Kashmir is a touchy subject, one that plays on all our fears about the unraveling of India, of the disintegration of a hard-won nationhood, of the death of the dream of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious happy-happy land out of Manmohan Desai, the withering away of the long-held ideal of unity-in-diversity. In the days when it still seemed absurd that an intemperate comment on Facebook could land anyone in jail, virtual discussions often featured exhortations to Kashmiris to be part of the Indian dream, to get on the bullet train that would surely deliver us all into a shining future. Why, many wondered, would Kashmiris want to cleave to Pakistan, that bizarre land obsessed with an idea of national identity wrapped up in ever-stricter notions of religious purity? That way madness lies. The suggestion that Kashmir could be an independent nation was usually countered with the comment that it would in all likelihood be promptly swallowed by China.
These days, the rest of India rarely talks to Kashmiris even on social media comment threads unless it’s to yell them down. They have been collectively transformed into that recalcitrant child who needs to be taught the error of his ways. Behold how the child throws stones; can’t he be more cheerful when he loses an eye to pellets? Well, he deserved it for shouting for azadi in the streets, and for mourning at the funeral of the young militant. And, oh, the wretch isn’t grateful that the army helped out during the floods either. Really, it’s our boys against those boys, our martyrs against their terrorists. Anyone who believes otherwise is anti-national, a human rights fraud squirting crocodile tears and deserves to be silenced too. Line them up, unleash the trolls, let the studio talking heads in bomber jackets take aim, and if the going is good, lathi could crunch bone at some demonstration too.
Flipping through Witness/Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers prompts the viewer/reader to think about all these things, to confront the role of the Indian state in Kashmir, and the complicity of the Indian middle class – many of our sons, brothers, fathers and husbands have their guns trained on those boys with stones clenched in their fists . It makes us think about what’s happening there because we’ve bought into the idea that the ends justify the means, that brutalization and the nearly 68,000 lives lost over three decades -- almost 8000 Kashmiris remain missing -- is a small price to pay to maintain an idea of India. Witness edited by documentary film maker Sanjay Kak forces you to look at what you’d rather not -- at the wretched, the tortured and the maimed.
It’s impossible to unsee Dar Yasin’s eerie image of silhouetted mourners perched on trees gazing down at the body of a militant in Pehlipora. Javed Dar’s After Killing of Policeman/Srinagar/2013 has a man scooping blood off a street with his bare hands; in Sumit Dayal’s Shakeel and his Son Suzain/Shopian/2009 a dumbstruck crowd stares at Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar cradling his infant son as he speaks of the abduction, rape and murder of his wife Niloufer and sister Asiya by the ‘security forces’. It’s a relief then to look at Javed Dar’s exuberant picture of migrant labourers, clearly a mother and her teenage son from Bihar perhaps, exulting in the snow, and to chance upon Showkat Nanda’s postcard of a little girl at Fatehkadal Market that slips out of the volume. There are other more sombre postcards too from Varmul, part of Nanda’s portraits of boys “on the run”, stone-throwers, kids in hoodies like your own teen son, but whose eyes are infinitely older.
With its striking images that appear in a range of formats including on foldouts and postcards, flipping through Witness, which is fashioned like a box file – a folder of photographs of the missing or the dead perhaps -- complete with a string to hold it all together, is a tactile experience. The reader finds herself breathing in the scent of the pages and catching the glutinous whiff of the binding, as she traces the journey of each of the nine photographers in the book – the oldest Meraj Ud Din began clicking pictures in the 1980s, the youngest, Azaan Shah, isn’t yet 20. Kak, does a fine job of getting each to speak about their work, their inner lives, memories and fears – the last two are often intertwined in Kashmir. Javed Dar recounts how, in 1992, his father “got hollowed out by just that one night when I was picked up by the Army. He grew old overnight”. Dar’s own 17-year-old son was hit by a bullet in October 2015.
There are a million nightmares now. Showkat Nanda’s cousin was gunned down on a bridge in Baramulla in 1989; a year later, his 16-year-old brother set off across the Line of Control, looking for training in handling arms. He died in an accident while crossing the mountain passes. The family never saw his body.
The fear is inescapable.
Read more: Framing Kashmir
Strangely, as Kak too points out in his introduction, very few pictures of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus from the Valley in the early 1990s exist though abandoned Pandit homes haunt an otherwise idyllic landscape. Meraj Ud Din’s image of the Wandhama massacre of 1998 seems to be one of the few images of the Valley’s vanished Hindu community. The veteran’s pictures of the identification of bodies, of counter-insurgents like Kukka Parray, and of a soldier looking at footwear scattered on a highway in Bijbhera town after 50 people were killed there are particularly affecting.
But Witness isn’t just a chronicle of the horrors visited upon Kashmir; it’s a compendium of superlative images backed by text that urges the reader, with a deliberate absence of hysteria, to look at one of the most wretched, morally fraught issues facing the nation today. In the midst of this, the book also presents photographs of unexpected beauty. Syed Shahriyar’s deep consciousness, as a Shia, of belonging to a minority informs his striking shots of Muharram, while Sumit Dayal’s Horse and Cemetery, that incorporates his dead grandfather’s writing, recalls frames from Tarkovsky. Javeed Shah’s wonderful image of village boys leaping into a stream in Yusmarg as a nonchalant group of girls looks on speaks of exuberance, innocence, even the early fashioning of gender roles and the idea of propriety.
While Kak argues for photography and photojournalism to be recognized as a contemporary art form in Kashmir and hopes this book “will trigger a conversation around the place of creative practices in this world in conflict”, the true value of this book lies in how it guides the reader/viewer to a place of greater empathy and feeling.