Performing artist Inder Salim, wearing a cloak and a white skullcap, walks up to the makeshift stage. The backdrop shows a collage of razor wires and pictures of people killed by Indian forces. With a transistor and a stick in his hands, he reaches the microphone. As he begins his performance, he rips to pieces his invitation card to a concert taking place at the same time, featuring Indian-born Western classical music arranger, Zubin Mehta. As the torn bits of invitation card drift down, the audience roars with a sense of victory.
On 7 September, with Kashmir under siege, Zubin Mehta played to an ‘invitee-only’ audience in the Valley’s highly fortified Shalimar garden. In protest, a parallel event was organized by civil society – a cultural and aesthetic tribute to the struggle and resilience of the people who challenge an Indian narrative which claims non-participation of minorities in resistance and uses it to dilute the Kashmir issue. Inder Salim, who comes from one of Kashmir’s minority groups, flew in from New Delhi to take part in the protest, to live, in his words ‘a very important moment in my life’.
At the official event – organized by the Germany Embassy and the Indian government, and sponsored by corporate czars – Zubin Mehta said that he wanted to bring Hindus and Muslims together in Kashmir for ‘inner peace and spirituality’, but such reading of the Kashmir question seems deliberately uninformed.
The people of Kashmir raised concerns about the event – which was broadcast in 50 countries – saying that it was an ‘attempt to control the narrative and to portray normalcy and peace to the international community’. A protest letter from Kashmir to the German Embassy noted ‘it was unfortunate that a member of European Union’ – which had called the mountainous region a beautiful prison – ‘should seek to collaborate, perhaps unwittingly, with India in Kashmir’.
Mehta’s ‘apolitical’ event had, in fact, strong political motivations. A ‘fantastically, fanatically pro-Israel’ Music Director for Life of Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, having played the Israeli Philharmonic before an all-Arab audience in Nazareth, must have felt at home in razor-wired Kashmir. Mehta was instrumental in helping Israel improve its global image. India had a similar mission with the conductor’s performance in Kashmir.
Caught unawares by the announcement of a parallel ‘counter memory’ event, the government moved strategically. While permission for the protest concert was sought five days in advance, the government gave a conditional nod only on the night before the two concerts were scheduled to take place. The state dictated that the event could only take place during the time Mehta was scheduled to perform. By making sure the two performances coincided, the state ensured that the international press, which had flocked to Kashmir to see Mehta, would miss the parallel event.
On the day of the concerts, government forces barricaded the routes leading to the venue of the protest event, disrupting preparations.
But such actions didn’t prevent hundreds from witnessing a range of resistance art. The atmosphere became emotionally charged as the performances and poetry made people revisit Kashmir’s tragedies. Art and poetry evoking satire and humour made the crowd laugh, even as government forces waited at the ready with water cannons, and intelligence sleuths photographed the audience for their records.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Mehta was giving out a message of manufactured peace to the VIPs. People living near the venue of the official concert were ‘bundled into single rooms’, ‘their houses turned into watch towers’, and sharpshooters were positioned around the venue. Locals even postponed marriage celebrations owing to the unprecedented security presence. The Mehta event, touted as a tribute to the people of Kashmir, had just 1,100 carefully picked invitees – only 100 of whom were Kashmiris. Nikolaus Bachler, the general manager of the Bavarian State Orchestra, which performed alongside Mehta, said they had been ‘misled’. He had been informed that they would be playing for the Kashmiri people and not at a restricted ‘embassy concert’.
A handful of Kashmir musicians did play in the Mehta concert, but after the event they were denied entry to the state dinner and made to travel in trucks while others were ferried in BMWs specially brought in from outside.
As the concerts took place, four youths were killed by troopers in South Kashmir. The protest event was cut short when people heard the news, and the audience marched out chanting pro-freedom slogans.
After the concert, Mehta left. But the people of Kashmir are still under siege, left behind to clean the vandalized gardens, grieve and clean the bloodied streets.