A Lifetime Of Lockdown: Art From Behind Kashmir's Information Blackout

Updated: May 6, 2020

by Niall Walker

India has turned Jammu and Kashmir into the largest open air prison on earth. Niall Walker spoke to artists in Kashmir about life under lockdown, hope, and whether art can be an effective resistance to tyranny.
Day 40 of the siege of Kashmir. (Credit: Nawal Watali)

That - which is a fluid explosion, which is a hymn of mountains, which is ember, which is fragrance of the brier, which is a coffin , which is time (less), water air words which despite the tyrannies, persists, persists, persists.

What name shall you give it ?

'Kashmir, Kashmere'

by Omair Bhat

Credit: Fatima Ufaq
Credit: Ufaq Fatima

Freedom is a flower. For some, it is a rose of one thousand petals that glisten in the sun, burning with colour.

Yet petals can be stripped away, and with every layer that falls to the ground, the flower’s beauty seems diminished.

What is left when our freedoms are removed? Do we wilt and die; or are we capable of reaching for the light, and blooming once again?

In October, Kashmiri saffron starts to bloom, colouring the Himalayan highway from Srinagar to Jammu a vivid purple. Residents from Pampore, known locally as the Saffron Town, have harvested the lucrative crop for hundreds of years, defying the droughts, the cold, and the bans on international exports.

In the blighting winds which rush down from the mountain peaks, the survival of one flower seems a miracle. Yet in Kashmir, another oppressive force stirs to the south. India's ethno-nationalist government threatens the very existence of citizens in these valleys. Here, standing under the weight of tyranny, an image from an artist or the word of a poet speak of courageous defiance.

Heaven on Earth?

On 5th August 2019, the Indian government established direct rule of Jammu and Kashmir.

Article 370 of the constitution, which has granted the state semi-autonomy since its accession to India in 1947, was revoked.

For Hindu nationalists, it marked the fulfilment of a dream dating back to the birth of the nation. Yet, in Delhi, politicians were keen to downplay its significance. “Nothing will happen,” claimed Home Minister Amit Shah. “It was heaven on earth, and shall remain so.”

Credit: Ufaq Fatima

In reality, India’s only Muslim-majority state was placed into lockdown, turning ‘Heaven on Earth’ into the world’s most heavily militarised region. Movement and communication are restricted for an estimated 8 million people, while an information blackout - the largest of its kind in history - has been imposed.

Thousands of citizens, including many prominent politicians and journalists, have been imprisoned since; but in reality, as Ufaq Fatima says, “they have turned the whole of Kashmir into a jail”.

The lockdown marks the latest chapter of violence and loss which have tainted the lives of generations of Kashmiris. Some remember 1947, when Hindu militants were encouraged to massacre the region’s Muslims in a desperate bid to maintain the control of the region's last Dogra ruler, Hari Singh.

Most hold only the broken memories of repression and bloodshed which have followed. Waves of war have left borders scarred across the region, as India, Pakistan and China - three nuclear-armed neighbours - turned Kashmir into a territorial and ideological battleground. “My home is a military garrison”, says Omair Bhat, a poet from the Lolab valley. “The only memory I may have of it when I die is: it was a replica of panopticon”.

Today, the existential threat to citizens in the region has reached new heights. The militant group who attempted genocide in 1947 now govern the world’s largest democracy, and the revocation of Article 370 marks the beginning of their attempt to finish what they started. Preserving identity has become a means of resistance, and artists are on the frontline.

A Kashmiri woman stands alone in her apartment.
Credit: Nawal Watali

Building resistance

Dal Lake is one of the natural jewels of the Kashmir Valley. It is said in local tradition to cool the simmering tensions above the surface; yet today, its waters tell their own story of struggle.

Pollution is leading to eutrophication, and in little over 50 years, Dal Lake has decreased in size from 58 square kilometres to just 11. Once the centre of two of the state's lucrative fishing and tourism trades, the lake itself is now threatened with eradication.

Credit: Ufaq Fatima

Her Pixel Story is a female photography collective that chronicles life in India-occupied Kashmir, operating around the lake’s depleting shores. In a profession heavily dominated by men, the aim of its members, Nawal Ali, Ufaq Fatima , Zainab Mufti and Shefali Rafiq, is to bring forth the visual narratives of Kashmir through the eyes of female photographers.

"Women have been some of the worst victims of this conflict", explains Ufaq Fatima. "Yet they have also come to the forefront of the resistance, and their stories tell of the personal suffering of daily life in the region."

“Art here is not just for art’s sake”, says Nawal Ali. “Children grow up knowing how to differentiate between the sounds of a mortar shell and that of artillery, so even if you try, it is highly difficult not to bring in the war that has engulfed Kashmir from forever."

In the silence of lockdown, their images seek to capture the lives above the geopolitics, and offer a form of creative rebellion. “We are providing an alternative narrative to the national security perspective, highlighting the human cost of this conflict”.

While protests continue in the area, they remain strictly monitored. The Public Safety Act allows authorities in the region to imprison without trial anyone suspected of dissent.

“Documenting our stories is all we have here,” explains Ufaq. Yet even that can be perilous: cyber surveillance - in the form of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) - and the sporadic 2G internet connection across the occupied region restrict even online forms of protest.

Credit: Nawal Watali
Credit: Nawal Watali

In this context, says Ufaq, “artists here have shown tremendous courage by speaking against injustice through their art.”

Additionally, as other forms of dissent have been marginalised, art has become an increasingly significant means of resistance.

“Visuals speak where words cannot”, explains Ufaq, and her images and those of her colleagues communicate something subtle yet defiant: it is the whisper of existence amidst the silencing of tyranny. In this grand spectacle of ideology and demographics, they preserve an identity, unpolluted, and fighting for its life.

Songs of freedom

Freedom is an old word in Kashmir: Azaadi.

An Urdu term, with 3000 year roots reaching back to Ancient Persia, it remains the shout that greets the siege today:

Hum Kya Chahte? (What do we want?) Azaadi. Hai Haq Humara (Our right is) - Azaadi.

Last year, an unprecedented wave of female-led protest broke out across India. It was born in response to the dangers which the current regime poses for India's 172 million Muslims. Freedom is now the chant raised across the nation: Azaadi, the cry of suffering hearts in Kashmir, is now a national song of the counterculture.

Armed men standing on a street in Kashmir
Credit: Ufaq Fatima

Yet hope remains elusive. The 2019 Indian national elections returned an increased majority for the BJP, the catalyst for their siege on Jammu and Kashmir. Throughout India, rank and file members of the Hindu paramilitary organisation, the RSS, have been emboldened by the victory, and continue to to destroy Muslim neighbourhoods, as occurred in Delhi earlier this year, and attack institutions considered unsupportive of the government’s actions.

Credit: Nawal Watali

Darwish, the Palestinian poet, says hope is a disease, an incurable malaise” says Omair Bhat. “For us, hope is awaiting the death of the Indian occupation: we shall only endure and wait."

With the revocation of Article 370 and subsequent lockdown, Azaadi seems an ever more distant destination in Indian-occupied Kashmir. For artists, self-expression is now fraught with danger: the recent arrest of photojournalist Masrat Zahra, charged with uploading ‘anti-national posts’ online, only serves to highlight the bravery of Kashmiris like Omair who continue to creatively resist.

Not that writing began as a means of protest for Bhat: “It began as a curiosity to write a verse if one were in love”, he explains. Yet he echoes Nawal Ali's suggestion that in Kashmir, self-expression rarely escapes the prism of conflict. “The realization that we were under oppression, and that poetry could become an expression for a protest against, say, the daily humiliation [quickly emerged.]"