For all things said, expressed, published, debated and discussed around conference tables, coffee rooms and television studies, there is nothing as inherent as conflict and nothing as provocative as the voice of those affected most by it. For a valley that has been mired in one for the better part of the last 70 years, the last two and a half of which have been spent under blatant legal and human rights violations following India’s unilateral abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(a), Kashmiri voices have largely gone unheard or worse, ignored.
Perhaps one of the more impactful ways to channel repressed voices in the rigors of conflict is music. Ed Vulliamy, a British journalist to whom the title of this article pays homage and whose travels took him to various conflict zones over the past 30 years, writes
“It would appear an insane idea: if music could change it, the world would not be the worsening nightmare it is after so much great protest song and music for peace.”
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The importance of music and culture
Far from sounding insane, protest music and culture have been at the heart of political and social resistance for a long. In fact, as one of the more globally empathetic forms of expression, music owes its evolution to the writings and lyrical expressions of those who have striven to make their voices heard. Indian occupied Kashmir, known traditionally for Sufi music, has taken on a more contemporary form; a form represented by young musicians reflecting as best as they can, the trials and tribulations of living under oppression.
The instrumentalization of Indian media to fit state narratives into popular discourse has only served to embolden young musicians including the likes of Mehak Ashraf, Faheem Abdullah, Ahmer Javed and Ali Saifuddin. Having largely been done away is the notion of popular protest folklore being headlined by revolutionaries donning Guy Fawkes masks charging the streets demanding a change in the status quo. That is the stuff of cultures with space and respect for protest and dissent, not of valleys like Kashmir that have undergone political and social injustices under a regime bent on changing culture and challenging social stability, with little room left for basic freedoms.
Storytelling is the silhouette for the art of any form to emerge from, and coming from musicians, narrations of life in conflict under repression should evoke more emotional appeal on a global level than perhaps talk of rights and freedom from political leaders. For these young musicians who have grown up in and around conflict, a more primordial and intrinsically personalized struggle for identity within social and political disorder is a fight within itself; a fight that musicians use their art to understand and reconcile. Political and civil organizations such as the recently convened Russel Tribunal on Kashmir can only harness the energy of these very extraordinary people who turn to the most peaceful and impact of ways to communicate their plight. Speaking on the Indian takeover in 2019 for a BBC documentary, Faheem Abdullah told the filmmakers
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“When your identity is taken away from you, you stop recognizing yourself. Then there was no way to vent your anger. You can’t raise your voice. You can’t say anything. They don’t listen to you, nobody does, nobody cares. Then what will you do? You will channel your anger in a way you can express it. I did not come out as an artist until 2019.”
The luxury of freedom of speech and expression is not for musicians from conflict zones
The only disconcerting part of storytelling through protest music is reaching out to international audiences and making sure that impact stays true to the effort. One would think that ease in access to information through the rise in digital and social media platforms can make an easy play of things for underground musicians but what George Harrison did for the newly created Bangladesh or what Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye did for Vietnam is a luxury not afforded to these young musicians from Indian Occupied Kashmir. Neither do they have popular global appeal as of yet, be in a position to market their work nor have they been able to benefit from the internationalization of the dispute.
It is also amusing to note the forms of music that these young musicians have imported from global, mostly Western traditions, making them their own through their lyrics, while have yet to export their appeal to that music to international audiences.
Platforms similar to the BBC documentary mentioned above do make a difference as long as global audiences lend their ears to what these musicians and artists have to say but they ultimately resort to record labels, those too based in mainland India. Therein lies another conflict; the purpose, in letter and spirit between all music, considered mainstream, and that identified as underground. Record labels, arguably render music unto the former.
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Regardless of the modes and means of marketing or dissemination, these invaluable voices, contributing to the culture of the protest in Indian Occupied Kashmir are priceless. They represent and visualize not just the political nature of conflict in Kashmir that foreign audiences can empathize with, but speak about the deep-rooted implications of life in conflict for the younger population; a population that struggles to wrest free of occupation and repression.
The writer is working as an Assistant Research Associate at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy