Music doubling as propaganda

September 9, 2013

The recent classical music concert that the Indian government promoted as bringing a "message of hope" to Kashmiris is no such thing. Nagesh Rao explains why.

THE "EHSAAS-e-Kashmir" (Feelings for Kashmir) concert held at the Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar on September 7 was a ham-handed and clumsy attempt by the Indian tourism department and the German Embassy to give a glossy sheen to the ongoing military occupation of Kashmir.

The German Embassy billed the concert as a "cultural tribute to Kashmir and its warm-hearted and hospitable people." The German ambassador claimed that the concert, set in "one of the most enchanting places in the world," would bring to Kashmiris "a message of hope and encouragement."

The concert was promoted by "benevolent sponsors mainly from the business world in India and Germany": the "Incredible India" campaign and the German Foreign Office. It featured music by Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky performed by the Bavarian State Orchestra of Munich and conducted by Zubin Mehta, music director for life of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.

As for who got to watch this performance live, the embassy website was unambiguous: "1,500 guests from Kashmir and beyond will listen to the timeless music of Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky...The entry to the concert is by invitation only."

Zubin Mehta
Zubin Mehta (Apoorva Guptay)

According to a press release by activists opposed to the concert, the performance "seeks to promote an image of a peaceful and normal Jammu and Kashmir. The pain, suffering, courage and bravery of the resistance will find no place in this concert."

The people of Shalimar, and indeed Srinagar, were under surveillance, and invitees to the concert were verified by the intelligence agencies. Certain Kashmiri civilians were blacklisted from attending the concert. "Anti-national" elements weren't welcome. A proposal to invite 230 Kashmiri students was turned down by the state. The occupation was therefore amply reflected in the demographics of the audience of the proposed concert.

Based on information available before the concert, it appears that of a total of 758 invitees, only 102 were supposedly unaffiliated civilians of Jammu and Kashmir, with no perceptible state connection. The German Embassy guest list ran to more than 1,100 and included only around 100 supposedly unaffiliated civilians of Jammu and Kashmir. So the German Ambassador was misleading the people by calling it an event for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It was a deeply political event for a political purpose.

The Indian tourism department had no doubt hoped to turn this into a tele-spectacle to boost its "Incredible India" ad campaign, but Kashmiri rights activists and organizations added a new item to the concert's program: resistance. The voices that the concert deliberately tried to keep out spoke up, boldly and eloquently, against what they rightly saw this as a barefaced propaganda ploy.

IF YOU received all your news about the concert via Hindustan Times, Times of India, IBN or NDTV, then watch this video interview with Khurram Pervez, the well-known Kashmiri rights activist, to understand why Kashmiris are upset. Or check out the cartoons of Mir Suhail. For the mainstream Indian media are adept at obfuscation.

"Quite out of tune," mewled an editorial in the Hindustan Times, apparently befuddled by the idea of cultural resistance. The paper couldn't seem to understand why a people who have been fighting for their freedom might have resented a concert organized by and for their oppressors. The editorial states:

The separatists in Kashmir have found a brand-new cause--the "dangers" of holding a Zubin Mehta concert in the state. We can only imagine that they have either run out of causes to espouse or are trying desperately to stay relevant.

Note the way in which those who opposed the concert were summarily labeled "separatists," encouraging Indian readers to don their nationalist hats from the very first sentence. And once you have your "Jai Hind" hat on, you can simply choose to ignore the reality of Kashmir's recent history and of Kashmiris' lived experience.

It is well known by now that as many as 100,000 Kashmiris have been killed over the course of the last 23 years, the vast majority of them at the hands of the "security forces." Thousands, perhaps as many as 10,000, have become victims of politically motivated disappearances. In 2008, the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) issued a report titled "Facts Under Ground," which brought to light hundreds of unmarked graves in Kashmir. The report was cited by Amnesty International, which urged the Indian government to launch an investigation.

A 2009 report, titled "Buried Evidence," by the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK) documented "2,700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing 2,943-plus bodies, across 55 villages."

The mainstream media for the most part did little to publicize these findings, and it took a concerted campaign by the IPTK to force the State Human Rights Commission to acknowledge their veracity, which it did in 2011.

From early this year, Kashmiris have endured weeks-long curfews in the wake of the Indian government's secret hanging of Afzal Guru in February and crackdowns on protests that continued throughout the summer.

The casualties keep piling up in an unrelenting war of occupation that appears to most Indians as a series of disconnected "encounters" between "terrorists" or "militants" and "security forces." So to suggest that Kashmiris have "run out of causes to espouse" would be laughable if it weren't so wilfully ignorant and arrogant.

"What are they so afraid of? It beggars the imagination to understand how a classical music concert can harm the interest of the Kashmiri people," the Hindustan Times editorial thunders. Really? Is it really so hard to imagine why Kashmiris would be angered at (not "afraid of") the way in which this concert will be used to promote "India Inc." while obscuring the realities of a military occupation?

SO SHOULD Zubin Mehta have refused to conduct? Absolutely. Should the Bavarian State Orchestra have refused to perform? Absolutely.

And should Indians have called for a boycott of the telecast? Absolutely. To do this would have stood in the rich and proud tradition of cultural boycotts in the name of human rights and justice. Think of the ongoing cultural and academic boycott of Israel, which is part of the international boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with the Palestinians fighting for their azadi. Or of the boycott of the racist apartheid state of South Africa in the 1980s, when Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and other musicians refused to play "Sun City," in solidarity with black South Africans fighting for their azadi.

Find out more about the counter-event that the activists organized in response to the Mehta concert. It was called "Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir [The Reality of Kashmir]: A Journey of Counter-Memory," and featured Kashmiri musicians, poets, rappers and artists and will be a "tribute to the resilience and struggle of the people of Kashmir."

A previous version of this article was published before the concert at the LeftyProf blog.

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