Kashmir Affairs / April-June 2007 / Page 106
Why We Are All Martyrs
“This is just one story of Kashmir, it definitely is not ‘the’ story. ‘The’ story of Kashmir has not even begun to be told, not by the media, not by anyone else.”
Sanjay Kak (India Abroad News Service, March 15, 2007)
A couple of weeks back, I was fortunate enough to go to a very small screening of Sanjay Kak’s latest and as yet unreleased film Jashn-e-Azadi [How We Celebrate Freedom]. The screening was held in a private flat in London with a small audience, many of whom had very little prior experience or knowledge of the issues that they were about to be faced within this moving, indicative and disturbing of films. I have seen the film twice now and it is a truly remarkable work filmed in the Valley between the years 2004 and 2006. A work of beauty, sensitivity and monumentality whose impact resounds strongly, shaking the issue that is ‘Kashmir’ at its core, its core of human tragedy, human despair, human affliction, and of the human spirit’s endurance, resilience and resistance. It begs the pertinent question of what often seems to get missed in the tangled web of this conflict, in its political climate, the sloganeering, in the 2-bit media reportage, nationalism, religion, allegiance and all of the other factors that seem to fuel the imbroglio… What about the people of the Valley?
I have been asked in this article to address the fervour and hype that has surrounded and followed from the screenings in Srinagar and Delhi. Not a perspective I would have chosen to write on, especially as I was not present at these screenings. However, sifting through the written records and newspaper reports, the blog entries (or insults, abuses?) and the opinion pieces that have been made available, it would seem of significance and (I would like to hope) benefit to acknowledge and address the annoyance and criticism that have emerged from this work. It would seem that for many of the Indian viewers living outside of the Valley or the Pandit community itself, much of their grievances seem to have focused on the film’s imbalance or one-sided position and in its shortfalls of not addressing in any significant depth the issue of the plight of the Pandits, their targeting by armed militants, mass migration and current refugee status. This is clearly a valid comment, for the tragedy of the Valley’s Pandit community must not be overlooked in the process of truth and reconciliation. There is clearly no justification for one group of innocent civilians to kill another. It would also merit stating however, that the European audience who I attended the screening with, expressed their query at the film’s unwillingness to address the conflict from the perspective of a Pakistan-India border dispute.
It would seem that reputable director Sanjay Kak deliberately chose his camera’s positions for certain reasons, and moreover, that he has crafted his work meticulously in this respect. In this regard, it might unfortunately need mentioning here that Sanjay Kak is of Kashmiri origin, from a Pandit family himself. Speaking to the Pioneer, Sanjay Kak says, “The film is a series of images that depict the present situation in Kashmir. I want to make people understand what is happening out there and offer them a way to engage with it, listen to it. I am showing what is happening there for the rest of India.” (March 18, 2007) Without delving into the complexities or questions of the politics of the Valley and state, Sanjay Kak’s work tells its story with the minimum of narrative and a stillness of camera that often verges on disquieting. His camera’s gaze is a calculated one, one that is as telling as it is comprehensive in its depiction of the horror that overwhelms the people of the Valley. Telling because these horrors are neglected truths, comprehensive because the stillness of the camera offers a serenity and sincerity that allows the framed to do the speaking for themselves.
Greater Kashmir talks of Sanjay Kak; “his aim in making the film was to disturb the ‘Indian audience’ for whom the film is essentially meant. According to him, many ‘sensitive Indians’ lost their sleep for many days after watching the film, probably because they had never been told ‘the unpalatable truth about Indian control of Kashmir’.” (March 31, 2007) A documentary that makes one lose sleep over is surely one worth contending with. But what is it exactly that makes the ‘sensitive Indians’ lose sleep over this? What is it that causes others to zealously post abusive hate messages on the internet? That causes such a stir that people feel the need to disrupt the screenings of the film? That people feel the need to speak up and out against the scenes of everyday Kashmiris? The answers probably only lie within each ‘sensitive’ individual. But just how is it that Freedom is Celebrated? The camera depicts the stories; A young man who’s job it is to bury the ‘unclaimed’ bodies of the enduring conflict’s dead tells us, “When I started… I was just 15 and used to be scared and shocked to see the mutilated bodies each day. But now… it is as if my heart has turned to stone.” A father of a ‘martyr’ searches for his son’s grave on the day of Eid explaining that it has been so long that he cannot even remember where his son lies anymore, “there are so many graves here, sometimes it’s difficult to figure out which one is my son’s,” he says. A young girl in shock passionately recounts her experience of ‘witnessing’ a barbaric act of warfare in her vicinity. The local girls and women gather weeping around her, some wailing, but all huddling in the comfort of each other’s presence.
The almost suffocatingly close-up, intimate and harrowing personal accounts and anger of relatives who express their sorrow for the loss of those who to the rest of the world may only become extra numbers of a body-count statistic (or maybe even not). The over-loaded, state hospital doctor who needs doormen to keep order amongst the crowd of waiting patients, and who cannot but emphasise the need for research into conflict related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The civilian human rights workers who, due to the lack of adequate official documentation, have taken on the enormous and virtuous task themselves of recording and registering the loss of human life from the conflict. And, the underlying ‘matter-of-factness’ of all of these scenes-the most haunting aspect of it all, particularly when one has experienced in flesh the realism of these everyday scenes. Finally, Indian Independence Day in Srinagar’s usually hustle of a city-centre is captured by the camera, not just once but on two or even maybe three consecutive years: barren, deserted and bare, the supposedly celebratory square is attended by only a handful of soldiers, their own guards and the media who offer a token ceremony that blares Bollywood-type music rumbling through the shutter-drawn empty streets. The obvious question of these images that tirelessly and patiently portray the irrefutable fact of suffering and disregard of the people of the Valley: How is it that we might choose to reflect on India’s 60th anniversary of Independence, and on ‘Freedom’ itself… or this most resounding of words, ‘Azadi’? In this cynically entitled of films, what do these images of paradox speak of our own notions of ‘Kashmir’, of ‘Indian Independence’ and this largest of ‘democracies’, of even ‘nationhood’-or nationalism itself? Why is it that these images take on the implication of paradox? And again, why do some of us lose sleep over these images? It is clearly not only the horrific nature of war itself that disturbs. One paradox that can sit at the centre of the questions raised by the film, and possibly encourage answering them, is perhaps this idea that is commonly held in Indian political parlance and media portrayal, that of ‘normalcy’. This notion that seems to keep being repeated in Indian national and international media, that “normalcy” has returned” to Kashmir.
The sad and hard truth of the normality that exists in the Kashmir valley, that has twisted and turned the meanings of harmonious words-an Ikhwani (originally meaning ‘brother’/‘brotherhood’) has come to signify a traitor or ‘renegade’; and an ‘encounter’ becoming a horrific and not romantic meeting-are just further reflections that this film manifests on its way through its well-paced, complex and loaded whole. But such manifestations are not the whole aim of the film. In placing the people of the Valley at the centre of the work, the film has (perhaps not unwittingly) drawn upon the strong resolve and resistance of its people towards what is seen as their ‘oppressor’, a spirit of the people that the work suggests has been cultivated through centuries of colonial rule. Traditional Bhand folk theatre/story-teller artists are filmed enacting Darza Paether, a tale of suppression and resistance to the centuries-old predicament of civilian oppression under the region’s history of many changing rulers. While the artists evoke much laughter and joy from the humour of their performances, the editing of the film pits this history against the relentless, frenzied cries of “Azadi! Azadi!” screamed throughout this film. We may be hard pressed not to reckon with these cries when the 12th century poet Kalhana’s words are quoted and repeated in text on screen, “Kashmir may not be conquered by the force of soldiers, But by the force of spiritual merits. Hence its inhabitants are afraid only of the world beyond…”
There is a feeling that the strong pace of this film is created by images of these cries (the hand-held footage of amateur and ‘unnamed’ cameramen) as well as the only other relentless and repetitive action of the film, of heavy-armoured military machinery ploughing its way through the streets and scenes-the latter another reality plain to see from any visit to the Valley. But somewhere behind this and the other juxtaposition of images are the all too uncomfortable truths, it would seem, that many have difficulty in swallowing. Is it the type of news that reaches the audience through this film, is it the sincerity with which it is all offered? Is it precisely because it is news? Or is it because it forces us to reassess our own positions and the trust that we might have faithfully believed in? And, bringing us back to square one, just how and why could so many not have been aware of such suffering and injustices so close to home? In ‘witnessing’ a society that has created resilient fellow humans, will we not reflect on our own social and perhaps driven beliefs too? There are clearly ‘new truths’ revealed in Sanjay Kak’s work, truths that again, we all need call on personally, introspectively, on some level or another, if of course, it is positive progress that we aspire. The film does not need to be about laying support to ‘Azadi’, or to be promoting an extremist cause, contrary to many opinions it seems-and it certainly does not aim to do these things in my mind.
In its own struggle to find meaning or perhaps even solace among the bombardment of despondence and dejection that it depicts, the work sparks and shines at a certain poignant moment, reminding us that we are all in fact ‘martyrs’ to this conflict now (the etymological root of the word ‘martyr’ being ‘witness’). So let us bear witness-to what we have seen, and to what we have felt. For as witnesses, the matter of course and development lie in what and how we see. Instead of quarrelling and disputing, would we not all be better placed, in fact, to Celebrate ourselves? To Celebrate the Freedom that this work itself offers us? Celebrate that we are offered voices unheard. Celebrate that we may actually be further enlightened. Let us Celebrate that someone is raising awareness of the plight of people. Let us Celebrate Sanjay Kak’s Freedom of expression! And in Celebrating, let us reflect on how it is that we bear witness, in sincerity and peace.
A collection of the blog entries, opinion pieces and articles mentioned above can be found at:
from Kashmir Affairs / Vol.2 No. 2 / April-June 2007 http://www.kashmiraffairs.org/