A Victory for Kashmir

The news anchor was at his fast and furious best as he pelted his panelist with questions and objections. But Khurram Parvez spokesperson for the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society stood his ground with ease. Unfazed by the onslaught of questions he gave a cogent statement of his group’s objections to the upcoming Western classical music concert in which the Bavarian State Orchestra was to be led by the renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. The event was organized by the German Embassy and facilitated by the government of India. The concert was to take place on September 7 in Srinagar in the famed Shalimar gardens built by the Mughal emperor Jehangir. The genesis of the event went back to a conversation in which the maestro had expressed a heartfelt desire to take his music to Kashmir. The German ambassador to India Michael Steiner took up the challenge and set about making it possible for the internationally recognized conductor to realize his dream. The preparations for the event had taken months. The outcome of the Embassy’s efforts was announced shortly before the actual holding of the dreamed of concert Ehsaas-e-Kashmir or Experience of Kashmir. At that moment it seemed all hell broke loose jeopardizing the concert and its sponsors. Two little known militant groups threatened to target the concert and its attendees. Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani issued a statement entreating the concert’s sponsors not to hold an event which mocked the misery of Kashmir. In a separate development a letter of protest was sent by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society to the German ambassador.

If activist Khurram Parvez sounded heated when he spoke on the news channels it was understandable. The incomprehension that he was up against must have tried his temper. On the face of it all the elements of a winning combination were in place–iconic conductor Zubin Mehta, the historical Shalimar gardens and the Bavarian State Orchestra known to be one of the best classical music orchestras in the world. The event was to be a treat for the eyes and ears. At a higher level a repast for the soul lay in store. So what was not to like about it? Such at any rate was the attitude of puzzled or seemingly puzzled news anchors and columnists. For them the concert was a purely cultural event devoid of political overtones. Their outlook can be summarized in a series of questions–what’s wrong with the Kashmiris? Can’t they relax? Can’t they give world famous conductor Zubin Mehta a break? Can’t they separate music and politics? Can’t they forget about politics for a day and come under the spell of the maestro’s enchanting music?

The controversy over Zubin Mehta’s concert has once again highlighted the yawning gulf between Indian and Kashmiri perceptions of ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir. The German Embassy projected the concert as a purely cultural event, but its political dimensions were obvious to Kashmiris. Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express reacted by asking: How is this concert apolitical? A foreign government plans a music show in a highly fortified garden where several thousand soldiers encircle it, disallowing any normal movement of the residents, and invites a select gathering from among what Jean Paul Sartre calls the white-washed natives (Indian Express, September 7, 2013). The reaction of the journalist Najeeb Mubarki was equally derisive: This was, in effect, a state-sponsored concert. That means it was a security operation (The Economic Times, September 11, 2013).

New Delhi is anxious to sweep the recent past under the rug. The last thing it wants is to be answerable for the toll taken and the crimes committed in the course of over two decades of a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign. Nor has it shown any interest in taking steps to ameliorate the everyday violence that permeates life in Kashmir as a direct consequence of the suffocating presence of over 700,000 military and paramilitary forces. The armed struggle which broke out in 1990 has waned. Militancy has dropped to an all-time low in the last four or five years. However this does not mean that Kashmiri resistance to oppression has ended. These days New Delhi is confronted by an indomitable opposition which cannot be cowed into silence. Isolated and bereft of any substantial domestic and international support for their cause, the Kashmiris are nevertheless resolute in their resistance to Indian rule. The activists who sent the letter of protest to the German Embassy viewed the concert as a means of controlling the narrative about Kashmir and of legitimizing Indian military rule. Their opposition was not to the concert per se but to its being instrumental in projecting a false image of normalcy and peace to an international public. Of particular concern to them was the fact that the concert would be telecast live in fifty countries. They reminded the German Embassy that in becoming knowingly or unknowingly accessory to New Delhi’s agenda in Kashmir it was going against U.N. resolutions which recognized that a final solution of the Kashmir issue was still pending. They called on the German Embassy to issue a statement accepting the disputed nature of Jammu and Kashmir and acknowledging the pain and legitimate political and legal struggle of its people.

The German Embassy did not respond to the letter of protest and the concert was held as planned. The following day headlines and stories of a mixed nature were carried by the news media. Some enthusiastic reporters claimed that Kashmir had been mesmerized by the music of Zubin Mehta. The more realistic ones recognized that a discordant note had been introduced when paramilitary forces killed four Kashmiris in Shopian district. The killings were a stark reminder of the realities of life under military occupation. The bloody event was unconnected with the concert. The slain youths were merely the victims of the routine state terrorism that is facilitated by impunity laws. Nevertheless their killing was in the spotlight because of the accidental circumstance of its having occurred on the morning of the day on which the concert was to take place. Among the reporters covering Zubin Mehta’s virtuoso performance, the more truthful ones had to temper their ecstasy by taking cognizance of the killing of civilians by the security forces.

While the concert was in progress, security forces in motorized speed boats patrolled the Dal Lake, and plain clothes security personnel were planted among the members of the audience. But none of this came through in the live telecast. The video of the concert shows that the camera persons of Doordarshan (the public service broadcaster) did a sterling job of keeping the inevitable militarization of the event out of sight. Still despite its apparent success the much hyped concert appears to have backfired on its sponsors and facilitators. In the final tally the concert is unlikely to be viewed as a successful projection of peace and normalcy in Kashmir. There were far too many unscripted elements that gave away inconvenient truths regarding Indian military rule. The parallel event Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir (Reality of Kashmir) organized by anti-occupation activists brought out through speeches, poetry readings, theater, music and art exhibition the sufferings of Kashmir under Indian rule as well as the ongoing struggle for freedom. In its national telecast NDTV (New Delhi Television) had to split its screen to cover the two overlapping events. Then there was the remarkable outburst of the manager of the Bavarian State Orchestra who complained of having been misled by the Embassy. According to him the orchestra had been under the impression they would be playing for the Kashmiri people, in the ‘spirit of brotherhood and humanity’not at a restricted ‘embassy concert.’ He must have seen something that struck him with revulsion. Could it be the oppressive militarization that he witnessed all around him right from the moment of landing at Srinagar airport? Several journalists from Germany were present at the event. When their stories are published more will be known about what the members of the orchestra saw and heard in Srinagar.

By facilitating an event that exposed the militarization of Kashmir to the critical scrutiny of outsiders New Delhi may well have undermined the goals of what Najeeb Mubarki calls “a wider, continuing counter-insurgency campaign in Kashmir”–namely the all-out effort to project an image of peace and normalcy. “An occupation cannot be ignored or conveniently forgotten”–these were the words in which the letter of protest admonished the German ambassador. Ultimately the protesters stand vindicated. The legitimacy of their moral, political and legal position shines through the controversy over the Zubin Mehta concert. Without firing a single shot the anti-occupation activists of Kashmir have won a significant victory.

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