“My pen and verses have more power than a hundred bullets,” said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a poet, satirist, and social activist speaking from Kashmir before the recent communication blackout imposed by the Indian government.

The blackout was followed by a series of legal steps stripping the legal autonomy of the Indian administered Kashmir Valley. One of the world’s most militarized zones, Kashmir has been home to over three decades of protracted conflict with both India and Pakistan laying claims over its territory along with the region’s own movement for self-determination.

As the Indian government announced its abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, two vital legal instruments that lent this region autonomy, it also imposed a strict curfew, arrests of over 2,000 locals including leaders and activists, and a complete communications blackout. The government claimed these measures were to keep tensions at bay.

With no space for public protest and a lack of access to information, Kashmiris are turning to creative forms of expression that would preserve the history, identity, and counter-narratives from Kashmir itself.

Handicrafts like shawls, woodwork, and papier mâche items from the Valley are famous among visitors. Beyond these traditional handicrafts, it is the arts, such as poetry and visual arts, that are increasingly being used by the youth to document their stories and express their emotions in Kashmir.

Zareef, recalling the history of Kashmir, explained how the arts have always been a part of the Kashmiri culture and added, “In terms of political or social commentary through art, the Kashmiri tradition of Bhand Pather, or folk theater and art performed on the streets, has showcased satirical art as dissent very well. There has also been poetry and satire ⁠— so much of it, and it is being carried forward by the children of occupied Kashmir.”

Art in Kashmir has remained a central theme to the region’s conflict. Most young artists, who were born in the 1990s when violence and militancy was at its peak in Kashmir, have grown up seeing soldiers at every street corner, guns, bunkers, tanks, teargas, and a great deal of violence, which translates into their work visually and symbolically.

“The goal of art, I believe, should be to document and report what is the pure truth, especially to ensure that collective memory does not turn to amnesia” said Omair Bhat, a writer and poet who, at a very early age took inspiration from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to pick up the pen. Though Bhat doesn’t consider himself a poet as he rejects the aesthetic and uniform structure, his prose is hard-hitting and stands up to people in power.

Day 2

A heavy heart, it refuses reassurance. It howls at the impossibility of salvage from the pandemonium we have been thrown in. We’re anxious. There’s no news from the besieged country. At dawn, after staying awake the entire night, I stand before Allah in supplication, sobbing inconsolably. I ask for the safety of my people. I ask for patience. I ask for freedom. Assi khoon dyut na? Didn’t we give our blood? Teli kyazi eei ne? Then, why won’t freedom come?

Omair Bhat

Poetry and music, along with visual arts, are growing as a tool of expression in Kashmir, but the use of English over local languages like Koshur or Urdu has resulted in a loss of traditional poetry. Besides this loss, the dissolution of local languages also threatens the Kashmiri identity and culture in the face of an imposed but well-defined "Indian" identity. It is a similar problem faced within India among minority groups as well.

However, there are musicians such as Yawar Abdal and Ali Saifudin, who, while their genres and themes of work are significantly different, have used local languages in their work.

As representatives who have grown up in an era of violence and shifting socio-political identity, many established and emerging artists reject the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Malik Sajad, for example, is an illustrator who documented the journey of a seven-year-old growing up in the Indian Administered Kashmir in his graphic novel Munnu: A Boy in Kashmir. Through black-ink illustrations and a narrative that traces both the inside and outside world of the boy Munnu, Sajad offers an immersive look into the conflict from the perspective of a local.

Bhat, who feels it is important to challenge the narratives and propaganda on the region through art, concludes “Kashmir is burning and as the mainstream Indian media continues to generate propaganda. Art is my way to tell the world that the occupation of Kashmir is wrong, and that we need alternative institutions to salvage the mess that has been created here.”

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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