Zubin Mehta’s Kashmir concert, titled Ehsaas e Kashmir attracted a fair amount of controversy in India and internationally as well. While controversy is nothing new to Kashmir, this one was fairly unusual. Kashmiris are known for their love of music. Musical heritage of Kashmir is almost as old as the ancient land of Kashmir. It is said that that one of the oldest forms of musical expression called ‘Wanwun’, is found here. Omkar Aima, who has researched roots of Kashmiri music extensively, says ‘Wanwun’ appears to be an adaptation of Vedic chants of Samveda – and they have not been altered in the least.
According to Aima, “Chhakri”, another form of Kashmiri music, seems to have an ancient origin too and as per Kalhan’s Rajtarangini, can be traced down to 12th Century A.D. After the Islamic conquest of Kashmir, the land saw much turmoil, but the musical tradition survived. To this day, mystic saint Lalleshwari’s waakhs or couplets are sung, Habba Khatoon’s poignant songs are a perennial favorite and Arnimaal’s songs of love and longing are part of every musical event. So it is unthinkable that a music concert could become controversial or could be considered political in Land of Lal ded and Habba Khatoon.
Zubin Mehta’s concert was organized by German Embassy, with active support from State government. As soon as the news became public, separatists accused the Concert organizers of ignoring the ‘reality’ of Kashmir and trying to portray ‘normalcy’ to the world. Separatists like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, openly condemned German embassy and German government for hurting sentiments of local Kashmiris.
It was interesting that civil society of Kashmir circulated an open letter with signatures to German Ambassador echoing the same sentiments as Separatists. Music is an idiom of politics they said and invoked Nazi Germany and how Nazis used music to subjugate and declare victory. Oped after Oped was written about how Kashmiris cannot afford to send a signal to Western World that all was well in the valley.
As far as I understood, we were given three major reasons for denouncing the concert.
It was too elitist. An invitation only event, the concert was only for VVIP’s and VIP’s. Ordinary Kashmiri could not become part of the concert.
Shalimar garden, the crowning glory of Kashmir, was vandalized and destroyed to facilitate the concert.
Music was being used as a political tool to promote all is well in the valley. Kashmir is a ‘Disputed territory” according to separatists therefore no concerts can be held.
While first two reasons are simply bogus and I will explain why, it is the third reason that is important and must be discussed threadbare. It is important to remember that whether we like it or not, all Zubin Mehta concerts around the world are elitist. We can call invitation only events unfair but many events happen to be invitation only. That cannot be a sufficient reason to denounce it. In any case the concert was telecast live on Doordarshan so everyone who wanted to could watch the event.
The allegation that Kashmiris could not become part of the concert is entirely baseless though. Kashmiri musicians played traditional Kashmiri musical instruments along with Bavarian Philharmonic Orchestra. A lovely and heartwarming fusion of Kashmiri folk with Western Classical was played and that was a great way of showcasing traditional Kashmiri music to the world. Young composer, Abhay Sopori who conducted the Kashmiri folk along with Maestro Mehta said on NDTV Show that despite being a Santoor player himself, he and his illustrious father, Pt. Bhajan Sopori, decided not to play and give the opportunity to the musicians from the valley instead. He said he wanted to highlight the music of Kashmir and not make it a Mehta and Sopori concert. Anyone who watched the show will agree that Kashmiri music was showcased brilliantly on that prestigious stage.
Another allegation was about vandalism of Shalimar Garden. Reports indicate that some renovation work that was done in the garden was long overdue. The Jammu and Kashmir chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has said that the garden was restored according to internationally accepted methods. There is no reason to disbelieve INTACH. Separatists and disapproving civil society hasn’t provided with any concrete proof that the garden has been vandalized.
This brings us to the third and the only reason why Zubin Mehta’s concert became such a huge issue. Zubin Mehta played only music in Shalimar, outside however politics was played to the hilt. It is nobody’s case that Kashmir is entirely peaceful today.. Two decades of insurgency have left much pain and grief. From time to time violence raises its ugly head and threatens to drown whatever progress has been made.
This year has seen increase in violence again and there is a genuine concern that terrorist organizations like LeT are gaining ground. In fact, everyone who complained so much about near shutdown of areas around Shalimar garden must realize that as long as there is terrorism, security measures invoked will also be extreme. It is important to remember who started gun culture in the valley, not Indian Army certainly. As long as the last terrorist gun doesn’t fall silent, security forces will remain stationed there.
I have often said in jest that UPA government should also include ‘Right to correct vocabulary’ in its Rights based governance. When I read the open letter that was circulated by the civil society in the media, I felt the need of’ Right to correct vocabulary’ even more acutely. The letter was filled with all lofty words, invoking Nazism, denouncing ‘occupation’ finding meanings where there were none. There have been concerts held in Kashmir before too, more notably concert by a Pakistani band called Junoon in 2008.
Some feeble voices of protest were heard then as well but nothing of this magnitude and of course no parallel concerts were held. So what was so infuriating about Zubin Mehta? It wasn’t Mehta as much as it was involvement of German Embassy. Separatists and their sympathizers have realized that Pakistan is not interested in waging their war for them. Pakistan only wants to keep the wound alive in order to inflict thousand cuts to India. Separatists have also realized although they may not acknowledge it, that Azaadi or Independent Kashmir is not going to happen. India will never ever compromise on its territorial integrity. Separatists however have made a career out of opposing India and they must do so at any cost.
For a long time selective narrative of ‘occupation’ and ‘oppression’ conveniently forgetting jihadi violence that wreaked havoc in the state and resulted in exodus of minorities, was sold successfully in the West. However equations started changing after 9/11. Arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai, Kashmiri Muslim, working as ISI agent in the United States delivered a body blow to this selective narrative. It is increasingly becoming clear that the West is not too enamored by the concept of Independent Kashmir and occupation stories are not getting as much traction as they did before.
In these circumstances, when German Embassy organized a concert it infuriated separatists further. They are not interested in finding solutions to Kashmir issue and they are not interested in providing balm to those who have suffered unspeakable misery. They only want to keep the Kashmir conflict Industry alive. When Germany gets involved with the elected state government of J&K, it sends the signal that West might not be interested in separatist narrative anymore.
That is why there was much hue and cry about Zubin Mehta concert. That is why rumors were spread that Mehta is a Jew which he dispelled himself in a television interview. That is why words like ‘occupation’ and Nazism were irresponsibly used.
Kashmir has seen much grief. Majestic Chinar trees have been witness to much bloodshed, Dal Lake has seen many seasons of violence. Kashmir’s best interests are served when there is absence of terrorism and peace is established. Kashmir’s best interests are also served when there is acceptance and reconciliation. People of Kashmir deserve better than waiting for last gun to fall silent. Musical concerts, sports events, craft fairs help the process of healing. Separatists and their apologists may never facilitate the peace process but an ordinary Kashmiri who has suffered much will certainly appreciate the healing touch. In the land of Lalleshwari and Habba Khatoon, music can only provide peace and comfort.