Responses to Kashmir Film, Jashn-e-azadi (“How We Celebrate Freedom”)

Jashn-e-azadi (“How We Celebrate Freedom”) was screened August 6, 2010 at the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. The event was sponsored by Culture & Conflict Forum and co-sponsored by San Jose Peace and Justice Center. The discussion was moderated by Yasmin Qureshi, whose account of her trip to Kashmir in August 2009 appears on Counterpunch: The Fate of Kashmir.

Yasmin has forwarded five email responses she received after the screening, and below that, the Q&A she conducted with the audience:

I. Jashn-e-Azadi was released in 2007 and it has taken me until now to finally watch it, thanks to a screening organized by the Culture and Conflict Forum at the San Jose Peace Center on Friday, August 3rd, 2010. It’s difficult to remember the details, the names and the incidents from the documentary, but the extraordinary impression one leaves with, an impression that continue to haunt long after the screening, is the pervasiveness of the Indian military and paramilitary presence in Kashmir and the universal opposition to it. It’s one thing to have heard that there are 700,000 troops deployed there, one soldier for every 15 Kashmiris; it’s quite another to see them everywhere, in the city square, the streets and alleys, the countryside. It’s also one thing to have heard about the opposition to this military presence, and quite another to witness, through this documentary, the manifestation of this universal opposition from women, men and children of all ages, with huge turn outs at protests, funerals and marches, and even a street play. And, in striking contrast, was the observance of Indian Independence Day by the military forces under conditions of curfew with deserted streets.

Whatever be one’s position on the question of Kashmir, one thing is for clear from watching this documentary, that this situation cannot continue. Not for long. That inevitably raises the question where to from here. That indeed must have been what prompted some of the lively discussion that followed the screening, even though the question itself is not raised in the documentary, let alone addressed in it. To have raised this question is perhaps the most important service that this documentary has done.

It is easy to frame the question in religious terms, Kashmiri Muslims versus Kashmiri Hindus, facile terms made to appear justified on account of the tragic displacement of Pandits from the Valleys and the roles played by Pakistan and the Afghan mujahedeen in promoting violence. But to do so would also be to ignore that to most Kashmiris, it is a struggle for freedom and national self-determination, a struggle in the making for over 500 years that gave rise to Kashmiriyat, the unity of Kashmiris of all religions, a struggle in which religion has not been the divisive factor that it is portrayed to be in India.

II.  The first half of the film was like watching a thriller and left me spellbound! It moved so fast. There were 4 parallel tracks or stories – one of the old man searching for his son’s grave which was very touching, covering the militant resistance and what it did. Second the man surveying and documenting number of deaths. Third the arrogant attitude of Indians, as if they own and control Kashmir through the tourists and later through the pilgrims. Lastly the play which is very important as it explains the 100s of years of colonization and how Kashmiris were docile then but are now determined to fight for self determination. The history is important to understand why Kashmiris want freedom.  The scene of the women walking in the mosque followed by prayers in the snow was very surreal. The first half was complete in itself and maybe the Q&A session should have been then instead of in the end. It would have given more time for discussion. The scenes were going back and forth which may have been confusing for someone who doesn’t know much about the history and sequence of events.

III.  The film is not a comprehensive analysis of the Kashmir situation.  And it is not a straightforward narrative; (often, there wasn’t much narrative and in that regard it reminded me of Amar Kanwar’s Night of Prophecy). There are no easy answers, or clear sides that one can easily take. The film touched a nerve in me on many levels. In parts I wasn’t sure what the director was getting at. For example he hints at the plight of the pandits, and the religious dimension of the resistance; but doesn’t make any further comment on it. One thing came through loud and clear, though – it showed what an occupation by the Indian army looks like (and it does not look pretty).

The shots of Srinagar during Indian independence day were especially telling. If you have to put the entire city under lockdown in order to “celebrate” your independence, you aren’t having much “independence,” are you? And this is why it is probably an important movie to watch.

IV.  I think that the film – or the half of it that I saw- did not have much focus. Not because of any fault of the director but because of the need to show the film to a larger audience in India, the director perhaps was constrained to come out and show what he truly belivies to be the issue at stake. This lack of focus, in my view, is a direct measure of the sorry state of affairs vis a vis Kashmir in India. There is a dire need to keep the focus on Kashmir issue in and out of India by people like the director of this film who care for the people of Kashmir.

V.  It showed very well the beautiful people and the beauty of the region but also the poverty and violence. But the film was very long and confusing — it kept switching back and forth between different incidents of violence, interviews with people.

Question and Answer session
(Questions were answered by Yasmin Qureshi, member of Culture and Conflict Forum. She had visited the Kashmir valley in August 2009.)

Q: What was the message of the film?

A: Well, the director Sanjay Kak leaves it to the audience really. His objective was to bring out the voices of the people of Kashmir since we rarely read about them in the media and open an avenue for discussion on the issues and aspirations of the Kashmiris. Back in 2007 the word azadi for Kashmir was shocking for Indians. As a Kashmiri Sanjay wanted to make a film about the people there and what they feel.

Q: It is true the media doesn’t cover the Kashmiri Muslims but it also doesn’t cover the pundits either. How do you justify the killing and migration of 100,000 pandits?

A: I disagree the media doesn’t cover the pundits. In fact most articles published in India on Kashmir address this issue. What they don’t cover is what the army is doing there, the murders, missing people, rapes and what the people there want and why. Recently Shivam Vij had a detailed article on the pundits living in Delhi area in kafila.org.

Yes, what happened to the pundits is unjustifiable. And certainly Pakistan and the Afghan mujahedeen had a role to play as Kashmiris started crossing borders to get training in the 90s. The people I spoke to in the valley last year wanted them to come back. People there at this point are not in favor of a militant resistance.

Q: You mentioned the media and I am comparing to the media coverage of Palestine in Israel.  How is the Indian media coverage?

A: As I mentioned earlier, Kashmir is not covered well in the Indian media. Discussing aspirations of Kashmiris is taboo. For example, no one wanted to publish my article, “Democracy Under the Barrel of a Gun” in India. The media does write about the presence of army and that the Indian government needs to deal with it but what they don’t cover is what the militarization has done to the society. Or the root causes such as the annexation, as Kashmiris say, The Brahminical rule of India’. Mass graves were found, many women have been raped. This is not covered very well not just by Indian media but also the international media. There isn’t a discussion on what and why Kashmiris want azadi and what it means.

Siddharth Varadhrajan wrote an article recently on the protests in Hindu. He mentioned the elections of 2008. What he didn’t mention is that Kashmiris participated in them more to vote for local governance issues and not anything to do with future of Kashmir or rule of Indian state. However, the media presented the 60% turnout as a vote of endorsement of the rule of Indian state and the Kashmiris felt betrayed. Partly why we see the kind of massive protests since 2008 is this.

Q: But what about the militant movement in Kashmir? If it got independent they would take over.

A: The argument that Indian army shouldn’t leave or Kashmiris shouldn’t be independent because the militants will take over to me is similar to the argument that US shouldn’t leave Iraq or Afghanistan. Isn’t that what was said even during the Vietnam war?

At this point it is really a people’s movement – students, youth, women, ciivilans. The people saw what the militant movement did to them and how the Indian army dealt with it. Almost every family was impacted by it, killed, tortured or in custody. Also they see the power of the protests. I had asked the same when I went to the valley last year. What people said was the militant groups are not that prominent now and they don’t need a militant resistance anymore. I spoke a friend just two days ago to ask the same question since I knew someone would ask. He narrated an incidence. Two militants came to join a protest in a village but the people pushed them out!

Q: Why is the Indian government’s attitude so belligerent? Is it because of the vote bank they may lose?

A: There are many reasons. Yes, the vote bank is certainly an important one. Kashmir is the only state with a majority Muslim population and they want freedom from India! So they want another partition?

Kashmir is considered ‘Bharat ka atoot ang’ and to discuss anything about autonomy or independence leads to the question about further disintegration of India in the east for example or how it would impact other insurgencies such as in central tribal areas. Also the fact that it borders with Pakistan. The argument is ‘if we reduce troops Pakistan will invade’. But then have troops on the border. What is the justification for troops or police in a crowded city like Srinagar? If the argument is to protect pundits, most of them are no longer in the valley. So who is it protecting?

There isn’t a great willingness on either sides to deal with this issue even though it is the most important from a geo-political angle. Also, Kashmir is rich in natural resources, a source of water and India wouldn’t want to give those up.

[ Someone from the audience expanded on the ‘only muslim majority state’ by giving the history of the Dogra rule and how Maharaja Hari Singh annexed Kashmir (and that it was conditional) without taking the opinion of the Muslim majority and how that was the opposite of what happened in other princely states like Junagarh or Hyderabad where the majority was Hindu and the ruler was Muslim and the vote went the will of the majority population.]

This post originally appeared on the Jash-e-azadi blog.

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