Beyond the Zubin Mehta concert

Viewpoint: How can a heavily sanitized musical concert, with majority of state actors in attendance, help spread peace in Kashmir?
Majid Maqbool Srinagar

 Zubin Mehta is slated to conduct Bavarian State Orchestra on September 7 in Shalimar Gardens on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. Beethoven, Hadyn and Tchaikovsky are on the menu. Right from the day of its announcement, we have been told by the conductor and the organisers, the German embassy in India, that the concert is “apolitical”, meant to spread “peace” and “bring Hindus and Muslims together, to have one-and-a-half hours of inner peace and spirituality” in Kashmir as if the Kashmiris had been waiting for Zubin Mehta to be airdropped in this Mughal-era garden for resurrecting a presumably dead secular tradition in Kashmir.

That Congress Member of Parliament Saifuddin Soz and his son Salman Soz, a fledgling politician, did the legwork for the concert is supposed to be part of the event’s apolitical nature.

We have also been told about the immensity of the event. In his recent interview to The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time from Sao Paolo, Brazil, Zubin Mehta says: “I convinced the orchestra in Munich to give up part of their holidays, to decrease their fee. Lufthansa was very generous in giving us extremely low fares, so everything came together. My friends from Bombay helped a lot. It’s been an incredible combined and tremendous effort from all parties, central to it all being the German Embassy in Delhi and Mr. Steiner the German ambassador.” – Ah, should we be thankful then or overwhelmed by this generosity of everyone involved! And we're told how big and expensive musical instruments will be transported all the way from Germany to strike the right peace-inducing chords for the government officials, police and military generals who will attend the orchestra that day.

The concert, however, has struck all the wrong chords for the people who will be facing the music of increased ‘security arrangements’ that will be kept in place for the event. So far the interviews and statements of the German ambassador and Zubin Mehta, instead of clearing doubts, have only raised more questions about the intentions of holding such a mega concert in Kashmir. People will be kept away from the concert as government officials, police, army and CRPF officials will luxuriate, along with their families, in the front rows of the garden reserved for them.  Outside, the roads leading to the venue will be blocked and concertina wires and road blockades put up in the middle of the roads by police and CRPF troops. 

The organizers have all along emphasized that the concert is meant for the people of Kashmir. The German embassy in a recent statement said: “This concert is for the people of Kashmir. Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, played by a world acclaimed maestro and one of the best orchestras of the world in one of the most enchanting places in the world…. This is a wonderful cultural tribute to Kashmir and its warm-hearted and hospitable people.” Did the organizers talk to the people of Kashmir before thrusting such an event on them? Why is Kashmir all of a sudden a favourite destination for 'apolitical' concerts and 'political' Bollywood film projects? (Note that Vishal Bhardwaj has just announced that his next film will be set in the “violent political backdrop” of Kashmir, whatever that means.)

When the government forces were shooting down Kashmiri boys a few summers back, all these wonderful and world-famous artists, filmmakers and ambassadors remained silent. That time 'peace' was enforced by the gun of the government forces, not by the art of musicians and filmmakers. Why does this graveyard peace, following the killings in Kashmir, become a suitable ‘backdrop’ for their art now? Why this sudden interest in ‘Kashmir backdrop', ‘the most enchanting place’ that is sought to be presented and projected minus what the heavy militarization and draconian laws have inflicted on its inhabitants over the decades. 

If there's nothing political about this event, why is the German ambassador and Zubin Mehta himself repeatedly emphasizing on spreading 'peace' in Kashmir through this concert? Why decontextualise the event from the present political realities of Kashmir.  And Mehta’s naive comments that the concert will help bring “Hindus and Muslims together” in Kashmir can only be laughed at.

Kashmiris have come to be skeptic about such 'apolitical' events that distort the political realities of Kashmir. “Ehsaas-e-Kashmir”, the feeling of Kashmir, is far from “Haqeeqat-e Kashmir,” the reality of Kashmir. You need to know the reality first in order to 'feel' it. The real picture of Kashmir for Kashmiris– that of heavy militarization, presence of thousands of unaccounted for mass graves,  enforced disappearances, and over 100 killings of unarmed civilians in the recent 2010 civil uprising – is sought to be conveniently hidden behind such 'apolitical' events.  Instead, false and misleading notions of 'normalcy' and 'peace' are amplified through such pomp and show events for the people of India and the world beyond. That is why this State-backed concert – and such art and the manner in which it is projected – is unacceptable to Kashmiris who continue to suffer and justice denied to the victim families in this most militarized region of the world. After locking up people inside their homes and putting up barricades on roads, to hold such an absurd ‘apolitical’ concert will be akin to orchestrating a big joke inside Shalimar Gardens.

When the larger political question of Kashmir remains unresolved, the political rights of its people unaddressed, and justice consistently denied to the families of those killed by government forces who continue to enjoy impunity under draconian lawns like AFSPA, how can a heavily sanitized musical concert, with majority of state actors in attendance, help spread peace in Kashmir? Such concerts end up comforting and entertaining those in power – those who will be occupying the front rows in the concert, the powerful elite who have denied justice and inflicted multiple wounds on people they ironically claim to represent and protect. And for people to share seats with them in the concert is to become an accomplice in their crimes against their brothers. 

Those who think that such events will help spread a message of "normalcy returns in Kashmir" are only deluding themselves.  Even if this State-backed concert goes ahead as scheduled, the concerted efforts of the state agencies to achieve their 'desired' objectives will fail. And those who support such 'apolitical' events in Kashmir, including some Kashmiris who are waiting with baited breaths to attend the concert for some fun-time, having acquired their privileged passes, only make themselves clearer about which side they’re on. 

Nothing is apolitical in Kashmir until the military occupation of over seven hundred thousand troops, who are always breathing down our necks, ends for good. Till then even if Beethoven himself descends on Shalimar gardens to play his sublime notes, Kashmiris will neither forget their political rights nor will their collective memories of the brutal occupation fade away. And no concert, however great the musician, can heal the unhealed, festering wounds inflicted by decades of occupation in Kashmir. 

The only music that will somewhat soothe the nerves of people in Kashmir is the silence that will be left behind by the military convoys vanishing from this caged garden. But neither Germany nor Zubin Mehta would want to even touch such chords that disturb the status quo in Kashmir.

What a young Kashmiri boy told me outside a voting booth during the 2008 elections is worth quoting in this context. “Ager heaz sone sinz sadke te travan na yaete,” he said as he walked away, raising his arms, “toate mangav aes Azadi.” (Even if they pave the roads with gold, we will still ask for freedom.)

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