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Silencing Kashmir?

Mumbai.

Everyone is singing the Kashmir tune. An all girl-band has been banned. Most of us outside and many in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, had never heard about them until this happened. The problem is not that one should refrain from opposing such censorship, but how the arguments are reduced to basics.

Most engagement with social issues is increasingly becoming one of transaction. This conscience barter is extremely populist and the agenda is clearly not to topple political correctness. Those who profess freedom of expression do not entertain even a devil’s advocate stance, which only reveals how close-minded and muzzling such ostensible independent thinking is. If we want to permit all kinds of thought, why do we seek to curb what in our opinion is regressive?

Three high school students – Farah Deeba, Aneeqa Khalid and Noma Nazir – formed a rock band.  Pragaash (First Light) has performed only one concert. Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmad, Kashmir’s state-appointed grand cleric, issued a fatwa asking them to “stop from these activities and not to get influenced by the support of political leadership”.

Odes are being sung to their talent, their courage. The right to expression does not need a quality certificate and those who back them could well be ignorant of their music. It is about not being allowed to do what they like.

I agree with this, but having lived all my life in Mumbai, the pivot of modern India, I can cite several instances where parents have objected to their teenage children participating in cultural activities, let alone taking an initiative to independently perform. This information is crucial because we use the convenient subterfuge of censorship to camouflage our own dissonant private behaviour. When we speak about Pragaash we are already dealing with young women who have not been stifled, have been exposed to world music, managed to train, buy equipment, and market themselves in a state that is considered repressive. It is rather unfortunate that even though they are way ahead than many of their well-wishers, they are now the object of sympathy.

Those fighting for their freedom are essentially offering condolences. After saying, “We are with you”, has support for the band gone beyond disingenuous analogy?

***

Pragaash’s manager and teacher Adnan Matoo, quoted in The Washington Post, said, “They feel terribly scared and want an immediate end to this controversy once for all. First, the girls had decided to quit live performance due to an online hate campaign and concentrate on making an album. But after an edict by the government’s own cleric, these girls are saying goodbye to music.”

As it did not start with the cleric, but an online hate campaign, it would fall under cyber law. Unfortunately, in India the hyperactive media ensures people are drugged and religion takes centrestage in almost every argument. Is the Grand Mufti’s fatwa the final word?

Mr. Mattoo follows the pattern set by the mainstream: “I know it from my last eight years’ experience that we could have easily dealt with the online abuse. We were failed by the government-run mufti, who asked us to forget our music and declared our band against the religion.”

While Indians have been arguing for long about the separation of state and religion, it is not possible in a country where building of a temple is the main agenda of the largest opposition party and the ruling party panders to all manner of minority votes. There is also talk about the Islamisation of Kashmir. Part of it may be attributed to the influx of jihadi elements in the separatist movement. However, intellectual discourse too harps on this aspect and uses ‘progressive’ quotes from scriptures, forgetting that much of what we call contemporary culture did not exist in the time of prophets and messiahs.

Why did it take a month for the Mufti to issue a diktat? Was he under political pressure, too? This might seem like a shocking query, but his mosque comes under the government’s purview. J&K isn’t really a rocking state.  Since the concert was for the paramilitary forces, there is a likelihood of intense anger among the locals. Stories of abuse of women by the security forces are a constant refrain in the troubled area. Why did the hate campaign against the girls not address this and instead choose to harp on their ‘un-Islamic’ vocation?

One reason is that the moment they criticise the ‘saviours’, they’d be dubbed militants. Anonymity might imbue them with temporary courage, but even in their unknown status there is a need for self-recognition. This is as much of an identity need as the cultural space for freedom. It is their azaadi (freedom) call versus the azaadi of what they perceive to be the copped-out coddled lot. A more nuanced reading would be that Islam, with its broad brush-stroke possibility of what is haraam (heathen), can factor in their ire and keep it alive. Politicians wake up. Pontiffs wake up. Separatist organisations wake up.

This is not to imply that there have been no strictures on modes of dressing, education and cultural activities. But these certainly do not happen in Kashmir alone.  It does not make them right. However, should there be no room for more than simplistic ideas of right and wrong?

The chief minister, Omar Abdullah, was applauded for standing by the band members. “I hope these talented young girls will not let a handful of morons silence them. Shame on those who claim freedom of speech via social media and then use that freedom to threaten girls who have the right to choose to sing.”

However, on Headlines Today he said he had not asked them to sing so he cannot ask them to continue to do so. He would be willing to provide security for them, though.

The BJP only needed this to further its anti-Islamic position. Its party president in the state said, “It is an attempt towards ‘Talibanisation’ of the society by certain fundamentalist groups who are uncomfortable with the return of normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The BJP ought not to speak out of turn. Its record in giving women liberty is abominable. The rightwing does not permit even the celebration of Valentine’s Day, using the same argument that the Mufti has used – it is western culture. Besides, the BJP has earlier had an alliance with the current party, the National Conference. Did they reach normalcy?

***

One cannot wish away politicisation. In fact, pop culture is political, in that it attempts to convey popular consumerist sentiment as retail therapy. Does this exclude political theism?

Mehbooba Mufti, president of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was being intimidated on a TV debate. Despite it, she made a most reasonable comment by saying that as a believer although she would not abuse a religious leader, she could well disagree with his views. Did this get any attention? It does not suit the archetype.

As happens with anything to do with Islam, when in doubt bring in the Sufi. The prevalence of Sufi music is mentioned as an example of the existence of such open expression in the Valley. People do not realise that it is deeply rooted in religion. It may not be seen as theological, but the fact is that it almost always addresses the Higher Being and seeks to drown the identity of the singer into the pool of devotion. The reason Sufi music is now being given a wider platform is because it falls well and truly into the ‘music bazaar’ as a commercial product.

Is this what drives liberalism? Asiya Andrabi, leader of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, has had some amazing achievements to her credit – blackening the faces of women, shutting down beauty parlours. But, then, her political affiliations do not lie with India, as she openly states. For a moment, let us stand aside and check whether what she says and what some feminists do is much different. She believes that women are objectified; feminists think so too when they discuss certain advertisements where women expose their bodies. How do we decide to accept one version and not the other?

***

If this is indeed a larger issue about artistic license, then why did the Pragaash supporters have objections to rapper Honey Singh soon after the Delhi gangrape? His song, “Main balatkari hoon” (I am a rapist) was not new. It was obvious that this was not about concern, but a need to be acceptable and part of a trending movement. Among the many voices was one of senior journalist Vir Sanghvi, who used the social network to say, “For God’s sake, Bristol Hotel. Cancel the Honey Singh show. Are you guys in the rape business or the hotel business? If the Bristol does not cancel the Honey Singh show then I would urge every decent Indian to boycott the hotel.”

No one seemed to have realised that the terminology, “rape business”, itself was offensive. Besides, how does one define decency? The moral spine of the amoral and unconstrained tends to be willing to bend as the occasion demands. Had there been no immediate ‘case’, there would be no such importance given to the singer or his lyrics. If we understand that art does have freedom – in films, paintings, music – then it follows that there ought not to be conditions that curtail it. Why is one boycott legitimate and another not? Why are the words of liberal sages acceptable and the concerns of the socially-conservative reprehensible?

Omar Abdullah too raised the question about local rapper MC Kash, wondering why he has not been banned for his obscene lyrics. This is telling and not surprising, for the singer questions the authorities and the security forces: “You sit your ass down & don’t make a sound/you take off that Pheran, you Mother Fucking clown – Words said by Indian Forces durin’ a crackdown.” Is such obscenity not proactive rebellion?

The online campaign referred to the girls as “sluts” and “prostitutes”. These words are used by supposedly reasonable people in the social media for what they look down upon, be it the item girls in Bollywood films or the increasingly brash young women who do not consider nudity to be an issue. One rarely hears any applause for them. Therefore, who really is in a position to take a high moral ground?

Perhaps we’d like to consider this story about dancers and singers in Kashmiri music albums. One of them, Sweety, said, “My mom accompanies me to the bus stop when I have to go to Srinagar. My profession annoys my maternal uncles, neighbours talk (bad things) about me.” A choreographer explains, “Most of them join to support their families after the death of their father. It comes as a handy option because they come from uneducated families and here they do not need any educational qualification. I request them either do something else or to be careful.”

This is a universal concern, more so when people cannot do “what they like” even in their daily routine because death is not too far away. Because singing and dancing are not about the luxury of freedom, but the last resort of orphaned hopes.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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