Kashmiris side-step narrative control

BY Freny Manecksha| IN Censorship | 15/02/2014
Post 2004, Kashmiris have begun creatively engaging with technology to express their own narratives despite censorship,
observes FRENY MANECKSHA. PIX: Kashmiri rapper Shayan Nabi

A tweet on February 10, expressing disapproval of the way GPRS (mobile data) services were suspended in Kashmir on the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, attracted attention only because it emanated from chief minister Omar Abdullah. Later, according to a report in The Hindu, the tweet disappeared even as a BSNL official clarified that services were frozen under proper requisition from a state security agency.

Kashmiris, used to such routine blocking tactics responded with characteristic dark humour.  One young journalist wondered, on a social networking platform, if the chief minister’s complaint of being kept in the dark was a sign of going back to the dark ages. Another asked if section “collective conscience” was being enforced. One blogger posted, “Democracy is a touch queasy. Expect mild interruptions of your rights.”

In addition to these restrictions, the scheduled screening in Srinagar of a film on executed JKLF leader Maqbool Bhatt back in 1984 was cancelled following orders of security forces. Again this is not something new. Last year, the screening of the film Ocean of Tears by film maker Bilal A Jan was abruptly cancelled at the Kashmir University just a half hour before the scheduled time. The film, made under the aegis of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust of India, had been given a certificate by the Censor Board and had been screened in Mumbai, Kolkata, Kathmandu and at the Al Jazeera international documentary film festival in Doha.

Dealing with the subject of sexual violence, the film carries interviews of the women of Kunan-Poshpora, whose accusation of widespread sexual assault on the night of February 24, 1991, by Indian army personnel is still being heard in court and the Shopian case in which two women were found raped and murdered in 2009 leading to huge outrage in the Valley. The film also covers violence perpetrated on women by suspected militants.

Bilal Jan says that whilst the unofficial censoring of his film was explained away as a law-and- order situation, he views it as a refusal “to see the truth.” The army persists in its denial of the incident but Bilal Jan says an entire village cannot cook up a story.

The relentless efforts to hold “speech in hostage” has been powerfully expressed by writer Mirza Waheed in a recent article in Guernica entitled “The Torturable Class”. Waheed, who works with BBC in UK and had penned The Collaborator, condemns the Indian state’s obsession with narrative control.

Farrukh Faheem, a Kashmiri who teaches at the South Asia Centre for Peace, Conflict and Human Security, at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai elaborates on this ongoing battle to control narrative spaces.

Ongoing battle to control narrative spaces

There are, he says, two aspects. First is the way any discourse on Kashmir has been seen only through the prism of India versus Pakistan and has been dominated by Indian or Pakistani writers who bring their own ideology. “It is only over the past five-six years that this dominant narrative has been punctured by Kashmiris themselves who have explored social medium platforms extensively.” It is no coincidence that massive clampdowns began in 2010 after Kashmiris began using Blogs, YouTube  recordings, music and other forms of creative expression.

Faheem points out how initially the national media had blanked out the turbulence of 2010. But then a YouTube video went viral. It exposed the lies of security forces who had said a young boy had been killed because he was a stone pelter on the streets. His friends uploaded the video in the next 24 hours showing he had been killed inside his own compound. This broke the blockade of the news channels and stories on Kashmir 

Another aspect is the way the state seeks to control the mobilisation of the ideology of azadi within Kashmir, says Faheem. Again since it is these social network platforms that have become spaces for mobilization there is huge surveillance in a bid to control the network spaces.

Faheem, who is keenly interested in understanding the nature of mobilisations from the nineties onwards, points out how intense political discussions and fervour have always been part of Kashmiri life. In the nineties even though public spaces were tightly controlled and there were huge restrictions on political discussions intrepid Kashmiris evolved their own venues for news gathering and dialogue within society. One such space was afforded by bakeries where everyone went to buy the various breads that are a staple part of the diet. Dargahs and mosques too developed secular value as they enabled mobilisation where one could avail of democratic spaces.

Social media and awareness raising

Post 2004, Kashmiris have begun exploring and creatively engaging with technology for such interaction and expression of their own narratives. At first the internet seemed to offer anonymity and some respite from the all penetrating eye of the state. But increasing surveillance and arrests has made youths realise that these spaces too now pose serious challenges. In this battle Anonymous, the international group of hackers, protested against the “differential justice treatment” for Kashmiris. Twitter storms are also a weapon used fairly effectively to raise awareness.

One very interesting fallout of the net and influence of other resistance movements like Palestine is the way Kashmiri youth are now using rap. This is following in the footsteps of older traditions of dissent like Bhand Patharey (folk theatre which relies on satire and burlesque) and Laadi Shah.

One such rapper, twenty- three- year- old Shayan Nabi (@Shyn9 on Twitter) says that the use of hip-hop which evolved as a fight against slavery and the conscious usage of the English language helps reach out to a larger global community. This solidarity was demonstrated last year in the manner in which Mumbai rapper A-List aka Ashwini Mishra and Shyn 9 collaborated for a song on the execution of Afzal Guru.

In another show of solidarity demonstrated a few days ago an African-American hip hop artiste calling himself Steven Biko Thomas collaborated with San’aa Sultan. Even as San’aa Sultan, in her poem, spoke of how the internet was down and “my communication was stolen,” Steven Biko Thomas declared he would “Stand Up for Kashmir.”

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