In a state that doesn't pretend to hide its near-constant condition of tragedy, 'Pragaash' was the wrong entity to be silenced. After all, music is the food of love.
Kashmir is one of the few holidays I wanted to savour in silence from time to time. It was stunningly beautiful and gut wrenching at the same time. We didn’t look for stories, they came to us through the various people we met, the man who brought us breakfast in the snow, the caretaker of our boat, the closed cinemas, the cup of tea from the samovar, the little basket with coals, the chilling rain and the army men everywhere talking furiously on their cell phones, including at the ski lift at Gulmarg.
There was no escaping the reality that this was a highly militarised zone. Even now the memories are evocative --the cold grey mornings on Dal lake, the boats gliding through the still, translucent waters, and the salesmen who would pop up even on the lake and in the morning as we stepped out of the boat to sip tea and take in the calmness.
Earlier in New Delhi I had met a journalist Shahnawaz Khan who had researched closed cinemas in Srinagar. All the theatres had been closed by the militants and the one I visited at Lal Chowk was desolate. A kite whistled above as we entered the tall gates and the caretaker came out hastily to state the obvious. There was a bicycle parked at the entrance and steel barricades prevented entry.
Inside the hall I could see red plush chairs where people must have sat comfortably while watching movies. Now it was eerily empty and the lonely bicycle and the ragged caretaker added to the ramshackle picture. Almost everyone we met had lost a close family member. Yet there was a strange hope and happiness in them as they served us tea or lunch and sold us souvenirs with unrelenting determination.
When I read about the all-girls band refusing to perform anymore after the Grand mufti decreed at music was bad or un- Islamic, it brought back memories of a state that was barely hiding its tragedy.
For years it had suffered the excesses of security forces, its children were missing or killed, or had taken to arms and its women were brutalised. What colossal courage it must have taken for three young girls to come out with a band of their own and perform in Kashmir whose history is linked with poetry and music. It was a bolt of light from a state darkened with grief.
And when such voices are silenced using religion as the flimsiest of excuses, it is unacceptable. The facebook site of the band has many messages of support from the rest of the country and abroad. The girls are grateful but is that enough to give them the courage to regroup and perform? I doubt that very much. Already in their own state there is little support though the police are for once hunting down the hate-speech brigade.
Apart from human rights groups the rest of the country has silently witnessed the turmoil in Kashmir, and it is only recently that we have books by Basharat Peer whose Curfewed Night in 2008 was a landmark and later Mirza Waheed’s outstanding book The Collaborator. Voices from inside Kashmir were being heard for the first time and how. The tussle over the strategic importance of Kashmir has blinded many people to the reality inside. And these books gave vent to the feelings and predicament of ordinary people who suffered extraordinary fates for no fault of their own.
'Pragaash' was a voice from Kashmir which has been silenced by recrimination and fear. It will not be the last. The girls faced social boycott by the Dukhtaran e Millat (Daughters of the Nation) and had to go into hiding. But the storm of protest from the rest of the country is encouraging. If these voices of outrage were heard when young men were being shot and killed or women were raped in Kashmir perhaps there would have been enough pressure for the government to lift the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers act.
Though a belated recommendation for a review of the Act has come from the Justice Verma commission, it is doubtful if it will come to pass.
While action is being taken against hate-speech by the police, a welcome step, who will act against the grand mufti or the Dukhtaran? Clearly for the mufti and the others of his like, music is not the food of love. The government has to ensure freedom for the girls who have stepped back due to fear of offending anyone. They have even said it’s impossible to play music in Kashmir.
Much as Shaheen Dadha took off her Facebook post after violent protests in Palghar in Maharashtra, these girls too are victims of fear and intimidation. They had to apologise and disband while the religious leaders who made them stop will continue to vent their ill-judged feelings. If the mufti has freedom of expression so do the girls and merely tweeting that the police would act against the handful of morons by chief minister Omar Abdullah is not enough.
Morons have to be restrained from impinging on the freedom of others and about time a lunatic fringe stopped dictating to the rest of the world what is art, music, painting and poetry. It is not ebullient and brave young women who should be silenced. They are daughters of the nation, too.