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Why do Kashmiris oppose a Bavarian concert?

Some in this restive region view the event as a propaganda tool for India to whitewash alleged abuses.

Last Modified: 07 Sep 2013 12:55
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Graffiti in Srinagar shows locals' opposition to the concert, led by Zubin Mehta [Umar Altaf/Al Jazeera]

A Bavarian State Orchestra concert in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir has met with strong opposition ever since it was announced a month ago. The news of the concert was greeted by a threat from previously little-known rebel groups, a boycott by pro-independence leaders, and a counter-concert backed by a rights group.

The German embassy in India has organised Ehsaas-e-Kashmir ["Feelings of Kashmir"], which features renowned composer and conductor Zubin Mehta. The September 7 concert at a Mughal garden on the banks of the world-famous Dal Lake, is to be an "unprecedented" event, say organisers.

"This concert is for the people of Kashmir. Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, played by a world acclaimed maestro and one of the best orchestras of the world, in one of the most enchanting places in the world: This is a wonderful cultural tribute to Kashmir and its warm-hearted and hospitable people," Germany’s ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, announced on August 22.

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Later, in a separate message, he said: "My wife and I are hosting this event. It is funded mainly by private benevolent sponsors. It's purely cultural and does not alter the political position of Germany and the EU on Kashmir." 

Opposing views

But rights groups and pro-independence leaders are calling on Germany to cancel the concert, which is to take place in the Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, because they say the occasion will be used by New Delhi  "to obfuscate or whitewash" growing concerns over militarisation and rights abuses in the disputed Himalayan region.

"Innocents are being tortured in interrogation chambers, families have been expelled forcibly from their agricultural lands, locals are disappearing in custody and some are found buried in mass graves, militarisation is at its peak and young boys are picked up on false charges under draconian laws," independence leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani told Al Jazeera.

"India has forced upon us the peace of the graveyard. In such a situation, what's the aim of organising such an event? The German ambassador should have given some thought to these issues," he said.

How can Germany or any other country organise a concert disregarding or ignoring the dispute and human rights abuses in Kashmir? We believe India is doing it to obfuscate the truth and whitewash its crimes here.

Khurram Parviz, counter-concert organiser

Geelani, who has called for a state-wide strike on Saturday, the day of the concert, added: "We had opposed the 1983 international cricket matches in Kashmir too. By organising such events in a disputed zone, India wants to give an impression to the world that everything is normal here. And unfortunately Germany seems to have diluted its traditional stand on the disputed nature of Kashmir. The ambassador should be clear on it."

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, another powerful pro-independence leader, and the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, have also opposed the event - due to be performed before 1,500 invitees, mostly Bollywood celebrities, top businessmen, Indian bureaucrats and security officials, and telecast live in almost 50 countries across Asia and Europe.

"The phrasing of the ambassador's statement is Orientalist," said veteran journalist Hilal Mir. "It assumes that, since daily life is not easy in Kashmir, a Haydn concerto, a Beethoven symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto will ease it a bit. No it won't. Pushing New Delhi towards giving Kashmiris their political rights will surely ease their lives."

Mir says even the staunchest of Dionysians among the German orchestra would be unlikely to vouch for a piece of music to offer hope to a people whose highest elected officials have been, for the past ten years, demanding a reduction in the number of soldiers present in the territory.

The concert has come at a time when Kashmir - where anti-India sentiments run deep - is witnessing a spate of rebel attacks on Indian troops and paramilitary forces, and deadly skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani soldiers on the de facto border line of control.

The Muslim-majority region has been a disputed territory since 1947, claimed by both India and Pakistan. Each rule a portion of Kashmir, but each claim it in its entirety. A small portion of Kashmir named Aksai Chin remains under Chinese control following the Sino-India war of 1962.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over the divided territory, and, since 1989, more than a dozen rebel groups, who favour independence or a merger with Pakistan, have been fighting against Indian soldiers.

Pakistan controls almost 33 percent of Kashmir, India about 45 percent and China the rest. Pakistan says Kashmiris should be allowed to vote, according to UN resolutions, on their future, while the entire region is claimed by New Delhi as integral to its sovereignty.

A ceasefire since 2003 has, however, de-escalated much of the tension between the neighbours, but sporadic incidents continue to puncture the shaky peace.

Counter-concert

The latest controversy over the Bavarian concert has seen civil society and rights groups organising a counter-concert, Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir ["Reality of Kashmir"], some 10 kilometres from the German musicians' venue, featuring rappers, poets, photography, fine art and traditional singers.

"How can Germany or - any other country - organise a concert disregarding or ignoring the dispute and human rights abuses in Kashmir? We believe India is doing it to obfuscate the truth and whitewash its crimes here. And the government of Germany is helping India in this," said Khurram Parvez, who is organising the parallel event.

Nothing is apolitical in Kashmir until the military occupation of over 700,000 troops, who are always breathing down our necks, ends for good.

Majid Maqbool, journalist

"Germany is a supporter of the European Union's resolution on mass graves and disappearances in Kashmir - that was rejected by India, so the German ambassador is morally and ethically bound to keep away from so-called goodwill events with India," he told Al Jazeera, adding his group had also invited the German ambassador to their event.

The state's chief minister, Omar Abdullah, however, backs the Bavarian Orchestra.

"As far as [activists claim] that the Kashmir issue would be diluted by the concert, either their leadership is weak or the Kashmir issue is weaker to an extent that a musician can affect it simply through his music," the Greater Kashmir newspaper quoted him as saying.

The politicisation of music

"Nothing is apolitical in Kashmir until the military occupation of over 700,000 troops, who are always breathing down our necks, ends for good," wrote journalist Majid Maqbool in Indian news magazine Hardnews.

"Until then, even if Beethoven himself descends on Shalimar gardens to play his sublime notes, Kashmiris will neither forget their political rights nor will their collective memories of the brutal occupation fade away. And no concert, however great the musician, can heal the unhealed, festering wounds inflicted by decades of occupation in Kashmir."

The German ambassador, however, insisted on the nature of the concert remained apolitical - but in an interview with Indian newsmagazine Outlook India, conductor Zubin Mehta said his performance was to bring a message of peace.

"Yes, that's the only thing we want. We want people to understand how sincere we are in transmitting this message. People can partake and share the beauty of Kashmir. So if both people, Hindus and Muslims, stick together, even symbolically, for an hour-and-a-half, and hear some beautiful music, it could bring some peace to those present and to those who will listen to it on television."

Boycotting an Israeli connection?

Mehta's association with both the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Valencia opera house has also contributed to the opposition to his concert in a largely Muslim-dominated region - where many people find solidarity with the Palestinian movement and where anti-Israel protests are common.

In a Greater Kashmir article, author Ibn Husain wrote: "Mehta is no plain vanilla musician. He conducts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO). For the uninitiated, the IPO is and has often been described as: 'Israel's foremost cultural asset'...

"Elvis Costello recently joined greats like Pete Seeger, Carlos Santana, Brian Eno and the Pixies, in refusing to perform in Israel. They did this in order to make a statement against the government's apartheid regime and abuses of the human rights of Palestinians. We should boycott and silence Zubin Mehta's concert as a matter of conscience and political support for our fellow resistors: the great Palestinians," he argued.

While it appears it may have been culturally insensitive for Germans to invite to Indian-administered Kashmir an artist who is so closely associated with Israel, the event has been faced with threats from three lesser-known rebel groups - in a letter written in Urdu and sent to a news agency in Kashmir.

The rebel groups identifying themselves as Al Nasireen, the Shohada brigade and Farzandan-e-Millat, asked the German embassy to cancel the concert and stated: "Our mujahedeen in the valley will target the western tourists and the responsibility will be on the German ambassador."   

Follow Baba Umar on Twitter: @Babaumarr

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Al Jazeera
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