Ever since the Zubin Mehta controversy began, I’ve been receiving messages on Facebook (and mentions on Twitter) from people who want to know what my stand on it is; the reason being my public stances on both the Praagaash controversy and on an earlier controversy over a charity concert (whose organizers were eventually forced to look for a new venue). I refused to comment on the Zubin Mehta issue because, apart from music, it had nothing in common with the two earlier controversies over which I had been fairly outspoken. The people who want to know my position are either conservative pro-Kashmir or conservative pro-Hindutva. The people who want me to pick a side have nothing to do with freedom of expression. Nor does the Zubin Mehta controversy. The only angle to this story is a class angle. The elite organizers and the state do not need my campaigning to protect their freedom of expression.
I’ve taken stances against intolerance but it would be unfair to say that the Zubin Mehta controversy is a product of intolerance and growing extremism. In my observation, most of the opposition to the concert came from people who are appalled at the way normalcy is being projected by the organizers, while ignoring human rights issues in Kashmir. And the nature of the organizers is no less important- the German embassy in collaboration with the Jammu & Kashmir government. As a member of international community, Germany should have considered the implications of such collaboration- they clearly prefer diplomatic ties to human rights. Although the Ambassador said that music will improve ties between Kashmiri people and the rest of the world, it is clearly not true as the event is a closed one in nature. Entry is by invitation only and VIPs are being flown in from Delhi and other places (rather than having a local audience). To keep the “miscreants” (another term for local people) away, the boulevard road will turn into a fortress and only VIP vehicles (including a fleet of BMW cars) will be allowed. The not-very-important important local people who have been invited have been asked to assemble, as if for a school picnic, and will be ferried to the event. Not-at-all-important local people who want to travel in and out of that area have been asked to do so before a certain point of time. I could have used a familiar term to replace the previous three sentences: curfew. No wonder then, that people weren’t very happy with the concert.
Another, more important reason for saying that the opposition to this event was not merely ‘intolerance’ is the kind of response that has emerged. Rather than terms like “unislamic”, “objectionable”, “cultural invasion” dissent was expressed in terms like “censorship”, “reclaiming public spaces”, “reclaiming narratives” and “inclusion”. Human rights defender, Khurram Parvez, deserves applause for the novel way in which he has responded to this issue. As I often argue, the answer to a book should be in the form of a book and not a death threat. Khurram Parvez has done just that- responded to a concert that seeks to gloss over narratives of common people with a concert that seeks to reclaim those very narratives, rather than with, say, a call to strike. Michael Steiner, German ambassador, and organizer of Zubin Mehta’s concert Ehsaas-e-Kashmir, has expressed desire to attend the counter concert, Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir. Although Steiner’s statement is no less than what is expected of a fine diplomat, I’m apprehensive that his visit might lead to the exclusion of common people from the counter concert for all-too-familiar “security reasons”. After all, Section 144, RPC which prohibits assembly of more than five people at public places is always in place in Srinagar.
As much as I’m delighted at the changed terminology of dissent, I’m also slightly skeptical, as the counter concert is clearly a reactive move. To paraphrase a piece in Kafila by Shuddhabrata Sengupta on the Praagaash issue, resistance in Kashmir has largely come to mean reactionary resistance rather than proactive resistance. The resistance movement has not been able to provide creative spaces for young Kashmiris and when, as a result, they are forced to look for these spaces in concerts organized by the Army, we see resistance against “cultural aggression” which is reactionary in nature. Does Khurram Parvez’s counter concert mark a beginning toward a culture of resistance that is inclusive, rejects censorship and that seeks to reclaim public spaces as much for women as for men? Parvez, in an interview to Peerzada Ashiq, which is worth reading, said “While initially a reaction to the Zubin Mehta concert, it is now an opportunity for us to pay tribute to the martyrs of our brave struggle, and celebrate art in the way that is deeply respectful to them, and to the ongoing struggle for azadi (freedom). This is an event for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.” Can Parvez pull the resistance struggle out of a phase of boycott, exclusion and regression to one that is proactive, inclusive and progressive? It’s as much a hope as a question.
Originally published in Rising Kashmir