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The Kashmiri artists speaking out against human rights abuses

May 08, 2023
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#Kashmir, #social media, #Youtube, #freedom of speech, #art
by:Irshad Hussain, Dabirah Hassan
A growing number of Kashmiri artists abandon social media, fearing retaliation by the authorities. But some continue to use their channels to shed light on human rights violations - even at risk to their safety.

In March 2018, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, a 47 year-old Kashmiri poet known as Madhosh Balhami, was composing a lyric of a poem about dowry on the porch of his home in Balhama village when two militants appeared brandishing AK-47s and firing rounds into the air. 

The militants initially attempted to attack the home of a Hindu Nationalist leader from the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) party who lives in the same area. After being chased away by government forces, the militants took shelter in Bhat’s house and asked him and his family members to leave.

"As soon as my family members left the house, an encounter broke out between Kashmiri militants and government forces," Balhami told FairPlanet. "My house was razed to ashes and I lost my decades-old poetry that represents the pain of Kashmiri people."

Kashmir, a disputed territory, remained in the limelight for the last three decades due to ongoing violence. Since the emergence of the armed rebellion in 1989, the region, also known as 'Paradise on Earth' for its beauty, has witnessed gross human rights violations, including mass and custodial killings, forced disappearances, torture, sexual abuse, suppression of freedom of speech, internet shutdowns and bans on religious gatherings

In this ongoing conflict, both Indian forces and Kashmiri militants are responsible for violating civilians’ rights. 

On 5 August, 2019, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370, a special status given to the state of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian constitution. Local opposition parties in Jammu and Kashmir and human rights defenders are alleging that the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomous status was forced by the central government on the people of the region against their will.  

Since then, Indian government has adopted harsh restrictions and laws to curb opposition voices and human rights defenders in the region. 

In 2021, for instance, the authorities arrested prominent human rights activist Khurram Parvez, who has long been a vocal critic of the ruling Hindu Nationalist BJP-led government.

His Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a group based in Kashmir, has published several scathing reports on human rights violations and excesses committed by security forces in the Valley. He is also the chairperson of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), an international rights organisation that looks into forced disappearances in Kashmir and elsewhere in Asia

Parvez is the latest critic to be arrested in Kashmir. He has been charged with various violations of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, including criminal conspiracy, attempt to wage war against the government and raising funds for terrorist acts and a terrorist organisation, and is now languishing in Delhi’s Rohini jail.

Poets and YouTubers are targets as well 

But the Indian authorities escalate their crackdown on Kashmiri journalists, many local artists are pushing their narrative, criticising government policies and documenting the ongoing human rights abuses

"Whenever I see oppression in Kashmir, it compels me to write down the sufferings of people," Balhami told FairPlanet. He said that his poetry is revolutionary, and that he condemns state atrocities through it. "The Iranian Revolution is my inspiration. I started my poetry back in 1979. Today in Kashmir, poets can write but can't express openly. Instead of doing poetry, I do farming nowadays," he added. 

Balhami said that over the last 15 years, he has been routinely facing summons by the authorities for his poetry. "I have never seen a worst era, where even poets are not allowed to say anything."

Balhami is among numerous artists, including YouTubers and social media influencers, who are being summoned for interrogations by the authorities for expressing dissenting views and promoting human rights. 

"These kinds of YouTube channels have attracted lakhs of subscribers and people are giving them full support," a Kashmiri rapper who wished not to be named due to fear of retaliation, told FairPlanet. "These content creators are mostly young poets whose prime focus is on human rights violations being carried out by forces in Kashmir."  

Ajaz Ahmed (an alias), 27, an artist who writes poetry on human rights abuses in Kashmir, told FairPlanet that the Indian government has taken more measures to repress online speech over the past three years. He stated that both artists and reporters remain a target: "Journalists have also been detained for writing what was deemed anti-national. Many artists limit sharing anything that appears to be critical of the administration in light of such circumstances."

No room for criticism

In 2021, a task force of "cyber volunteers" was formed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police to monitor social media posts and report the promotion of "radicalisation" and "anti-national activities."

"When I was released from jail in 2000," Balhami recalled, "I carried all the poems, written in hard labour, in my bag. I wanted to publish them all. But in March 2018, my house was burnt down by the forces in a gun battle between three militants and armed forces," Madhosh told FairPlanet, lamenting over having his entire corpus turning to ashes in front of his eyes.

"I treat my poems like my children. I didn't lament over it, I grieve the human loss. Death of a human being is more sorrowful than losing my poems," he added. 

Balhami continues to inspire artists across Kashmir to speak up against human rights violations transpiring in the region despite the risk it carries.

Silencing political satire

Hailing from Indian Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, Syed Areej Safvi, 25, became the first woman in Kashmir in 2020 to write and perform Ladishah, a type of poetry satire that makes political commentary about societal and political conditions of the state. 

Ladishah is typically performed on stage in traditional attire, such as a turban, and is accompanied by an instrument played with small, thin iron hands decorated with iron rings. The performer would make satirical commentary against the establishment or the populace, while singing in a humorous tone and tenor to drive the point home. Safvi has adopted this art form on social media. 

"I am very passionate about it and want to conduct more public speaking and social activity. I always wanted to contribute to Kashmir's language, politics, culture, and heritage," she said. "In December 2019, I wrote my first Ladishah over the misuse of the Public Safety Act (PSA) against journalists."

Speaking to FairPlanet, Safvi said that when she first began to create Ladishah she was forced to shift the subject matter of her art from politics to culture. "In the beginning, my Ladishah was only about criticising the Indian establishment for their wrong policies. But then I was being targeted by the authorities and my family was harassed too."

Safvi's Youtube channel, which contained videos criticising the establishment, was widely supported by people in the region and garnered 79,000 subscribers. 

"So I talked about social issues in my Ladishah, because I could not tolerate my family being targeted - so I had to shut my mouth," she said. 

She added that other artists are also giving up their profession, fearing retribution by the state. 

"So now [as a] content creator, I am trying to diversify and shift my content to vlogging and Alhamdulillah - I am enjoying that too. However, I will continue to write Ladishah till time allows me."

Image by Bombman.

Article written by:
Irshad Hussain
Dabirah Hassan
Embed from Getty Images
"As soon as my family members left the house, an encounter broke out between Kashmiri militants and government forces. My house was razed to ashes and I lost my decades-old poetry that represents the pain of Kashmiri people."
Embed from Getty Images
Kashmir, which is often called ‘Paradise on Eearth’ for its beauty, has witnessed ongoing human rights violations over the last three decades.
Embed from Getty Images
Balhami said that over the last 15 years he has been repeatedly summoned for interrogations over his revolutionary poetry. "I have never seen a worse era, where even poets are not allowed to say anything."
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