The tenuous calm in Kashmir stood broken recently, not by the sound of gunfire, but by a nervous silence. And preceding that, a lot of noise. A three-girl music ensemble, the first of its kind in the Valley, had to call it quits on the heels of a hate-mail campaign, online threats and a fatwa by a government-backed mufti. “We decided to quit in reverence to the fatwa of the grand mufti,” Aneeqa Khalid, 16, the group’s vocalist, told Outlook. She insisted that she and her bandmates, Noma Nazir and Farah Deeba, one of whom has reportedly left for Bangalore to recover from depression, hadn’t taken the decision out of fear. “The grand mufti says a rock band is un-Islamic. We don’t know much about Islam, but since the mufti has issued a fatwa against our band, we respect it,” Aneeqa added, refusing to take any more questions.
Pragaash (light) shot into prominence after winning a “battle of the bands” talent quest on December 22 with a maiden performance. They had rendered Bulle Shah’s verses in their version of Sufi rock, earning a standing ovation from the young audience. Speaking to the media after the show, they had said: “Through the notes of the guitar and the beats of drum, we want to tell everybody about the sufferings of the people of Kashmir.”
Yet, obscene threats to the band members were posted on social networking sites almost immediately. Just two days after the performance, the band’s Facebook page had this: “Post this status in advance. The three band girls raped at Jammu and thrown into river.” “They themselves are cause of rape incidents.”
At this stage, the story got picked up by the Delhi media—which hyped it up, showing as it did a picture of what it liked to show: the creeping radicalisation of Kashmir society. Then, the self-styled grand mufti of the ‘Supreme Court of Islamic Shariah’, Mufti Bashiruddin, issued a fatwa declaring, “Some girls who believe this mirage (music) to be a real spring are set on a destructive path. They should stop in their tracks. Music is not good for society.” The hardline Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Asiya Andrabi’s ultra-orthodox women’s wing Dukhtaran-e-Millat chipped in too. “There’s no room for nourishing western culture and immoral values in Kashmir,” said Hurriyat spokesperson Ayaz Akbar. “The parents should have advised their daughters that their activities are not according to Islam.” He, however, distanced himself from the fatwa, saying the Hurriyat does not recognise the “sarkari mufti” and rejects any use of coercion.
What did not help the Class 10 students is the fact that the show was sponsored by the CRPF, whom many Kashmiris view with utter hatred. “We have music and poetry in our blood. We’ve grown on the verses of Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon,” Kashmiri poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef told Outlook. “But I don’t need a CRPF wallah to encourage me to sing or write.” A columnist wrote in a local daily, “Barely 10 km from Srinagar, a school has been training girls in the art of classical Kashmiri Sufi music and instruments. Probably because the military was never involved in introducing these girls to a dying art, controversy never touched them.”
The ambivalence is everywhere. Kashmir’s only Jnanpith awardee, Rehman Rahi, says since rock is an “alien” genre, it may be resisted in a land of Sufi music. “This pop and rock band is all Greek to Kashmir which has been a cradle of music, poetry and literature,” he told Outlook. But Naushad Hussain, a teacher at Kashmir’s only fine arts and music institute, is dismissive of both the separatists and the grand mufti. “Threats and fatwas can’t silence artistes. Please leave these young girls alone. Let them and others showcase their talent,” he says. Every year, he adds, 10 students, half of them girls, graduate in music from the institute. “None has ever encountered any trouble even at the peak of militancy in the ’90s, so why now?”
Others question the credibility of the mufti himself. Accused of taking money for fatwas, Mufti Bashiruddin is also viewed as an “Indian agent”. During the “street intifada” of 2010, for instance, he earned the wrath of protesters when he termed stone-pelting as un-Islamic after meeting then home minister P. Chidambaram. The next year he put Kashmir on the boil again after issuing a fatwa asking for the expulsion of four Christian pastors from the Valley accusing them of trying to convert people. Separatists like Geelani had then rejected the fatwa and tempers cooled down. One hopes better sense prevails yet again and the people of Kashmir are able to enjoy their freedoms.