Separatists have turned Zubin Mehta’s concert into a political battle.
Zubin Mehta is going to receive this year’s Tagore Award for Cultural Harmony. It is a fitting award for the truly international man of music, who imbibes Tagore’s ideal of being a citizen of the world. The world-renowned music director holds an Indian passport, is a permanent resident in the United States of America, maintains houses in multiple countries and has directed orchestras across the globe. His wish to perform in Kashmir, expressed last year while receiving an award at the German embassy in India, was taken seriously by the German ambassador and has resulted in the planned Ehsaas-e-Kashmir (Feeling of Kashmir) concert. That Mehta’s global musician credentials are not enthusing the Kashmiri separatists would be an understatement.
Zubin Mehta may have made an innocent wish to perform in Kashmir but the planned concert has now become a political statement due to the antics of the separatists. Initially, the mood was to ignore and downplay the significance of the concert. The first major objection was raised by SAS Geelani who said that an international event should not happen in Srinagar as Kashmir is a disputed territory. After this statement, as if on cue, the separatists have increased the intensity of the statements opposing the concert. Mirwaiz Farooq called it an attempt to project a conflict-ridden region as normal. Some people have called it a way for Germany and the European Union to curry favour with India for market access. Extremist organisations like Dukhtaran-e-Millat have gone so far as to cite Mehta’s position as a Director for Life with the Israeli Philharmonic to suggest a “Jewish Conspiracy” behind this concert. Many people think Mehta himself is a Jew (he is a Parsi). All this becomes excellent fodder for the Islamists in Kashmir.
In contrast, those working in the tourism industry of the region are supportive of the concert, given the positive impact it will have on their business. All the ambassadors of the EU countries are attending and the event is to be telecast live, for free, across the world. The artist community of Kashmir is also supportive and is actively involved in helping with the arrangements for the concert. A group of Kashmiri musicians slated to play in the UK on 7 September, the same date of as the Ehsaas-e-Kashmir concert, have asked that if they do not welcome musicians into Kashmir, how could they expect to be welcomed into Europe?
The separatist movement in Kashmir is no longer bloody like the nineties. There is a broad realisation that outgunning the Indian Army is not a sustainable strategy. The movement has shifted to mass protests in urban centres, which often turn violent with stone throwing by the mob or firings by the police for crowd control. This changed tactics makes events like this music concert ideal for the separatists to press their point by giving them symbolism beyond the usual. Some time back, the all-girl rock band Pragaash had to shut down after just one performance since it was not compatible with the separatist’s Islamist vision. A few years ago, the Pakistani rock band Junoon was able to perform in Kashmir without any problems. The separatists demonstrate to the rest of the Kashmiris their preferences through such acts and also convey to the outsiders that they have the coercive power to influence the social life in the Valley.
Yanni’s concert at the Acropolis in the 1990s made a new benchmark for how popular western classical music can become in modern times. The album of the live show at the Acropolis became Yanni’s defining legacy. This concert in Shalimar Bagh (part of the Mughal Gardens) next to Dal Lake has the same potential to capture the audience’s mind. In the scenic venue, Zubin Mehta conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra could create magic that could turn it into his defining concert. The worldwide telecast of Yanni’s concert reintroduced the world to the Acropolis. Similarly, this concert can also place the Shalimar Bagh and the Dal Lake on the world map. Srinagar’s famous landmarks would be associated with music, beauty and world class performances instead of terrorism and violence that has negatively impacted the tourism industry in the state.
By choosing to convert this concert into a political battle, the separatists have raised the stakes for themselves. They don’t have much to gain if they succeed but will face ridicule and irrelevance if the event is held peacefully. From the ranks of separatists, these Kashmiri groups havenow joined the company of the regional chauvinist groups that exist in every state across India, who oppose any ‘western’ event and take pride in being a nuisance to the society.
Socially, politically, economically and culturally, the Ehsaas-e-Kashmir concert is a positive for the valley. By opposing it, the separatists get to demonstrate that they can dictate the social life in the region. They can then hope to reinforce their self-styled credentials as the real representatives of Kashmiris, with whom India should hold talks. Even if the concert was not political to begin with, there is no doubt that it has become one now. This should only increase the resolve of the state government to ensure that it carries the day. At the banks of the Dal on the seventh of September.