The Pulse

Is the Debate in Kashmir Only About Freedom of Expression?

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The Pulse

Is the Debate in Kashmir Only About Freedom of Expression?

The media may be complicit in giving voice to a fringe minority, argues Sanjay Kumar.

Kashmir resembles Afghanistan in many ways. They are both emotional tipping points, from outside and within. Both are heavily fortified and militarized zones that are strictly monitored. The outside world tends to take a microscopic look at even small incidents or developments that happen within these areas. This creates a dichotomy between the worldviews of the people living inside and outside these states.

A recent case in point was the issuing of a fatwa by a top Muslim cleric in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, against three Kashmiri girls who were members of a rock band called Praagaash (From Darkness to Light). Mufti Azam Mufti Bashiruddin, the religious leader who issued the fatwa, demanded that the girls stop playing music. The mufti claimed that music is forbidden in Islam and is detrimental to society.

Such religious pronouncements are normal in this conflicted north Indian state, torn by contradictions. Most people manage to negotiate with fringe religious elements in society without compromising their own thinking. However, religious leaders who have been pushed to the margins use such dictates to reassert their authority, which has eroded over the years. By giving credence to their words, however, we inadvertently give to them a degree of importance they do not actually command.

This is precisely what seems to have happened following the recent issuance of the fatwa in Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmir Valley didn’t stir. It was business as usual. Before the media caught wind of the story, the girls went about their daily lives as students.

But when the media outside the state started running the decree as “breaking news” all hell broke loose for the three young musicians who quickly became victims of the media frenzy. Talking to a national TV channel one of the girls complained that the band only came under threat after the media took up the matter.

Beyond the Kashmir Valley, the voice of a nondescript religious chief was vaguely portrayed as the collective voice of the Kashmiri people. Mainstream newspapers and TV programs carried on about the “Talibanization” of the valley and the reassertion to power of radical religious elements over society.

The Kashmir Times, a local newspaper, reflected the collective wincing from this portrayal and considered this outside media coverage as an attempt to “represent Kashmiri Muslims in poor light”.  

The reaction in Delhi further exacerbated matters in Kashmir. Matters were confused when Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah showed great ambivalence towards the netizens who threatened the girls via Twitter and Facebook, yet responded rather mildly to the mufti.

Although Kashmir is part of India, much of the region’s populace does not take well to sermons from Delhi. They view New Delhi’s interference as a violation of their political and religious lives.

This begs the question: Why do the mainstream media remain largely silent about these impositions on the people of Kashmir? Why does no voice of dissent emerge from TV studios in Delhi, while mobile networks become jammed throughout the entire Kashmir Valley in the name of security when the country celebrates Independence Day or Republic Day?

Local media outlets such as the Kashmir Times have used the incident to fan the flames of discontent by saying, “When young boys and girls have been picked up for giving vent to their feelings at social networking sites and police have accused them of invoking ‘Facebook terror’, there have been no slogans about freedom of expression raised by them.”

There is no doubt that the young members of Praagaash should be free to play music and grow as individuals without discrimination in the name of gender or religion.

Contrary to what the recent fatwa seems to suggest, music has long been a part of Kashmir’s cultural history, and the region has produced great female musicians such as Raaj Begum and Naseem Banu.

A society that is growing and breaking with the status quo, conflict with established tradition should not be seen as an assertion of regressive forces.

Political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote yesterday in the Indian Express, “The biggest danger is that small minorities or fringe groups who attack free expression are being presented as if they represented public opinion.”

What is needed is a nuanced debate that bears in mind the sensitivity of the state. A debate on freedom of expression in Kashmir ultimately raises heated political issues involving all sides.

In Afghanistan, the international community’s lack of cultural sensitivity prevented further headway from being made.

In the same sense, the rest of India demonstrates insensitivity towards Kashmir. In their hunger for sensationalism, mainstream media outlets have produced division, rather than connecting people of the Kashmir Valley with the rest of the nation.