocated to an even smaller building than the previous one’ after its destruction in the floods of 2014. Showkat Kathjoo, who teaches art history at the university, says some forms of artistic expression are tolerated, others banned: ‘Craft is a major backbone of the economy. But for contemporary art, nothing is done.’ There’s a good reason: ‘Artists can express their disagreement with the state through their work. That’s why they have very little chance to get a space to show their work.’ According to Rizvi, stifling creativity is part of the Indian government’s strategy. Kashmiri Muslims ‘are always portrayed as violent people who pick up guns and kill people.’ So poets, writers and artists are kept out of the limelight. Dibyesh Anand, head of the London-based University of Westminster’s politics and international relations department, confirms this: ‘Indian nationalists use the Kashmir conflict to power their views. When someone is killed in Kashmir, the media always make it a national issue. Through depicting Kashmiris as violent, the media manage to dehumanize them.’ ‘Kashmir took up less space’ Western media are virtually silent about this. Anand says: ‘When the cold war was going on, India was seen as siding with the Soviet Union, and Pakistan with the US. In the post-cold war era, things changed because the USSR no longer existed. India started to become a big market, and the West got interested in India.’ After that ‘Kashmir took up even less space in western media. The idea that India is the world’s largest democracy suits the international community, which [prefers] to ignore what India does in Kashmir.’ The armed rebellion began in the 1990s, and as of 1996 was variously estimated to have attracted 5-10,000 recruits (3). Since the start, the Indian media have been free to portray the Kashmiris as they like. Anand says: ‘Support for the Taliban, or more recently ISIS, is always highlighted, even though the only evidence of this support is graffiti, or four [masked] youths waving a black flag during a massive protest. In my reading, these groups don’t exist in the Valley, even though there are other strong Islamist forces.’ Among the largest rebel groups are the (Islamist) Hizbul Mujahideen, which wants to move closer toPakistan, and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a secular group fighting for independence (4). The resistance now attracts far fewer recruits (5). According to Anand, Kashmiris are divided but the majority want freedom (azadi). So they encourage those who stand up to India. When the West Indies cricket team defeated India this spring, Kashmiris expressed their joy on the streets of Srinagar, which led to arrests. The Indian army’s killing of Hizbul Mujahideen’s leader Burhan Muzaffar Wani, 22, in July, triggered huge demonstrations: in response, more than 50 civilians were killed and 8,000 wounded, newspapers were banned and social networks suspended. (Further clashes have brought the death toll to 90.) Since these events, armed resistance has regained some of its former popularity. (This September, resistance fighters stormed an Indian army base near the Pakistan border, killing 17 soldiers.) Anand says the nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s party, sees Kashmir as ‘an issue through which the Hindu right wing try to silence the political opposition. Anyone who dares speak about the military abuses is directly labelled as anti-national. Any progressive discourses are automatically discredited. And none of the Muslim or Christian MPs in the lower house belong to the BJP.’ Syed ShahriyarIn June 2001 Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah founded the Kashmir Walla, Jammu and Kashmir’s first online newspaper. He sees it as a counter to the powerful Indian media: ‘It is very difficult for the media to report on Kashmir. So [much] news from Kashmir has been censored.’ The events that followed Wani’s killing confirm his view. In April 2015 India suspended broadcasts by Al Jazeera English for five days because it had shown a map of Kashmir on which the area controlled by Pakistan was not clearly distinguished from the territory administered by India. Shah admits the Kashmir Walla is mainly read byyoung English speakers in Kashmir, India and elsewhere. But he feels it still serves as a defence against disinformation: ‘Traditional media have created myths about Kashmir [but] digital journalism, along with social networks, can break them. The Internet has been there as a watchdog for Kashmir. Traditional media outlets cannot say anything they want any more without triggering a reaction.’ Part of the problem is the nature of Kashmiri society. In 2013 Shah was attacked on social networks after he defended Pragash, an all-girl rock band from the Valley. When the grand mufti issued a fatwa against the band, declaring their music anti-Islamic, Shah reminded his readers of the Sufi musical tradition among Kashmiri women. The attacks that followed did not discourage him: ‘We have to be critical of our own society, that’s what the job of the media is. When we did an article about [Pragash], people phoned me to tell me to stop my work. Once, we did an article on freedom of speech in Kashmir. [Someone called] our journalist and threatened him.’ He prefers not to discuss who might be responsible for the threats. The Kashmir Walla is still online, but Pragash have disbanded. YouTube hit for Valley’s first rapper Shah believes things would improve if the conflict received wider international media coverage: ‘The Kashmiri conflict is similar to that in Palestine. People around the world have to see what is happening here, and any activities that can introduce Kashmir to them are very important.’ The government is trying to prove that Kashmir is an integral part of India; foreign journalists don’t need a special visa to go there. But if they work for a publication with an editorial line critical of Indian government policy, there are consequences. In 2011 David Barsamian, a US journalist known for his criticism of army human rights violations in Kashmir, was refused entry to India (6). The song I protest (Remembrance) by MC Kash, the Valley’s first rapper (real name Roushan Illahi), became associated with demonstrations in 2010 — triggered by the killing of three Kashmiri civilians — in which 112 demonstrators died (7). It was a YouTube hit. In the song, Kash calls the occupation a ‘murderous regime’. He says ‘traditional Kashmiri art does not deal with issues that our generation can identify with ... the murders, the rapes, the suffering of the people. That’s why we are opening ourselves to new forms of art.’ His studio has been searched several times, and his phone is tapped. Khurram Parvez of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights organisation, says there is a new trend: where the previous generation took up arms in the 1990s, the current generation opposes India through the arts. In the 1990s, the Kashmiris didn’t want to be occupied, yet ‘resistance [scared] people, because there was lot of dogma and violence attached to it. But today the occupation is not accepted; it has become a fashion statement to be part of the resistance, not to accept the Indian occupation as normal.’ This has led to a surge in protest music; MC Kash says there are now hundreds of rappers in the Valley. And according to Shah, websites that criticise the conflict are flourishing. The new generation comes together on projects such as the documentary Bring Him Back (2015), about the struggle of Maqbool Bhat’s mother to get his body repatriated after he was hanged in Tihar jail, New Delhi. (Bhat was a resistance leader and figurehead of the JKLF.) Shah directed the film, Rizvi designed the poster and MC Kash contributed a song. The project goes beyond collaboration, demonstrating the ideological unity of this generation. In 2015 Kashmir’s first graphic novel was published. Munnu: a Boy from Kashmir depicts the childhood of its author, Malik Sajad, a friend of Rizvi’s, who grew up in the conflict. Digital and cultural resistance are flourishing because they provide an escape from pervasive violence and restrictions on freedom of movement. The resurgence in the popularity of armed resistance has impacted on those who protest through culture. Rizvi’s café, along with most businesses in Srinagar, has been closed since the July violence; the police cancelled an MC Kash concert in Bangalore, claiming his lyrics were ‘anti-national’; and Fahad Shah was severely beaten, without explanation, by Indian soldiers, while on his way to southern Kashmir for a report, although he showed his press credentials. In September Khurram Parvez was prevented from travelling to a UN Human Rights Council session and then arrested; no reason was given. Pressure, censorship, violence and intimidation are the price you pay even for cultural resistance.
Raphaël Godechot © Le Monde Diplomatique