Azaadi (Freedom) for ‘Pragaash’, an All Female Band from Kashmir
In the last month the streets of Delhi have echoed with a slogan familiar to many in Kashmir – ‘Hum Kya Chahtey ? – Azaadi !’ (‘What do we want ? – Freedom !’). Thousands of young women and men have chanted this slogan in Delhi while protesting against rape and sexual violence, and while doing so, they have also spoken out, with great courage and integrity, and carried explicit banners and signs about the fact that women in Kashmir have had to face rape and sexual assault by the AFSPA protected armed forces (the army, police, irregular counter-insurgents and paramilitary forces) of the Indian state. And no, the young people carrying these signs, and chanting these slogans, that talk about Nilofar and Aasiya Jaan, that name the atrocities and rapes that took place in Shopian and Kunan Poshpora have not been all Kashmiris. Some of them are Kashmiri students studying in Delhi University, JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia. But along with them, several of the young people who have been weaving the reality of Kashmir into the fabric of the protests in Delhi are not from Kashmir. Each time that they have walked with these signs and chanted these slogans – (and I have seen them in every gathering and every demonstration – their numbers are growing – as more young people in Delhi use the protests as sites of learning about the many complex realities of power and oppression) – they risk being branded as ‘traitors’ by the mainstream of Indian nationalist opinion, which can never question the Indian state’s conduct in Kashmir. They have tempered their sense of justice and deepened it with the substance of solidarity.
It is against this context that I want to talk about an unfortunate darkness that has emanated from Kashmir in recent days, and this time it has not come entirely from the usual source – the many headed hydra of the Indian state. I am referring here instead to the comments, statements and threats made both online and in the larger public sphere, regarding ‘Pragaash’ – a band of four teenage Kashmiri girls who like to play music in public. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that many of these statements, which I have seen on several Facebook pages and walls, some of which have come laced in a language of disgusting misogyny and sexism, including comments that suggest a glib invocation of rape, assault and violence, have only brought shame to the ‘Azaadiparast’ (‘Freedom-Loving’) sentiment in the Kashmir valley. The clown known as the Grand Mufti of Kashmir, who is cosseted and buoyed by the tacit support he enjoys from the occupation authorities – the state government of Jammu and Kashmir – on whose behalf he administers an arbitrary kangaroo court that he calls the Shariah court of Kashmir and from within whose portals he issues fatwas from time to time, calling for instance, stone pelting against the armed might of the occupation – unIslamic, has predictably weighed in against the girls of Pragaash. He needs to be seen for what he is, a tool of the Indian state. His laughable assertion of music being unIslamic goes against the grain of the history of culture in Islamicate societies. Some of the finest music in the word has been produced in Islamicate cultures, not all of it is sacred, and much of it has been performed, robustly in public, by women of all ages. The Grand Mufti is an idiot, and when he makes pronouncements on behalf of the faith of millions of Kashmiri Muslims they ought to feel insulted not affirmed, exactly as millions of Hindu Indians feel insulted, not affirmed, by idiots like Mohan Bhagwat and Asaram Bapu when they let loose their misogyny.
I hope, that in the coming days, better sense prevails, and those who genuinely care for freedom in Kashmir speak out against the hypocrisy that calls for what intends to pass for freedom for some Kashmiri men while simultaneously holding out the prospects of oppression in the name of religion, tradition and culture for many Kashmiri women.
While there has been some condemnation of these statements in Kashmir, and on Kashmiri online platforms, it has neither been as frank, nor as forthright, nor as swift as I think it ought to have been. We are not speaking of a lazy or laggardly online culture here. We are not speaking of people who, in other instances, are slow to respond or not frank or fearless in the way in which they express themselves.The Kashmiri presence online domain is both widespread and active, and every single atrocity or even statement made by the Indian occupying power and their local Kashmiri agents is responded to with exemplary swiftness, courage and alacrity. In the past, especially during the wave of protests in 2010, I have personally saluted young Kashmiris who have used Facebook, youtube, blogs and twitter as an effective means of expression and activism. I have commended the intelligent way in which young Kashmiris, in the valley and elsewhere have used social media of diverse kinds to co-ordinate protests, think aloud and together, and build solidarities. It is for this reason that I am dismayed when I hear it being said that we should not take the hate-speech against Pragaash seriously, and not blow this matter ‘out of proportion’ because it is confined to Facebook forums. I take what is said regarding Kashmir and in Kashmir, on Facebook forums and elsewhere on the internet very seriously, and have in the past felt compelled to intervene when I hear hateful comments made by Indian bigots about the situation in Kashmir. And this is why I see no reason to ignore and downplay reprehensible statements made in online fora when they emanate from Kashmiri, not Indian nationalist bigots. I say this also because, in the absence of a free press or media in Kashmir (which I know is muzzled by the repression of the Indian state), I have a realistic sense of the importance that online fora have for articulating what people, especially articulate young people, actually feel. This is why, the absence, or weakness of a condemnation is a cause for serious concern. To me it indicates a certain ethical hollowness at the centre of the online facet of Kashmiri nationalism. It is a hollowness that precisely mirrors the black hole at the centre of Indian nationalism when it comes to Kashmir – ‘the Other is always wrong, WE can never be wrong’.
What disturbs me much more than these puerile expressions (no people, however oppressed or however implicated in the oppression of others, is short of morons within its own fold) is the prevarication and hedging that I have witnessed in many young Kashmiris who I know to be otherwise possessed of fine and sensitive minds. What I have witnessed in my own efforts to communicate with some of them is an unfortunate unwillingness on their part to ‘break ranks’, or to be seen to be going against the current of what they believe has taken hold as a dominant discourse amongst their peers within Kashmir. A commitment to freedom that wavers the moment the oppressors are found to be on your own side cannot be a real commitment to freedom. I cannot value liberty if I do not confront repression when it happens in my name. It is this understanding that leads me as an Indian to take a stand against the Indian state’s conduct in Kashmir. The same principle should make it unacceptable for any freedom-loving young Kashmiri to countenance repression, no matter what the provocation, when it makes itself known from within the Azaadi camp in Kashmir.
What is even more unfortunate is the tendency to calumnize, or be silent or evasive in response to calumny against the few outliers amongst Kashmiris who have stood up for ‘Pragaash’ – as ‘Indian agents’. I have read an article that implicitly suggest that a Kashmiri online magazine The Kashmir Walla that broke this story did this to earn its ‘liberal credentials‘. The tone in which this article makes its point clearly indicates that somehow ‘earning liberal conditions’ and being a comprador of the Indian state’s occupation are the same thing. I do not see how that can be demonstrated to be the case. Doing the first does not necessarily mean being the second by any stretch of imagination.
The same magazine (which is currently being attacked) has in the past spoken out against disappearances, against unmarked graves, against rape and torture in Kashmir and against the alleged perpetrators of heinous violence against Kashmiris. How is it that a magazine that has generally been trusted and lauded when it has spoken out against the Indian state and its Kashmiri lackeys can suddenly be held suspect when it speaks out for the rights of four young Kashmiri women musicians when they happen to be threatened by some Kashmiri hoodlums eager to be seen as pious moral policemen.
I have also seen snarky comments by young (and some not so young Kashmiris) about how ‘Indian liberals’ who are ‘so exercised about threats to rape the girls of ‘Pragaash’ are silent when it comes to rape by the Indian armed forces in Kashmir. This is a preposterously untrue statement. I, for instance, am very strongly exercised by the kind of language that has been used against Pragaash, and have made my stand clear in Facebook posts. I am not alone, and it is public knowledge that I and others like me, on Kafila, Facebook and other public platforms have been equally exercised by the systematic policy of rape and violence that acts as a cornerstone of the implementation of the Indian state’s occupation of the Kashmir valley. Many people like me, who I suppose fulfil the criteria for being identified as ‘Indian Liberals’ to some of the young testosterone fuelled Kashmiri Facebook militant have spoken out, written and taken to the streets in Delhi, without any ambiguity whatsoever about rape and other human rights violations committed by Indian armed forces personnel in Kashmir and elsewhere. We will continue to do so regardless of how people in Kashmir see what we do. At the same time, it must be made clear that our outrage against the fundamental immorality of the Indian occupation of Kashmir cannot be taken for granted to mean an unthinking and automatic endorsement of any and every bit of nonsense that makes itself known in the name of ‘resistance’ in Kashmir.
To suggest that the public sphere in India, is necessarily and always oblivious to the agony of Kashmir, or that it does not listen to or speaks out for Kashmir is to be subject to the most pathetic narcissism of self-indulgent victimhood. It mirrors the sadly identical sense of narcissistic victimhood prevalent amongst sections of the Kashmiri Pandit diaspora that continues to insist that there is no sympathy, understanding or solidarity for them amongst Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley.
Let me turn now to the arguments that have been used to justify or downplay the ethical implications of the verbal abuse, threats and intimidation that has been directed against the ‘Pragaash’ girls. There are two strands that constitute this position. I will look at each in turn.
The first is the more serious objection – the girls played in an event that was sponsored and stage-managed by the CRPF – a crucial arm of the violent machinery of occupation that has a record of being involved in many serious human rights violations in Kashmir. The second has to do with the idea that young Muslim women ought not to be seen performing music in public. I want to deal with each of these in turn.
I agree, that the participation of ‘Pragaash’ in a CRPF sponsored event was ill advised. But first of all, we have to remember that they are all minors, and we cannot hold minors to account for the acts that they perform, because we do not believe them to be intellectually capable of making fully informed choices. That is why there are reasonable standards by means of which the conduct of children and minor teenagers can be justifiably regulated in different degrees in different spheres ranging from the intimate to the social.
I have a fundamental ethical objection to minors being made to participate in many different kinds of religious and political rituals, processes and events. I believe that only the well formed mind of the adult can be held responsible, answerable and accountable for all matters of faith, commitment and doubt, be it in the sacred or in the secular realm. Taking children to temples, mosques and churches and making them participate in religious rituals, or making them learn and sing national anthems seems to me in some cases to be a gross abuse of adult power over children’s and teenagers lives. And this is why I refuse to entertain any ascription of responsibility on minors for political or religious utterances and gestures that they may be compelled into making from time to time. If ‘Pragaash’ were twenty or thirty something adults, I would have definitely been strongly critical of the lack of judgement that they exhibited in participating in a CRPF sponsored event. Even then, my arguments against them would be reasoned statements, not vulgar threats. But since they are minors, I can only appeal to the better sense of the guardians and mentors of the girls who make up Pragaash in order to suggest that they consider not encouraging the girls participation in the spectacles produced by the most violent edge of the occupation in the future. Along with this I would counsel the girls themselves to find alternative venues and platforms for their specific musical interests, and render them all possible assistance in doing so. I believe that this can be done with friendship and in solidarity with the girls, and I believe that this is the only ethically correct thing to do in this case.
Let us not forger that sixteen other bands participated in the event. None of those bands as far as I know had young women or girls in them. None of them have been attacked online, in print or through the pronouncements of the Grand Mufti of Kashmir.
This fact alone proves to me that the real reason for the criticism of Pragaash has nothing substantively to do with the fact that they performed in an event that worked to further the interests of the occupation of Kashmir by the Indian state. If that were the case, then all the other sixteen bands would have been pilloried and vilified, named and shames. That has in fact not happened, and even if it happens now, in an effort to appear to be indiscriminate in attacking the ‘culture of occupation’, I will not be convinced that Pragaash was singled out for this reason alone. Today, one of the girls in Pragaash has said in an interview to the BBC has said that she feels that there is no support for them in Kashmir. Regardless of whether this is the case, the fact that she should believe it is so is very unfortunate. If the solidarity that young Kashmiris have felt for those subjected to rape by the Indian armed forces is to have any substantive content then it must also extend to these young Kashmiri women who have also had to face threats of rape from online trolls. The fact that these trolls are not Indian troopers but take on the identities of young Kashmiri men (who may or may not be agent provocateurs) should not make for the slightest difference.
‘Pragaash’ was singled out because the sight of four teenage women (at least one of whom appeared in public wearing headscarves, while others did not) playing what people think is ‘rock music’ is deeply unsettling to those Kashmiri men who have been brainwashed by an alien Salafi culture into thinking that young women should be demure, veiled, mute and meek ornaments for the interior of Kashmiri homes. Many young women in Kashmir, like many young women in every other part of the world, including what is called the Islamic world, are not willing to give in to this particular male fantasy, and are acting to take control of their lives in many private and public ways. These can include anything from participating in sports, travelling and living independently, deciding on their own how to construct their personal lives, shaping their appearance and demeanour on their own terms (including deciding whether or not to wear the veil or headscarf – both of which are to me valid personal choices), to entering or studying for new and unorthodox professions, and to becoming politically active.
This desire for agency on the part of women is what disturbs a lot of men, and inevitably this profound unease is expressed and articulated in the language of culture, identity, tradition and religion. Fatwas are dusted and devised to control women because that is what weak men can do at a moments notice. In a situation of violent occupation, where a majority of young men have often to encounter being brutalised almost on a daily basis, an attempt to control the behaviour of young women by intimidating them is the only means left to men to shore up their sense of self and authority. What we fail to understand when we witness young Kashmiri men threatening young Kashmiri women is that by doing so, they are only demonstrating how defeated they have allowed themselves to become by the cunning, violence and venality of the Indian state’s occupation.
We need to ask what tragedy robs Kashmir and young Kashmiris of the political-cultural resources needed for the shaping an open, tolerant and contemporary sensibility. The primary responsibility for this tragedy can be laid at the doors of the occupation. the occupation is also an occupation of the mind and the imagination. It constructs the terms and protocols and vocabulary of assent and dissent. By pretending to secularism, it scripts the opposition to it in religious or confessional terms. The Azaadi camp in Kashmir has internalized the opposition so well that it can protest only along the lines already pre-scripted by the Indian state. This means that all it thinks it has to do is to take a position opposite to that taken by the state. So if the state, or state supported entities try to arrange music concerts or literary festivals, the opposition tries to prevent them. No one in the opposition to the state in Kashmir is as far as I know, attempting to set up music concerts, literary festivals or football matches. Yes, there are excellent writers coming up Kashmir, but who is publishing the magazines and building the libraries where they can be read? Yes, everyone listens to MC Kash, and and we are all upset when his studio gets raided, as we ought to be, but what is the opposition to the occupation in Kashmir doing to ensure that he can be heard in public. What creative means is the opposition in Kashmir adopting to ensure that its voice is heard not only in the register of resentful lamentation but also in the tenor of joy, and when need be rage ?
Some may say that these activities are trivial. I strongly disagree, it is only by reclaiming the vast terrain of a contemporary cultural sensibility that a politics of resistance can be relevant to the demands of today.
What prevents a group of young girls from playing the kind of music that they want to outside state managed fortresses, or even what prevents teenage boys, or girls, for that matter from freely and joyously playing football? That tragedy is of course fashioned by the state in Kashmir, in all its labyrinthine complexity, but it is also shaped by a ‘resistant’ notion of identity that faithfully plays the role assigned to it by the occupation by falling back on the most reactionary and obscurantist identities available – of being a backward, retrogressive, bulwark of everything that is unable to lay claim to the future in any meaningful way. I have for a long time insisted in my conversation with young Kashmiri friends that as long as they see Azaadi only as a freedom ‘from’ the occupation and not as a freedom ‘to’ shape the content of a new society, they will condemn themselves to exchanging an alien ‘Indian – Secular’ ‘ghulami’ (slavery) for a home grown ‘Kashmiri – Islamic’ one. This is the cancer that afflicts all nationalist and identitarian movements, it afflicted Indian nationalism in its heyday, there is no evidence that I can see that it does not afflict Kashmiri nationalism today. The slogan of ‘Azaadi’ must not have only a negative content, it must also have positive substance, and the resources for this positive substance necessarily require young Kashmiris to engage in a long process of creative thinking, of reclaiming and rejecting tradition, of entering into a dialogue with all that is vibrant and alive in the contemporary world, regardless of where it comes from, regardless of the ‘liberal’ or ‘traditional’ credentials that it comes laden with.
If the Kashmiri resistance to the Indian state were to decide to be creative, if it were to wake up from its narrow, provincial stupor and learn from the vibrant and recent cultures of resistance in Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia and Kurdistan, it would find and support young women who could be stand up comics, feminist Islamic theologians, sceptics, writers, filmmakers, actors, scientists, poets, rock musicians, rappers, artists, soccer players, revolutionaries and visionaries. It would see this task as being of urgent militant necessity today, not as the luxuries of a post-Azaadi future. It would be azaadi parast Kashmiri civil society,not the CRPF that would find the resources and the public support that would enable not one but many teenage girl-bands to perform, alongside rappers like MC Kash and Haze Kay.
Instead, in the name of an Islamist political fantasy manufactured in the prison-states of Saudi Arabia and Iran, some sections of the Azaadi camp in Kashmir want to consign Kashmiri women to an eternity of passivity, parenting, patience and piety, and consign Kashmir to a fake cultural dystopia that has nothing to so with the actual history of Islamicate societies and cultures anywhere in the world. As long as they do so, Omar Abdullah, who presides over an elaborate machinery of repression will be able to wear his liberal mask, and the mandarins of the Indian mainstream media like Arnab Goswami will be able to ventilate their fraudulent concern for Kashmiri women. The Indian state will maintain its upper hand, and stay ahead of their game, because its work is already half done for it by a moth eaten imagination of Azaadi that has no problem in contemplating the repression of half the population. Such an imagination can never deliver freedom in Kashmir.
As of now, this unfortunate episode has only demonstrated how alike the Kashmiri Islamist zealot and his Indian nationalist, right wing Hindu adversary have become. Both attack young women, both rationalize rape and sexual assault as measures to discipline wayward women, both are insecure about what they see as alien influences. In fact one could even envisage a national integration project of misogyny and paranoia at work here, with both the RSS and different factions of the Hurriyat conference united in their fear and loathing of young girls with guitars. Not even the CRPF is as effective in yoking Kashmir to the Indian mainstream as is a pervasive culture of misogyny. The sooner young Kashmiris realize that, and condemn every move, no matter where it comes from, to muzzle the freedom of women in Kashmir, the more effective they will be in their fight for freedom.
In the protest that took the form of the freedom parade in Delhi on the 26th of January this year, I recall seeing a young Kashmiri carrying a sign that said ‘Use the Slogan of Azaadi, Don’t Forget Kashmir’. I appreciate the sentiment that this slogan embodies. It is a welcome reminder to the protestors in Delhi that their freedom cannot be won at the cost of oppression in Kashmir. And i believe that the protests in Delhi are learning from these timely reminders.I appreciate it enough to respond by asking him to remember that the next time when he takes up the ‘Hum Kya Chahtey – Azaadi’ slogan, he too should not forget the women of Kashmir, including the girls who make up Pragaash.