Reflections from the Valley of Controlled Chaos

As the army trucks and rusting local transport buses vomit diesel pollution into the valley, the once shimmering waters of Dal Lake now give way to a swampy land mass. I am an outsider, only witness to the suffering of my family and people from across an ocean. Yet nonetheless, Kashmir is in my veins and my family has been my compass since birth. It is a place I have been visiting for over 20 years. Kashmiris have been victims of terror from the counterinsurgency tactics of the state, as well as, the armed separatist militants across the Line of Control. In such a fragmented zone of conflict, it becomes hard to know who to trust or what to invest hope in. In my most recent trip to the valley this summer, some days it seemed, a people and culture I once felt I was close to, now was in risk of becoming its own fiction. “Before 1987, we had no gates or walls. People trusted each other….after the militancy, now, we cannot trust our own brothers,” a local resident tells me amidst the female chants of Kashmiri wedding songs nearby. I feel more confused than ever: I am both worried and inspired; disheartened but hopeful.  Kashmir seems increasingly bipolar in a way I have never seen or felt.
For 2 months I was in Kashmir, and with my brother and young community conscious Kashmiris, worked on my music and arts initiative for orphans called Lollipops Crown Arts Initiative and organized cultural exchange music concerts in Kashmir. The concerts and our workshops were not political and carried no agenda. The only aim of the initiatives was to discover, expose, and nurture the creative capital that exists in Kashmir’s youth. By the end of the workshops, the orphans learned to read and compose and play their own music. They also learned how to write, direct, film, and act in 4 short stories about topics of their choosing: pollution, education corruption, religious tolerance and politics, and female education. Then there were the concerts we played to hundreds and hundreds of young Kashmiris, who this time last summer, were suffocating under curfews for over 4 months.
Lollipops Crown Arts project and work with the orphans:

My efforts to implement educational and cultural exchange initiatives with the community encountered both praise with some but fragile support from others, due to a mistrust of my intentions as a ‘foreigner'. Some were excited at the initiatives, but others also were pessimistic of the importance of organizing concerts or teaching disadvantaged youth freedom of expression through the arts. It was confusing and exhausting to carry on with the work in such a bipolar environment. Yet, just when I felt like surrendering to the controlled chaos of the valley, moments of clarity, cooperation, and openness transcended the air of mistrust and insecurity.  It became one of the most transformative experiences of our lives. What we (the Kashmiri youth, local artists, and social workers) managed to achieve together was extraordinary and is indicative of the creative capital, intellectual capabilities, and political-will that exists in the youth of Kashmir for finding ways to make their society  healthier, safer, and thriving.
The Kashmir conflict is usually contextualized through a distorted lens, focusing on tensions between nuclear armed rivals India and Pakistan. The government of India blames Pakistani supported Islamic extremists for the unrest, while Pakistan’s government blames the conflict on New Delhi’s refusal to allow for a plebiscite, according to UN resolutions. The government of India cites over 47,000 have been killed since 1989 while international and local rights groups alleged over 70,000 have been killed. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons have claimed over 8,000 enforced disappearances and the International Peoples Tribunal for Kashmir has documented over 1,000 mass graves in the Kupwara district alone. The U.S State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have acknowledged the widespread violence endured by Kashmiris in the form of extra-judicial killings, rapes, and torture in Kashmir. The Indian military and local police have been implicated in thousands of crimes against civilians.  Recently, the European Parliament attached a condition to its Free Trade Agreement with India citing the need for dialogue on the Kashmir issue. Militants too, historically armed and funded by Pakistan, are guilty of a number of such human rights abuses on their own community, including the forced migration of over 100,000 Kashmir Pandits and the murder of over 300 Pandits. Thousands of Pandits remain in refugee camps in Jammu. Every religion, social class and ethnicity has been affected. No one country, (India or Pakistan), nor one religious group, (Hindu or Muslim),  holds the blame. The conflict has evolved to a point where on almost every corner of every street there is an unheard story of injustice for which all parties are responsible. The people most affected remain ignored: the Kashmiri people.
I relay excerpts here of what I saw and heard during my recent visit, knowing that nothing I write in this short space will  fully represent Kashmir . I would just be putting my own words into theirs, and promoting the fiction that clouds the reality of what Kashmiris have suffered for over 50 years. Here, however, I focus on the conflict’s colonization of Kashmir’s voice, her culture, and her future and the myth of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir paraded to the world today.  
In the process of independently organizing and playing concerts in Kashmir, I became increasingly exposed to the creative capital in music and art that exists in Kashmir’s youth. One of the highlights of the music tour my brother and I completed was collaborating with local Kashmiri harmonium, rabbab, and ghazal singers. The socio-economic frustrations outside the walls of the studio or at the concert halls were overcome by the energy of creativity, expression, and cross cultural collaboration. It was during the arts workshops with the orphans; the music rehearsals with local Kashmiri musicians near Lal Chowk; and meetings with budding young Kashmiri painters and poets at Kashmir University, that I encountered a thriving spirit for free expression. This energy in the arts and social work and academia seems to be its in embryonic stages. It is fragile, but it is there and it deserves domestic and international nurturing.
Our Music Tour

The more my brother and I collaborated with local artists, however, the more we saw the challenges that artists in Kashmir face. After we finished our concerts, local artists in the studio were in a somber mood because of calls for an upcoming concert at Kashmir University to be cancelled by separatists. Just three days before our band played a sold out show at the same venue. A music director told me, “ there is no free expression. We have had to succumb to pressure from all sides, not just one. It’s the same story, whether you are a journalist, a poet, a dancer, or a musician, or an activist.” Whatever concerts were taking place in the valley were being exploited by the State and Indian government signs of ‘normalcy’. Then, there were Kashmiri separatists and militants claiming that concerts and gatherings for the arts were ‘haram’ and that they distracted the youth from remembering the lost lives of last summer and the political challenges that need resolution. The people’s ability at free expression is thus suffocated by both the State and Kashmiri leadership. Either you are too political or not political enough. Be it in my interviews with human rights activists, journalists, or musicians, I soon realized the degree to which this conflict and all its players (India, Pakistan, Kashmiri leadership) have colonized space for freedom of speech and expression in both the arts and in civil society.
Our Music collaboration

Through the winding alley ways of wood and clay homes tightly hugging one another in Lal Chowk, I met with civil society activists operating ever carefully due to threats from both the government of India as well as armed militant groups. The coverings and plaster of the floors and walls of the dingy room were peeling off like dried henna from one’s skin. They tell me that the conflict has embedded itself deeply into every aspect of Kashmiri life.  “The occupation (by India) is very, very controlled. The local police, the power/electric projects, the state’s political representatives, the education system and economy are all under the control of India,” and so Kashmiris, for their own survival are dependent on India. Another human rights defender goes on to explain that Kashmir has become “militarized in its resources, in its society, in its culture,” to the point that “ the most important tool for the government over Kashmir is fragmentation of Kashmir’s religious, ethnic, and social class unity.” The activist in effect was voicing concern over Kashmir society turning against itself.
In a separate conversation I asked a local journalist about the impact of the crackdowns on civil society in the summer of 2010, in which the largest protests in decades met some of the worst violence on protesters since the early 1990s, with hundreds being beaten and taken into custody, over hundred murdered, and property destroyed. In the valley, frustration has only increased, according to him. “The youth believed protest and public non violent expression will work. But so far, it has failed. There is an increasing feeling that India (or Pakistan) will never listen to non violence. If India does not deliver sooner, this frustration will lead to recruitment.” In an attempt to right its wrongs from last summer, the government of India has summoned interlocutors (consisting of Indian academics and journalists) to conduct an investigation into the political climate in Kashmir. The group is expected to submit the findings of the report in October to the Home Ministry of India, with recommendations for confidence building measures India can make for the future of Jammu and Kashmir. The work of the interlocutors appointed by New Delhi shows promise in exposing the unanswered grievances Kashmiris. Sincere implementation of  confidence building measures, based on the needs of the local civil society, could begin to erode the trust deficit between Kashmiris and New Delhi.  This of course is the hope. Yet conversations with locals and repots in local media express that the mission of the interlocutors has been characterized by internal divisions and has failed to win the popular trust of most in the valley. Many claim that the investigation serves only to distract international community with on-the-surface-reforms. Relative to the murders of protesters last summer, families still are awaiting prosecution against security personnel guilty of murder, and hundreds of youth remain in detention centers without trial. Any attempt at implementing confidence building measures, however, should be supported by New Delhi and local leaders in Srinagar, because to date, no alternative option exists for studying the political and socio economic climate of Kashmir.    
Having just returned from Kashmir  I became disheartened at the constant myths surrounding Kashmir and its people by the regional and international media. Recently, the New York Times stated Kashmir is in a time of ‘normalcy’.  This is a term that former U.S presidential candidate John McCain most certainly heard in his recent meetings with state officials in Srinagar in August and will bring back to Washington as a result. As the recent custody murder  of a 28 year old Kashmiri shop keeper and the faked-encounter-killing of a local Kashmiri beggar this August show, ‘normalcy’ does not apply to Kashmir today.  In reality, a quiet fire today sustains itself every time a boy is killed in custody and a mother continues to search for her son.
A description of Kashmir, that holds true today more than ever, was ominously described to me in 2003 when I interviewed the uncle of a 17 year old local murdered by Indian soldiers who falsely labeled the boy as foreign militant after the killing. He said “to live in Kashmir is to live in a field of mines.” Every step of every second of every day is up in the air. Repeated penetration of the word ‘normalcy’ when talking about Kashmir, in fact, marginalizes the tragedies and injustice that the people have endured for over half a century. Instead,  Kashmir should be characterized by civil society’s fatigue at the failed leadership of the Kashmiri state and separatist leaders; living under the gun of an enforced peace by the center in New Delhi; and the lack of domestic and international support for local civil society.


I reflect again on my fragmented perception of Kashmir. Is Kashmir…bipolar? Maybe the conflict has made her so. But for certain, her people remain dedicated to love, faith, and the hope for justice and accountability. For the sake of regional peace and stability, it is time India, Pakistan, and the world sincerely listen to the rhythm being played by Kashmir’s youth, for just as there is opportunity for continued sabotage by political players, there too is greater opportunity in young social workers, civil society activists, and artists of Kashmir who want peace and development and a clean environment. I witnessed this energy for community development  in young university students organizing environmental events to clean up the pollution in their valley; I heard hope for peace from artists and musicians relentlessly fighting for spaces for positive, non violent expression and sonic beauty. I encountered the dedication for peace in rights activists, who despite threats from all sides, continue to risk their lives for greater justice and accountability. After a journalist showed me scars from a beating he endured last summer by police, I asked him, how he keeps hope alive? He replied with a smile “spiritual strength and faith”, cannot be sold for a price or buried in fear. “Caring love is the answer to all the bullshit.”



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