For Zubin Mehta it was the realization of a dream. For the German ambassador in India, Michael Steiner, it was the fulfillment of a promise to an internationally renowned conductor. For the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, it was a reassertion of the brute strength of the state.
Everybody seems to have had a stake in the first-ever international musical concert in the Kashmir Valley, held September 7, except the people of the region. The world-renowned conductor wanted to bring a message of peace and harmony to local Kashmiris, but instead ended up grating on the raw nerves of those who are still not reconciled to the loss of hundreds of loved ones during the decades of conflict in India’s northernmost state.
As in Afghanistan every Kashmiri family has a story to tell, every individual has an experience to narrate and a pain to share. It is this emotion that came to the fore when Mehta’s concert arrived in the state’s summer capital city of Srinagar last week. Although the idea behind the concert was to provide a balm to the wounds of the people, it further underscored the chasm between the state and the people.
“The situation in Kashmir is such that it does not make sense to hold this kind of concert. It’s an insult to the people. In the last few years so many people have disappeared neither the state government nor the central government is willing to address the issue,” a local named Mushtaq tells The Diplomat, while sipping tea at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, a popular venue for protests.
This anger was also evident in a parallel concert organized ten kilometers away from the Shalimar Bagh where Mehta conducted the Bavarian State Orchestra last weekend. The graffiti and posters covering the walls of the venue tell the narrative of the people’s suffering at the hands of security forces and express their collective frustration at living in a constant state of fear.
The Coalition of Civil Societies organized this parallel concert, Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir (Reality of Kashmir), to give a sense of what is really taking place in the state and to oppose what they call an “elite orchestra meant for non-Kashmiris.” Students, scholars, journalists and citizens from all walks of life came in sizable numbers to express their “angst against the government.”
“Zubin Mehta’s concert cannot hide the reality of Kashmir. There cannot be normalcy in the state under the huge security architecture. There cannot be peace unless you stop killing innocent people,” Parvez Khurram, the head of the Coalition of Civil Societies, tells The Diplomat. Khurram adds that he “blames the state government and the central government for sending the wrong message to the international community by organizing a musical event in the valley. In all previous concerts there was people’s participation, but this time people have been kept out altogether. Besides, Kashmir is a disputed territory.”
Huzaifa, a student participating in the alternative concert, shares the same complaint. “You have invited people from outside, you picked and chose your guests, but ignored the very people this concert was meant for. We feel alienated,” the young lady complains.
Nikolaus Bachler, the General Manager of the Bavarian State Orchestra, is also unhappy with the way the concert was conducted. He tells The Diplomat that the “idea was to bring Zubin Mehta to the people of Kashmir. But the German ambassador made it quite an elite event. So it became a political issue which has nothing to do with music. This is sad for us. We are here for the people of Kashmir, not for the elite.” Before the start of the show Mehta also apologized for the controversy and assured the locals that he would like to perform for all Kashmiris next time.
Danish, a school student who managed to get inside the Shalimar Bagh was really excited to witness the Indian maestro perform. “I love music and I have come here for that. In the valley people need to lead a normal life and music is one way of doing that,” the 13-year-old, who attended with eight friends, says. “It enhances the reputation of our state that an internationally renowned conductor has come to the city to perform. It’s a matter of pride for us.”
But outside the Shalimar Bagh, residents were living under a curfew-like situation. Normal mobility within a radius of three kilometers of the venue was highly restricted. The city of Srinagar looked deserted and overrun by security forces.
“Strike is the only option. The government has not given us any avenue to protest on the street,” a young medico named Khalid Mohiudin tells The Diplomat. “The reality is that in the state today there is no scope for democratic protest. It’s a police state and we hate that. Had the government allowed normal democratic protests on the street we could not have asked for a general strike further inconveniencing the people.”
The government thought that by organizing the concert it could present the state in a positive light. It has, however, failed in its mission. If anything, the event has further accentuated the deep fault line that exists in the valley.