Facing the music in Kashmir

By Ghazala Akbar


‘If there is a Paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here’ extolled the Mughal Emperor Jehangir waxing lyrical on the earthly splendours of the Vale of Kashmir. There can be few more magical settings in South Asia than the 17th Century Mughal Shalimar Bagh blooming in late summer glory with a backdrop of the Zabarwan Hills. This was the extraordinary venue of a Western classical music concert organized by the German Ambassador to India and the internationally-renowned Bombay-born Parsi conductor, Zubin Mehta with the support of the Indian Government. 

The strains of Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky wafting through the crisp mountain air would have certainly delighted the aesthetic sense of many a Mughal Emperor. But did it strike the right note for the people it was intended to entertain and delight, the hapless Kashmiris? As a visual and sensory spectacle it would be churlish not to admit that Zubin Mehta’s concert for Kashmir was awesome. On a mundane political level it was more akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Four Kashmiri youth termed as ‘anti-national elements’ were killed by Indian security forces the same day, a stark reminder of the violence that underscores the lives of many Kashmiris in what its own Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has described as a ‘ man-made living hell’. 

Interestingly the date of the concert coincided roughly with the anniversary of the seventeen-day War of 1965 between India and Pakistan, one of the many conflicts the two South Asian neighbours have fought over the ownership of Kashmir. September 6 is commemorated as Defence Day in Pakistan. The country remembers its dead — mostly young men who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Kashmir. Perhaps the youthful Chief Minister of Kashmir is too young to recall that particular conflict but an acknowledgement and a two minute silence for the thousands that perished in the battlefields of Kashmir on both sides would have been an appropriate goodwill gesture. 

It would have served too as a timely and poignant reminder that war –however glorious — is not a solution and the least desired option in resolving the problems of Kashmir. It would also underscore the bitter reality that the absence of war does not necessarily guarantee peace and security. And that

the state of Jammu and Kashmir is always a step away from implosion. For over two decades now it has been riddled by an insurgency that cannot be blamed on Pakistan’s sponsorship alone. A lot of it is home-grown, fuelled by a deep held resentment of the presence of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops in the valley with all the miseries that such a large-scale occupation entails. Democratic Governments can behave cruelly too. 

The musical concert was held ostensibly to make the people of Kashmir forget — albeit temporarily — just how brutalized their lives have become. It was to soothe their souls and calm the senses. It was to showcase admirable Kashmiri Sufi traditions of tolerance for all religions and cultures. Zubin Mehta has performed in Sarajevo, for Arab-Israelis and other conflict zones. But where were the ordinary Kashmiris for whom the music was meant to heal? The silence of the absentees perhaps just as imposing as the clamour of the well-heeled invitees some of which had flown in from faraway Delhi and Bombay. 

The unwelcome presence of so many grandees struck a discordant chord with the General Manager of the Munich-based Bavarian Symphony Orchestra. He had agreed to participate in what he thought was a free concert for common people. “We were expecting to play for the people of Kashmir in the spirit of brotherhood and humanity. Organisers turned this concert into an exclusive elitist event for a select invited crowd and this understandably became a political issue, which is a pity and against the aim of art’. He will be taking up this issue with the German Government. 

Perhaps the Pakistan Foreign Office could take a leaf out of his book and also ask some searching questions of their German counterparts. Kashmir is still disputed and ‘occupied’ territory,’ isn’t it? Doesn’t this smack of a foreign government conveniently turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and being complicit in an official propaganda exercise? Wasn’t the object of the concert to send a subliminal message to the world at large that Indian-administered Kashmir is now in a state of relative peace and prosperity? That’s something that simply isn’t true, is it? 

Ironically there was unexpected bonus for Pakistan after all. In heavily publicizing the event and broadcasting the concert live to fifty countries, the organisers inadvertently put the problems of Kashmir in the glaring spotlight of the international media. And through the involvement of the German Ambassador, Michael Steiner, the Indian Government has unwittingly allowed foreign intervention in matters that it fearsomely guards as internal. This should be music to the ears of the Mandarins in the Foreign Office. 

In the past the Indians have angrily thwarted any attempts at third party mediation. When the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook tried to intercede in 1997 he caused a diplomatic row and was told off in no uncertain terms that Britain having created the original problem was now meddling. When his successor David Miliband suggested that the 2008 Mumbai attack by the Lashkar e Toiba, a militant outfit, may just have been connected to Kashmir, he was sorely lectured to and dismissed as being wet behind the ears. And when Barack Obama in his initial heady days showed interest in conflict resolution, a gentle word in the ear advised him that Kashmir was not a fit subject for discussion. 

Now that the Germans have been allowed to dip their toe in the troubled waters of Dal Lake, could they not be invited to take a step further in the Kashmiri minefield and play the role of an honest broker? Germans may not be conversant with Indo-Pakistan politics or have historical ties to the Sub-continent but they do know a little about military adventurism, war and how to unite a divided people. It is true that the Simla Accord of 1972 between India and Pakistan called for the issue to should be settled bilaterally between the two countries but forty-one years on, there has been no linear progression over the issue. Perhaps it is time to seek out-of-the-box solutions. 

Sidelining and stalling Pakistan or pretending that Kashmir is an internal matter between an unhappy bunch of misguided separatists and their government is simply prolonging the agony for Kashmir. With extremists on both sides of the divide already writing their own scores and orchestrating new agendas, it’s imperative for India and Pakistan to sit down and face the music in Kashmir. And they should take all the help they can get — from whichever quarter it appears.  Time is running out fast. As the sound of sorrow in the Kashmir valley gets increasingly louder, the next musical concert there is more likely to be a requiem for the dead.

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