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Issue 207

Why the Art World Needs to Wake Up to the Kashmir Crisis

As the full communications blackout enters one month, we must take action – not only to declare solidarity but to profoundly critique the times we live in

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Opinion | 03 SEP 19

‘Indians relate to Kashmir the way that they do to the caste system. It’s unequivocal. If they believe ‘Kashmir is ours’, political history or lived reality does not matter. For those who question it, like those who question caste – the tyranny, impunity and injustice have been visible all along,’ artist Shaina Anand of Mumbai-based studio CAMP says to me as we share the news of what may now be indisputably called India’s military occupation of Kashmir. In the absence of adequate media coverage, we turn to social media, and to each other, for news. The situation escalated quickly. On 2 August, tourists were evacuated from Kashmir amidst vague rumours of a ‘security threat’. The following day, Indian students were rounded up and made to leave their Kashmiri campuses. The Indian foreign office released a statement: ‘There is a risk of unpredictable violence, including bombings, grenade attacks, shootings and kidnappings.’

By 5 August, the stunt had exposed itself: the security threat was actually from the Indian government and the violence to come was quite predictable; 30,000 extra military troops were deployed into the valley and several prominent Kashmiri leaders (all of whom, for decades, have been managing a tough political diplomacy between Kashmir, Pakistan and India) were placed under house arrest. A curfew was declared and, in the final moments before it was imposed, residents of the Kashmiri capital Srinagar rushed to Dal Lake – where purple-hued still water meets the surrounding mountain-scape in a perfect, reflective symmetry – thinking it might be for the last time.

Kashmiri women protesting in Soura, Srinagar, on 30 August 2019. There have been protests in Soura every Friday after the effective abrogation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019. Courtesy: The Caravan; photograph: Masrat Zahra

The curfew was not the only imposition: the Indian government also established a communications blackout – now in its 29th day. There is no internet or mobile phone service; and only some landlines are operational. Phones are made available at a few police stations and government offices, but the queues are hours long. There is dial-up internet for journalists set up in a hotel (Srinagar’s Sarovar Portico) by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but all activity is tightly surveilled.

A young Kashmiri artist-in-residence in the southern Indian city of Kochi, with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation, Owais Ahmed, has quietly begun making a new work in the absence of being able to speak with his family. In the past 29 days, Ahmed has only been in contact with his family once, six days after the communications blackout, during Bakri Eid. Somewhat reluctantly, Ahmed speaks to me over the phone, telling me that he and his fellow artist-in-residence, Mir Lateef, are being harassed by the Indian media and pushed towards making political statements or talking about their families. Ahmed has painted his studio walls with splatters of red paint and printed thousands of postcards featuring images of past military-civilian confrontations in Kashmir. His aim, he tells me, is to create a fully immersive and literal installation: ‘I want everyone who enters to feel the chaos that I do.’

Owais Ahmed, My Burning Valley, 2019. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Mir Lateef

For several years now, India has toed a fine line: Kashmir remains one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world, as well as the site of one of the oldest land disputes. On 5 August, the Indian government – following a mere one-hour period of deliberation in parliament – breached the conditions of the 1947 Instrument of Accession, under which the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had acceded to India, after encouragement from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (a Kashmiri Pandit) in a post-partition political moment of deep confusion and hysteria. Indian home minister Amit Shah has now revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, which detail the legal terms of this accession.

In what is titled the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act 2019, Shah restructured the region’s judicial system: both Jammu and Kashmir will now be administered by the central government in New Delhi, partitioning them into two separate union territories. All special privileges that were guaranteed by the constitution have been rescinded, including the right for the state to have its own constitution, flag and legislative assembly. Simply put: the disputed region is now under full control of the Indian central government. While there are comparisons to be drawn between Kashmir and Palestine (notably, India is the second largest importer of weapons and surveillance technology from Israel), in this it is markedly different: there will never again be a two-party dialogue.

29 August 2019. A Kashmiri boatman from the Hanji community in Srinagar offers evening prayers on his boat in Dal Lake. The houseboats in the backdrop sit empty of tourists. A significant part of Kashmir’s locals depend on revenues from tourism and have taken a huge hit with the current clampdown in the region. Photograph and courtesy: Sumit Dayal

Two days after Articles 370 and 35A were revoked, Bollywood producers registered the following film titles with the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association: Kashmir Hamara Hain (Kashmir Is Ours), India Strikes Back, Dhara 370 (Article 370) and Dhara 35A (Article 35A). A new genre of songs – about bringing home Kashmiri wives and buying Kashmiri land – also went viral. Mainstream celebrities released statements congratulating the government on its decision. Most famous of these was actor Priyanka Chopra, who was publicly called out at BeautyCon in Los Angeles by a young Pakistani-American for ‘encouraging nuclear war with Pakistan’. (Chopra’s bodyguards quickly wrested the microphone away from the young girl.) Many Indian luxury brands took the opportunity to plug fashion shoots in Kashmir, featuring clothes shot by famous photographers amidst snow-capped mountain peaks.

Disturbingly, neither public nor private Indian arts institutions have made any comment on the situation. A few artists have made public statements, and fewer still have taken direct action. This is unsettling, given that many Indian artists draw from Kashmiri politics and history to make work. Inder Salim, a New Delhi-based Kashmiri performance artist, filed a 200-page petition with the supreme court, along with journalist Satish Jacob. They challenged the presidential orders that revoked 370 and 35A and argued that the democratic process was not duly followed in this unilateral decision-making, since Kashmir was not given the chance to deliberate on the outcome per its constitutional right. To quote from their petition: ‘The Union of India acted upon a well-thought out stratagem, cleverly devised with the specific intent of evading mandatory constitutional requirements, invading settled rights of constitutional bodies and brazenly defiling and defacing the federal constitutional scheme.’

Mehraj Ud Din, Crackdown by Army Soldiers, Srinagar, 1993, in Witness - Kashmir 1986-2016 / 9 photographers (Yaarbal, 2017). Courtesy: the artist

Salim is not hopeful that their petition will be heard in court, but he is optimistic about the potential for resistance and solidarity at this time. ‘The molecularity of solidarity and resistance is important. Things build up over time,’ he tells me. ‘Words like dissent and solidarity have become too abstract, or relegated to academic discourse. We are trying to retrieve them and make them operational on the ground.’ Every contribution is significant now. Artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective was one of the first to publicly declare the emergency of the situation. In a 5 August Facebook post, he wrote: ‘If the Indian home minister’s proposal to repeal Article 370 becomes law, without the consent of the people of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, then the Indian state will have lost the legal fiction that tied Jammu and Kashmir, through delicate constitutional engineering, to the Indian Union. This means admitting to the world that India is an illegal occupying power.’ Which it most certainly is.

Perhaps one response would be to declare a state of emergency. In fact, all of us, globally, must take action, because what has happened in Kashmir – the suspension of parliamentary action, the communications lockdown, the silencing of media coverage – could happen anywhere in the world. While Kashmir might be one of the oldest and most significant regions with a separationist discourse, it is far from being the only one. India itself hangs together so precariously: several independent princely states were unified under a postcolonial nation-building project by the first leaders of the republic. For the arts community to address the current situation in Kashmir – whether through artworks that take up a nuanced position on political issues or by offering tangible support to Kashmiri students in India, who are being forced to relocate from their hostels and harassed by right-wing student groups such as the ABVP – is not only to declare solidarity but to profoundly critique the times we live in.

Syed Shahriyar, Police Announcement, Srinagar, 2016, in Witness - Kashmir 1986-2016 / 9 photographers (Yaarbal, 2017). Courtesy: the artist

In 2017 the filmmaker, activist and writer Sanjay Kak edited and published an extraordinary book of photographs entitled Witness. Featuring the work of nine Kashmiri photographers who have been working in the region for several years, it also contains written accounts by each photographer of the conditions under which they work – often brutal and involving near-constant confrontations with the Indian Army. Through their images and words, these artists reveal the incredible complexities they must grapple with. As photographer Sumit Dayal recounts: ‘It soon became difficult to make sense of [the images] I was bringing back […] There was a straightforward political story, and a personal one. How were they to be put together?’

Kak, who is also editor of a book of excellent essays on Kashmir, Until My Freedom Has Come (2011), responds candidly to my question of how cultural institutions can do more at this time: ‘To expect cultural output to ask the relevant questions of our time is incredibly naïve.’ Kak gets to the heart of the matter here: it is becoming increasingly apparent that we cannot rely on cultural institutions to create space for dissent and solidarity. ‘The critical questions will always come from the margins, from those who are not tied to the coattails of state power or corporate power,’ Kak says. What it means for marginal discourse to enter the mainstream is salient, as is the sense of responsibility Kak invokes: cultural output should, relentlessly and fearlessly, challenge the concerns of our time. When I asked Dayal, who is currently flying in and out of Srinagar on assignments, what more we can do, he responded plainly: ‘The government seems to be ready to play the ‘time’ card in Kashmir […] in due course this will become the new normal. Report honestly, make everyone aware and, if you’re thinking of visiting Kashmir: carry coffee, USB drives and television shows.’

A version of this article appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘Kashmir Is Ours’

Main image: Owais Ahmed, My Burning Valley, 2019. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Mir Lateef

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.