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Girl band row stokes aazaadi embers

- Cyberspace message from Kashmir: Indians, don’t preach to us
The all-girl band at the annual Battle of the Bands in Srinagar in December 2012. AFP file picture

New Delhi, Feb. 5: The virtual passing of Kashmir’s teenage all-girl band has become occasion for the Valley’s many fragile faultlines to reopen along raw edges. As “Praagaash”, or morning light, extinguished itself on Facebook in deference to “Kashmiri sentiment”, Kashmiris stoked a babble on the girls’ dead music.

This isn’t Kashmir’s first skirmish with imposed diktat, though its record in dealing with them has been chequered. In 2000, militants ordered all Kashmiri girls and women under the veil; before the shroud could come down on the Valley, it was nonchalantly discarded by women. Students of Kashmir University didn’t prove so feisty; in 2011, they scrapped a music festival christened “Ilhaam”, loosely translated as divine message, in the face of threats generated in cyberspace.

Arguments over the past couple of days have been flung in from and flown in many directions — religious, social, sexual, cultural, political, aspirational. It was only a matter of time before an in-house disagreement over schoolgirl music got cannoned into articulations of a thwarted nationhood — “aazaadi”, the undying Kashmiri ember forever looking for a flame.

An indignant banner now stands erected to confront widespread condemnation of the fatwa that abrogated “Praagaash”: “We’re Kashmiris, not Indians, don’t preach to us what’s right and what’s not.”

You may not find it unfurled on the frozen Kashmiri street yet, but it’s blazing on cyberspace, the boiler-room where conflicts tend now to pirouette before bursting out for real.

What may be significant this time, though, is that Kashmir’s main Opposition party, the PDP, has not taken automatic resort to populism, to either supporting a religious ban or blindly opposing the government’s gnash against it. It has taken a nuanced position, flaying the fatwa as out of order.

“Issuing fatwas has become a profession with muftis and Islam is getting a bad name for it,” said PDP spokesperson Naeem Akhtar, “Where was any need for this?”

That isn’t an easy, or convenient, position for a political party to take knowing the temper of the Kashmiri street, where “Praagaash” and its exhaust have become the stage for replaying unassuaged grouses.

The fledgling poet-musicians — Noma Nazir, Farah Deeba and Aneeka Khalid —have panicked off the stage, the battle-lines have been restored to default mode: To vocal Kashmiri sections, all criticism of what’s been done to “Praagaash” — and most of it has come from non-Kashmiri Indians — is “imperialist Indian invective”; to critics of the ban, all Kashmiri defence of it has become proof of the “retrograde and Talibanised nature”, a stick to beat them into a corner from where they will wail “aazaadi” louder.

To every “heart-breaking” lament on the ban, to every gush of distant empathy for “Praagaash”, came ripostes that thought comment and engagement on the extant issue beneath contempt. Sample a few:

“So where were you when young old were ruthlessly killed by armies, when women raped in Kashmir? You never said your blah, blah, blah…” ;

“So is Kashmir leading to darkness just because a band has decided to stop performing? Subhanallah, pack up!” ;

A lot of the rage exchanged on cyberspace today was about scandalous online bullying against the “Praagaash” girls while they were still holding out against the fatwa — warnings of physical assault, threats of molestation and rape, many serial spools of them. But the processing of accumulated political anger seemed to obliterate any shame over that.

“So what?” one Kashmiri net-scribe retorted to voices indignant that the “Praagaash” girls had been barrelled with sexual intimidation, “So what? Nobody seemed bothered when the Kununposhpora rapes happened?... No channel said come tonight and watch blah… Praagaash is now over, what will the Indian media invent now for TRPs?”

Even those among Kashmiris that spoke out against the fatwa did so purely in the paradigm of Kashmiriyat, entirely exclusive of anything Indian.

Expat Kashmir Omar Bashir’s petition campaign for the Grand Mufti and fatwa author Bashiruddin Ahmed to quit may elucidate the many dilemmas a thinking Kashmiri might be having to twist on: “Mr Grand Mufti,” Omar writes, “You have forgotten that Kashmir has a long tradition of Kashmiriyat and Kashmiriyat is an expression of solidarity and resilience regardless of religious differences. Your nefarious and illogical fatwas have caused more harm than they have done any good.”

Music, he says, is not new to Kashmiri women; there have been “stalwarts” like Padma Shri Raj Begum, like Mehmeet Syed, like Shameema Azad, who happens to be the wife of Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Chief minister Omar Abdullah, who has flayed the ban, labelled its supporters “morons”, made common cause with the “Praagaash” girls and set the law after those who threatened them with violent abuse, would have found semblance with his namesake’s case-making — sensible, new age, a happy resonance of a cultural cutout Abdullah himself fits.

But only that far, and no further. For then, Omar the petitioner’s criticism moved from the current and the specific to an exposition of larger, and finely nuanced, grievance: “Kashmiri women have been always on the forefront, from Kot Rani fighting large invading armies to Parveena Ahanger fighting the world’s largest democracy. We have never seen a fatwa from you when women sing and dance on government functions like the Republic Day or the Independence Day which explains the dubious character of this fatwa….

“Previously also you have threatened American citizens to leave Kashmir and before that you summoned a Christian Pastor to your self styled Shariah Court and ordered him to leave the State. These things portray a negative image of the people of Kashmir bringing us immense shame. You have failed as an ambassador representing the people of Kashmir.”

In short, democracy and liberalism are intrinsic Kashmiri values, nothing that Kashmiris have to pay debt or tribute to India for. Not the kind of lecture the Grand Mufti of Kashmir would have expected from a fellow Kashmiri, not, perhaps, on Kashmir Day, which it happened to be today. His saving grace could be that February 5 is only so observed in Pakistan.