Arif Ayaz Parrey

Arif Ayaz Parray
Arif Ayaz Parray

Trust the poet to make a prophecy.
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain
will be sold in black, then destroyed,

These opening lines of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem ‘The Last Saffron’ achieve an impressive prognosis of the current debate over the Harud (autumn) Literature Festival, set to be orchestrated in the lawns of the Delhi Public School, Srinagar on the 24th and 25th of September and at the Kashmir University campus on the 26th. The event is quickly becoming a metonymy as the scriptwriters and spin-doctors have begun to weave cheap fiction and disturbing mystery around it.

Dying in Autumn
The first disturbing idea is that festivities surrounding literature and by default freedom of speech and expression are thought possible in present-day Kashmir. More than seventy thousand people have been killed in the past twenty years; about 120 youth were killed in paramilitary and police firing in 2010 alone, mostly exercising their right to protest. More than 5000 youth have been detained, some of them minor, over the last year for participating in protests. Local cable-TV channels were banned.

There is a crackdown on Facebook activists. Shakeel Bakshi, chairman of Islamic Students League was arrested, allegedly for posting historical facts about Kashmir on his Facebook wall in the form of ‘This day in history’. Noor Mohammed Bhat, a college lecturer in Srinagar, was arrested for posing the question “Are stone-pelters the real heroes? Discuss.” in an English examination paper.

Activist Gautam Navlakha was detained at the airport earlier this year and restrictions were imposed on his travelling in Kashmir. His crime? He supports the idea of self-determination of Kashmir. Leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and writers like Arundhati Roy have repeatedly been threatened with sedition laws for talking about azadi and self-determination. Pro-azadi leadership is never allowed to organize events in Jammu and Ladakh.

The shadowed routine of each vein
Nor are these isolated incidents or aberrations in functioning of the system, rather they constitute the very structure of the system. The right to freedom of speech and expression granted under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian constitution is subject to the ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’ which ends its utility for most Kashmiris.

Kashmiris have the freedom of speech and expression but only if they sing paeans to the Indian state and, more importantly, accept the narrative that they are part of India. Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition and its punishment and, by deduction, the very existence of Kashmiris becomes a crime. Lawless laws like AFSPA and PSA ensure that any procedural niceties in the execution of the writ of the Indian state in Kashmir are done away with. Such draconian measures and their equally ruthless implementation ensure that the Kashmiri population, although always restive, is kept just under the lid.

Art and literature of a society emerge from its self-reflection.

It would therefore seem natural for a society like Kashmir, where the very basic human freedoms of life, liberty, thought and expression are under threat for political reasons that its art and literature concern themselves with these issues pertinently. At the present moment, this kind is the most honest art and literature coming out of Kashmir. Any literary event worth its name must also concern itself with these questions directly if it does not want to be an exercise in mendacity and, ultimately, become irrelevant. It is in this context that the initial remarks of the organisers of the Harud lit-fest about the event being “apolitical” hit the wrong notes.

Where politics is the lifeblood of literature, the Orwellian maxim: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude” assumes the greatest significance. It brings to mind Neruda’s poignant lines “And you’ll ask: why doesn’t his poetry speak of dreams and leaves and the great volcanoes of his native land? Come and see the blood in the streets.”

Almost news, the blood censored
The raison dtre for the lit-fest, as described by the organisers, is, to let Kashmir’s “vibrant and layered literary tradition” let “India’s multi cultural ethos resonate across the world.” (Can there be a more ‘political’ position than this? Sigh!)

The concept of nation-state is a pretty recent and modernist one. Most sub-continental cultures pre-date it by at least a few thousand years. Therefore India of the histories and cultures is different from India, the state. (For example, while Pakistan, Bangladesh and even the other SAARC countries share “India’s multi-cultural ethos”, they are not part of the Indian state.) Most institutions of the Indian state, its bureaucracy, legislature, media and academia had abandoned this distinction.

One of the important programmes for the Indian state has therefore been to usurp the cultures and employ them in the service of the constitution, so to say. For a place like Kashmir, which is very much part of the sub-continental ethos but does not want to be part of the Indian state, this creates a double-whammy: it is forced to sift for only the overtly political strands in its literature and art while as the Indian state usurps its ‘apolitical’ strands, i.e.; those narratives which do not render themselves to the concept of nation-state (and thus independence). The lit-fest seems destined to go down the same path.

Since the days of the khoftan-fakeers and caning for listening to Radio Pakistan, we have been witness to an era of fear and forced statehood, which already has had many adverse effects on Kashmir’s literary and artistic tradition. Sharda script has been lost. Persian is on the verge of being lost (Under a regime where even Kashmiri is not a productive language connected to power, one wonders about its fate.) Baandh-pather, a type of folk performance, has been forced into using the tyrannical regimes of yore as a metaphor for the present. Laddi Shah, a form of folk-songs, has had to sublimate into the mundane and the abstruse even when there is a desire to describe the here and now of politics.

Perhaps the best example of the interplay between the Indian state and a place like Kashmir is that of the Kashmiri Pandit migrants. Pandits have traditionally been the most educated community among Kashmiris, with an acute sense of culture. After migration, when they “integrated” with India more freely than ever before, the cultural moorings of the community are under a serious threat as is clear from the loss of even the language among the younger lot. And this is not even surprising; for one does not need to be a sociologist to understand the fate of a needle in the haystack.

Sold in black, then destroyed
In addition to this self-censorship, Kashmir has had to face the brunt of censorship and misrepresentation from the Indian establishments (including the media) as well. Already the Indian media has begun to celebrate the lit-fest as “another sign of normalcy” “another sign of easing of tension” and “an autumn of hope”. They make a desolation and call it peace. This bogey of normalcy and peace is again set to be used to discredit and discard the aspirations of millions of Kashmiris, their plight and their everyday struggle for self-determination. Thus, a vicious circle is sort to be established in which art and literature, which should represent the reality of the society, will be used to distort that very reality.

It might be another attempt at patchwork to prove to the world outside Kashmir the magnanimity of the Indian government which allows such festival to be organized in restive zones like Kashmir. Inside Kashmir, it will be another attempt akin to the elders of villages and towns being forced to rub out the signs of “Go India, go back” put by the protestors.

But the central question remains unsolved? How long will Kashmiris be producers of facts, narratives, emotions, ideas etc., mere data-banks, while outsiders come and analyse the data and draw the conclusions for the world as well as for the Kashmiris themselves. To be able to talk what we want to talk about, invite whom we want to invite and draw conclusions we want to draw, that will be the kind of event Kashmiris will celebrate as a literature festival.

Parsing a poet
If Agha Shahid Ali were alive, he would be welcome in the lit-fest on the wings of his lines: “Dark Krishna, don’t let your Radha die in the rain.” because they celebrate the ‘multicultural ethos of India’. The lines: “A Brigadier says, the boys of Kashmir break so easily, we make their bodies sing, on the rack, till no song is left to sing.” would create much embarrassment and throat-clearing before being sought to be explained by someone like Shashi Tharoor as the product of the flight of imagination of a poet, not really connected to facts. But the lines “When her husband was exiled from the Valley by the Moghul king Akbar, she (Habba Khatun) went among the people with her sorrow. Her grief, alive to this day, in her own roused the people into frenzied opposition to the Moghul rule. And since then Kashmir has never been free.”would be deemed inappropriate and an absolute no-no for the lit-fest because they are “political”.

Arif Ayaz Parrey is lawyer by profession and writer by choice .The ideas expressed are his own.


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