Jeremy Seabrook | The Statesman | Sunday 1 April 2007
There is a poignant moment in Sanjay Kak’s new film about Kashmir, where in an Army-run orphanage in Srinagar, the children perform a stylised version of Kashmiri folk-songs and dances; poignant, because these are also cultural orphans. The film does not dwell on the images of violence associated with Kashmir, preferring instead to linger among the living, the communities made desolate by the flight of the young, towns of widows and orphans, old men amputated of their loved ones, visiting the wintry cemeteries and sites of bones and ashes.
What new can be said about Kashmir, the most militarised place on earth, with one Indian soldier for every 15 civilians? Not a great deal. This is not Sanjay Kak’s aim. This film is a meditation on a very ancient, but also vibrantly contemporary, theme: the difference between domination and victory, between the oppression of flesh and blood and the unvanquished spirit.
The film also serves as metaphor for many other troubled places on earth, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. Indeed, the Kashmir experience has astonishing parallels with these other, ravaged lands: only the landscapes are different, blood and snow instead of blood and sand.
Even the efforts by the military to win hearts and minds echo the maladroit attempts by the USA in Iraq: hearts and minds can rarely be won by means of wounded bodies and bullet-ridden corpses. At one point in the film, some village heads are assembled by the Army in Malangam. Sage, elderly, cowed, they remain in an almost religious silence under the Army’s surveillance. Some of them are presented with Phillips radios in blue and white boxes. They sit, their gifts in their lap, as though these were bombs waiting to explode.
Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom) is about the social, human and moral consequences of violence. It follows the painstaking efforts by Jammu and Kashmir civil society to enumerate the deaths and disappearances of the past 18 years. How many in this village? How did they die? When did they disappear? The answers come with chilling and ritual predictability. Unknown assailants. Armed men. Masked strangers. Young men, bodies dumped in the jungle, on the highway, in the nullah. The word “encounter” – that beautiful idea of a tryst or a meeting-place for lovers – has been transformed in the military lexicon into a rendezvous of youth with death.
Four young men, returning late at night from a wedding-party, are shot by soldiers. A case of mistaken identity. This might serve almost as an epitaph for Kashmir. The government offers compensation. A bereaved mother, gaunt, with a harrowing and passionate dignity, says she would rather see her family die of hunger than accept anything from those who killed her son.
An elderly man walks through a snow-covered graveyard, unable to trace, among so many new graves, the resting-place of his son who died 10 years ago. These are eloquent, haunting images that require neither commentary nor explanation, penetrated as they are by the smouldering spiritual power of the unconquered.
A people colonised for almost half a millennium, used to apparent compliance with their imperial overlords, go impassively about their daily business under military superintendence, faces lengthened by melancholy, eyes darkened by pain.
In a government hospital, a laconic psychiatrist chronicles the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. No modern accompaniment of warfare conducted against civilians is absent from this most ancient, and yet most modern, of struggles. Here is a warfare that escapes all the restraints of conventional conflict, war in which there are no non-combatants, and in which innocence and bystanders has become an oxymoron.
Wars, once declared by States against enemies, and played out between armies, has now become all-pervasive, without rules, without limits, without pity. And in the process, the people themselves are changed: they become militants, terrorists, miscreants, ultras, infiltrators – a whole new vocabulary has evolved to justify the indefensible.
With the declining body-count (to use another dehumanising term now current in asymmetric warfare), the Indian government is keen to show that in Kashmir, “normality” has returned. This involves the re-introduction of tourists to the Valley: they pose for photographs in Kashmiri national costume carrying a basket of artificial flowers, or they play golf on courses designed to international standards with grass imported from America.
Four lakh pilgrims came to Amarnath last year, guarded by 20,000 soldiers. See, the official story goes, we have regained paradise; but this is a highly artificial version, in which the tree of knowledge bears inedible fruit. Some tourists frolic on toboggans on the slopes of the hills. They whoop and yell with triumphal assertiveness, as they declare that “Kashmir is the heart of India”. If this is so, it is heartbroken by grief.
In this film, Kashmir is not a territorial dispute, despite efforts by both India and Pakistan to make it so. It has been, and remains, a cultural struggle for the soul of an eclectic and lyrical sensibility, made simultaneously tough and tender by centuries of oppression.
When shall we see again the warmth of the winter nights, sings the poet, a theme that echoes through this film of extraordinary power and commitment. As a Kashmiri Pandit himself, Sanjay Kak is the first to admit that the flight of Pandits represents a grievous loss to the cultural coherence of Kashmir, but he insists that he is not trying to tell “the” story of Kashmir, but simply “a” story, the story of the wounded spirit of a people; and he asks how healing is to take place under the grim auspices of victors.
Freedom remains unfinished, the baggage of an old independence struggle lost in transit between being and becoming. The peace of the graveyard is thin fare for the living.
On 15 August, the Army gathers in Lal Chowk in Srinagar. The Indian flag is raised to the applause of the military attending the ceremony. The whole town is deserted, metal shutters down: a freedom without people for a people without freedom.
The film contains many such paradoxes: the limits of power and the strength of powerlessness; the internal exile of people who have become strangers in their own land; and most damagingly, the transformation of secular movements of liberation into sectarian, religious and other-worldly struggles.
Jashn-e-Azadi shows the consequences of these baleful developments, the ruined landscapes of the psyche and the heart, the charnel-house in which survivors must make their home. The supreme irony of the film is, perhaps, that there is no “ultimate” triumph over people for whom domination has been for so long a familiar condition of existence.
(The author lives in Britain. He has written plays for the stage, TV and radio, made TV documentaries, published more than 30 books and contributed to leading journals around the world. email email@example.com)
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