The present paper will attempt to understand the interfaces of history and memory, in Kashmir, by looking at the kind of challenges presented by memory, as a mode of engagement, response, and resistance to the statist reading of the Kashmir Question. The paper attempts to focus on the counter-memory practices as alternative means of expressions and protests, that the local population has lately devised through popular cultural productions like musicals and arts in circulation through latest media technologies. The paper in particular will look at the potential of cultural productions, not only as alternative means of protest and resistance but also as archives of resistance, building on the works of scholars like David Lowenthal and Patrick Hutton. The paper highlights the potential for simultaneous uses of memory-making as an artifice by both the oppressor groups and the oppressed groups to necessitate further research into identification and self-identification premised on memory-politics as conceptual categories towards determining the nature, scope and challenges of memory-making for different types and scales of nationalist projects.
Keywords: Collective memory, Conflict, Cultural Productions, History, Memory, Protests
The present paper will attempt to map the theoretical contours conceptualizing the relationship between history and collective memory in conflict zones. The objective is to discuss the claims of collective memory as against the dominant versions of history employed by the Official mnemonic regime, post-partition. The present paper aims to approach this subject by identifying alternative means of protest and resistance by focusing on the counter-memory practices that the native population has lately devised through cultural productions like performance arts, visual arts, and music. The paper also accentuates the potential of these cultural productions to act as archives of resistance.
Lately, many artists from Kashmir have entered the matrix of counter-memory by launching albums on social media sites in continuation of such attempts to resist. As the sites of such battles have parallelly moved to performance arts, the artistic expressions bring to life some relevant songs related to freedom and struggle, employing the trope of remembrance. Some of these songs were a part of Kashmir’s rich culture and folklore, to showcase people’s counter-memories of the conflict through art and music. These cultural productions transcend the vernacular realm and further foray into languages like Hindi, Urdu and also English in order to tell their stories to the world.
Finally, the paper will highlight how such cultural productions help build critical consciousness amongst the local population about radically new approaches to writing history, so that the state’s efforts to silence alternative narratives of Kashmir’s complex history of conflict, in which only hegemonic forms of history and memory were allowed to thrive, can be countered. The objective is to explore through a set of cultural productions, the different ways in which memory has been employed as a weapon of resistance against the statist reading of the Kashmir Question.
Memory-making through cultural productions
Witnessing, remembrance, writing down, performing and producing artworks related to resistance constitute an act of memory-making where the reconstruction of the present is aimed at articulating the potencies of the future (Bromley, 2015). Here, resistance, both as a political activity and a conceptual lens, comes as part of the political obligation of individuals and communities to stand against systemic oppression. Cultural productions that consolidate this act of resistance into memory-making, symbolically against state’s erasure of history are by-products of political empowerment that reaches oppressed entities through violence, as opposed to affirmative actions and inclusive measures.
The need for resistance towards achieving self-actualization, thus, accounts for memory-making that situates the individual in the community and enables a sense of shared agony, solidarity, and collective struggles against power(s) that attack such a community.
Cultural productions, such as local forms of art, music, theatre, or street performances, to that end regenerates (and if necessary, creates new) beliefs that the community, in its holistic existence, is capable of controlling their circumstances. This capacity is both empowering and a product of political empowerment that is indicative of political awareness. It is aimed at fulfilling the political obligation of resisting an oppressive force.
Cultural productions thus arise out of awareness of oppression and create an awareness of resistance through resilience. This resilience is in direct conflict with any feeling of lamentation. Whereas the state promotes a reading of history that renders the community as unworthy and ultimately pushes the collective identity towards lamenting upon its own existence and claimed belongingness, resilience through memory-making battles this imposed sense of unworthiness. Cultural productions that rage against the status quo have, more often than not, taken to extremely humble platforms to maximise its reach into the aggrieved community because the least privileged members are the ones to suffer intersectional deprivations and give in soonest to this jolt of fabricated lamentation. Internalised oppressions that limit individual self-actualisation projects as well as collective experiences of trauma- both can effectively respond to such cultural productions by articulating the need for resistance, more commonly referred to as “cause” in the Social Sciences. This expanse, from the individual to the collective, is supportive of the dual tonality of anti-establishment memory-making through cultural productions in conflict zones. Cultural productions thus archive historical experiences, which in turn defines how people relate to their past through memories, beliefs and traditions, as David Lowenthal (1985) and Patrick Hutton (1993) discuss.
In the subsequent sections, we will look at selected set of cultural productions that have acquired an air of popularity, owing to the growing impact of social media and on account of the content produced through these forms.
Counter-memory through resistance music
In 2013 the state government hosted the Zubin Mehta-led Bavarian State Orchestra for a program titled Ehsaas-e-Kashmir. Organized by the German embassy, this event aimed to reach “the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement”. Kashmiri civil society opposed the event on the grounds that it provided a platform for the state to appropriate the traumatic narrative of violent tragedies that had befallen Kashmiris. In protest, civil society groups organized a street concert called Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir (Reality of Kashmir) to showcase people’s memories of the occupation through art and music (Bhan, Duschinski, & Zia, 2018).
Lately, many artists from Kashmir have been launching albums on social media sites in continuation of such attempts to resist. Some of these songs were a part of Kashmir’s rich culture and folklore, arguably written by the poet of Kashmir, Habba Khatoon. For many, Kashmir’s loss of sovereignty is often juxtaposed with time when its last native ruler, Yusuf Shah Chak was dethroned, and is tied intrinsically to his poet-singer wife, the once-peasant girl Habba Khatoon. In 1585, Akbar, the Mughal emperor in Delhi, invaded Kashmir. To broker peace, Shah Chak personally visited Akbar’s court, where he was imprisoned and sent subsequently to be confined in Bihar’s Nalanda district, where he died in 1592. This holds a symbolic relevance, as Habba Khatoon’s poems on love, loss, longing and treachery are, for many, the first songs of protest from Kashmir. These old Kashmiri songs have found life again in the voice of the young.
Another musical video among the many albums of this kind, is a rendition of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “Hum dekhenge”, which is conventionally a song that is sung at protests in other parts of the world as well. This album features ordinary people with placards that speak of their profession and the everyday struggles are accentuated, that people living in a conflict zone face, day in, day out. The album highlights the difficulties people were made to come to terms with after the abrogation of the Article 370. The album not only highlights the economic losses the people faced, but also the curbs on internet, media, and free speech, in a way driving deeper the nail of remembrance of the human rights violations. The album ends with an interesting caption that reads “I want to take Kashmir into my arms and cry” and this quote is then alluded to an Imaginary Poet, and a metaphorical expression of the political predicament and the helplessness it brings on account of the violence afflicting everyday lives of the people.
Another artist, a Kashmiri rapper, Roushan Illahi, also known as MC Kash, mastering lyrical hip-hop, burst onto the cultural scene during a critical time as a popular voice of defiance, giving expression to the cumulative rage of these “rebels of the streets” who came of age during the armed rebellion of the 1990s. Building on social media and solidarity networks, MC Kash rose to prominence early in the summer months of 2010 with his song I Protest (Remembrance), which bears witness to the indiscriminate killings of teenagers. Since then, he has performed in multiple albums along with the Alif band to create resistance-music. Another band that grabbed considerable media attention during the 2010 unrest was Sangam originated from the volatile town of Sopore. Their songs are a fusion of Western and Sufi music. Interestingly, many of these young artists have resorted to the use of the English language in the songs or the vernacular in tandem with the English language to speak to the outside world. Such cultural productions help build critical consciousness among Kashmiris about radically new approaches to writing history, so that the hegemonic forms of history and memory that were allowed to thrive, can be countered (Bhan, Duschinski, & Zia, 2018).
Visual and performance arts in the streets
In the domain of visual arts, what further catches the attention is the wall art and graffiti, spread over and across the valley of Kashmir. Primarily, graffiti art is used as a means of communication but in Kashmir it also evolves into a form of resistance trying to defy state narratives and shielding the identity of participants, saving them from direct persecution for articulating counter-narratives (Amin & Majid, 2018). To this end then the government had invoked the anti-defacement law in 2016. Graffiti has not only been employed as a mode of protest but also as a medium to articulate and visibly concretise the angst emanating of collective memory.
The rising trend of visual arts as vehicles of memory reminds one of the incidents in August 1953, when popular Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah was arrested, people came out in large numbers in Kashmir to protest. The police then forced the protesters to wash off the graffiti (Maqbool, 2016). The first graffiti that emerged in different localities of Srinagar city were simple in their writing style and message. Consider the two graffiti that emerged near the Jamia Masjid and Hanfiya Masjid in Reshi Bazar, Anantnag: three girls are depicted, playing jump rope with a barbed wire instead of a rope— memories of the state’s brutalities on children. (Amin and Majid 2018). Behind the masks of anonymity, today there exist groups such as El Horiah — horiah means freedom in Arabic —that continues to spray-paint messages of protest (Hussain, 2017). Inspired by Palestinian and other Arab art, Kashmiri graffiti artists tried to represent the daily struggles of common people in their works and assert it as a form of resistance (Shah 2016 as cited in Amin and Majid 2018).
On the other hand, the street, with the growing influence of social media, has been employed as a performative stage for stark symbolic visuals. As an example, people walking on the street have often spotted a man, clad in traditional clothes, walking a cabbage through the streets of local bazaars and chowks. However, this visual generated quite a stir when the pictures of the walking cabbage flooded social media. Some of the media portals attempted to reach out to the man walking a cabbage in order to understand the performative visual and the motivation behind this. This man, who wishes to retain anonymity, then explained, that the reaction itself explains the message he wanted to convey, wherein these visuals caught the air for being absurd and strange, wherein a cabbage walking through the streets of Kashmir appeared strange to the people who came across the visuals, but the large-scale violence is taken as the normal and does not appear absurd. When further questioned about the performance, “the man claimed he was re-enacting an art performance by the Chinese artist Han Bing who has been walking cabbages on a leash around the world for more than a decade. The Walking the Cabbage Project and Movement went viral last year with multiple media outlets such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and The Daily Mail reporting on this phenomenon.
In the original Chinese context of the Walking the Cabbage performance, Han Bing provides commentary on a shift in Chinese society during the last decade and a half of rapid modernisation and economic growth when the emerging nouveau riche middle and upper middle classes of China began to parade expensive petite dogs on their streets as a sign of their newly acquired wealth and their lavish lifestyles, leaving behind the bond the Chinese have had with the cabbage, a staple food that is inexpensive and affordable to even those who do not have the basic means to subsist. Historically, the cabbage has gotten many Chinese people through times of scarcity, famine and hunger. Now in times of economic prosperity, that historical relationship is not only being denied, but erased from the memory of feeding for survival when nothing else was available nor affordable” (Unidentified Kashmiri seen walking a cabbage on a leash in Srinagar, 2015).
Here the memory of the violence associated with the political conflict is triggered through irony embedded in this street performance through a walking cabbage and the street where the cabbage is being walked becomes an alternative archive, in the process of being curated through such performativity.
Summarily, the attempt so far has been to establish the reason and role behind the production of material memories related to a region that is marred in perpetual conflict, where the claims to its history are fraught and contested. Within this matrix of claims, the kinds of cultural productions, so discussed, play a critical role in rooting the claims of memory to this history, especially so as a means of alternative response and resistance. Thus the potential for simultaneous uses of memory- making as an artifice by both the oppressor and the oppressed necessitate further research into identification and self-identification as conceptual categories towards determining the nature and scope of memory-making.
Amin, M., & Majid, I. (2018). Politicising the street. Economic and Political Weekly, 53(14).
Bhan, M., Duschinski, H., & Zia, A. (2018). Introduction. “Rebels of the Streets”: Violence, Protest, and Freedom in Kashmir. In Resisting occupation in Kashmir (pp. 1-41). University of Pennsylvania Press.
Bromley, R. (2015). Giving memory a future’: women, writing, revolution. Journal for Cultural Research, 19(2), 221-232.
Hussain, Sarah. 2017. “A Look at Some of the Brilliant Resistance Art Coming Out of Kashmir.” Homegrown, 13 March. https://homegrown.co.in/article/800126/a-look-at-some-of-the-brilliant-resistance-art-coming-out-of-kashmir.
Hutton, P. H. (1993). History as an Art of Memory. UPNE.
Listen: The Kashmiri version of protest song ‘Bella Ciao’, written ‘in aftermath of August 5, 2019. (2020, February 24). Scroll. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/video/954117/listen-the-kashmiri-version-of-protest-song-bella-ciao-written-in-aftermath-of-august-5-2019
Lowenthal, D. (1985). The past is a foreign country. Cambridge University Press.
Maqbool, M. (2016, October 08). The Writing on the Walls in Kashmir. The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/politics/kashmir-graffiti
Unidentified Kashmiri seen walking a cabbage on a leash in Srinagar. (2015, December 23). Kashmir Reader.
Zarecka, I. I. (1994). Frames of remembrance: The dynamics of collective memory. Transaction Publishers.
Sana Shah is PhD Student at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
Aishwarya Bhattacharyya is PhD candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.