Ten minutes after he landed at Srinagar airport, Chris Terry felt he was in a Will Smith action flick. The Canada-born musician who lives in New York was dazzled by the sight of the guns, the armoured cars, the camouflage, the nervous organiser shouting to the driver, “Go! Go! Go!” The next day was better. Terry, bassist of the Pakistani band Junoon, was on the stage and he had a familiar sight before him: thousands of youngsters screaming and cheering, singing along and swaying to popular Urdu numbers. What was unusual was the setting. In the heart of a ‘war zone’, the rat-tat-tat of the AK-47 was replaced by the thump of percussions on Sunday evening as something unimaginable until now played out: a Pakistani band playing in Kashmir by the Dal Lake in the presence of a frenzied audience. In the crowd there were also people from outside Kashmir who have experienced conflict — and worse: former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Afghan Minister H.B. Ghazanfar.
There were schoolgirls in headscarves; young women in jeans and designer glasses. There were students in school uniforms. Behind them, the Dal Lake looked dreamy in a film of mist, flanked by the lofty Zabarwan range. It was as picture postcard as it could get in the Kashmir Valley. One young man laughed and said, “Why didn’t these guys come 20 years ago? We wouldn’t have had had to take up guns!” It was a joke many in the front row would take very seriously, of course. Was this part of the peace process? Nope. It was just an enjoyable concert for youngsters craving for popular culture in Kashmir. Did people on ‘both sides’ — and Junoon itself — try to wrap the event up in the complex politics of the region? Oh, of course. Everything is not politics in Kashmir, but everything becomes politics here.
The United Jihad Council, a conglomerate of militant groups fighting in Kashmir, urged the Pakistani government from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’s capital Muzaffarabad not to allow Junoon to travel to India — forgetting, of course, that the band members live in the US. On their part, the authorities in Srinagar did not throw open the event to all; they had allowed only invited guests — keeping out many who would certainly have shouted pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan slogans at the concert.
President Pratibha Patil was supposed to attend, but she stayed away despite being in Srinagar, apparently due to security concerns. “The concert is an... investment in peace,” said the organisers from the South Asia Foundation. From attending minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar came the quote: “People are less interested in politics; they are more into music, dance and culture. Such exchanges will... lead to a grand reconciliation.” It is this kind of fluffy talk that has cumulatively invented perceptions that keep governments off the hook in Kashmir for not trying hard enough to ease the situation — and certainly for not trying hard enough to govern well.
Opinion leaders on both sides of the Kashmir debate have made the mistake of wrapping everything up in politics, mystery and conspiracy. And too many vested interests — from bureaucrats and separatists to the security establishment — have indirectly conspired to keep the Kashmir issue on ‘auto-pilot’. It helps everyone, except the ordinary Kashmiri and the Indian taxpayer who pays crores of rupees into the region in return for no accountability.
Over the past two decades, windows of entertainment and mass social interaction for Kashmir’s youth were slowly choked off by the insurgents and the government. Militants shut down cinemas, theatres and a handful of bars, calling them anti-Islamic and symbols of ‘India’s cultural invasion’. The government, in turn, deleted ‘hanging out in the evening’ from the social calendar of Kashmiris. The overwhelming military presence, the idea of negotiating through check posts, was factored into everything from wedding timings to a romantic rendezvous.
Much of that is changing now. The Sunday concert was a sign that Kashmir is opening up. There are greater avenues for entertainment, debate and even a growing tolerance for dissent. The city is dotted with several new coffee shops. FM radio stations with chirpy female RJs are overwhelmed with calls from listeners in not just Srinagar but in faraway smaller towns. Young Kashmiris, inward-looking for decades and unwilling to leave the Valley, are now doing extremely well in jobs elsewhere in India, and overseas.
With cinemas unavailable, Kashmir turned with a vengeance to television. Indian soaps bloomed. Although Kashmiris find virtually no cultural connection or resonance with Pakistan, the existing bonds being political and religious, Pakistani plays on PTV have been a rage here — so popular that the government last month ordered that cable operators who operate PTV, Geo, Aaj, ARY etc. “shall forthwith stop airing these channels”.
The concert had nothing to do with politics, said lead singer Ahmad to the crowd. But he later abruptly ended Junoon’s hugely popular number Mujhe Azaad Karo to quickly move on to the next.