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An existence funnelled into ending in a photograph
On 11 February 2017, which was also Shaheed Maqbool Bhat’s 32nd death anniversary, Indian soldiers encircled a group of Kashmiri insurgents staying in a house in Nagbal-Frisal, a sylvan village about 55 kms south-east of Srinagar and 15 kms west of Islambad/Anantnag. Four insurgents and two soldiers died in the ensuing 12-hour-long gun battle. Two civilians were also killed, one succumbing to bullet-injuries in the hospital, which he had sustained after Indian soldiers fired at a gathering mass of people who were trying to break the cordon and help the insurgents escape. The other, Ishaaq Ahmed Rishi, father of an infant daughter, was killed on-the-spot. Brigadier R Chakravarty, Commander, 1 Sector RR, said that Ishaaq “attained martyrdom along with two soldiers when militants fired at a search party approaching the house”. Ishaaq’s family and other villagers contradicted the army statement, stating that Ishaaq was made a human shield and then killed by the soldiers.
I had no second thoughts about believing the version of Ishaaq’s family and the villagers. This instinctive trust in the people’s version has nothing to do with any subaltern studies proclivities. It has nothing to do with recognizing the overflowing desperation in a senior Indian army commander making a civilizational switch from veergatti prapt hona (to reach the destination of warriors) to martyrdom-shahadat (to bear witness; situated in the Abrahamic religious tradition). It has nothing to do even with the Brigadier’s equally ridiculous clubbing of the meaning of the death of a civilian and two soldiers whose death the civilian might rejoice if he were alive and, in turn, whose frayed nerves might have been soothed by killing him or someone like him if they were alive.
The reason I immediately believed the people’s version if far simpler. I have been in the situation Ishaaq must have found himself in more than once and although the last time I was made a human shield was 16 years ago, they are not experiences the smallest details of which one can forget or forgive easily.
That fateful day of August 2000, I (a 16 year old boy at that time) and the two other boys who were kept at the front by an RR search party as they moved to the edge of our village, crossing the stream across which there were only two houses at that time, and the village graveyard, then entering the vegetable gardens behind the graveyard, instructing us to break the hedges between those gardens, overgrowing with the summer vegetables, with dense knots of gourd and cucumber climbers running here, there and everywhere, spotted two insurgents hiding under a canopy of a cucumber creeper in a corner of one of the gardens, their AK-47 guns ready to fire, and were saved only because I was wearing a bright ink-blue tracksuit, clearly distinguishable from the soldiers’ uniform, so when our eyes met one of the insurgent’s, he motioned ever-so-slightly to us to get out of the way, which we did, before he fired at the soldiers standing behind us, injuring the CO of the party, after which the insurgents managed to escape and the soldiers beat the hell out of us, informing us that they would kill and pass us off as “terrorists”, but there were three insurgent groups in the village that day and when a fourth one tried to break the cordon (we later came to know) they also came face-to-face with another group of human shields and, in the words of our village baker (one of the human shields in that group), “simply dropped their weapons, letting the soldiers fire at them without resistance” because they did not want the civilians to die, and the information of their killing was relayed to the group of soldiers we were with, so they rejoiced and let us live; the only three witnesses of what we had gone through that day being me, Bilal, and Mehraj, who is our next-door-neighbour, and even now when I visit our village, we look at each other and say, “Taem dohukh photova gatshey aasun” (There ought to be a photograph of that day).
I know a person who lives a few kilometres away from my home who was once in a passenger bus which was fired upon by Indian soldiers after four of them had been killed in an ambush by insurgents who had managed to escape. When the firing started, and the soldiers shot the driver of the bus, the old man sitting next to this person told him to lie down so that the old man could cover his body with his own. “I have lived my life, son,” the old man had said, “You are too young to die.” The old man had died of multiple bullet injuries atop this person, and his blood had smeared the white kameez yazaar of this person crimson. Whenever I ask him about that incident, he says, “Hey laala, wain kya wann bu, taem dohukh photova gatshey aasun” (My dear, what is there to say, there ought to be a photograph of that day).
A dear friend who had half his hand blown off by a grenade while they were on a school picnic and soldiers had invited them inside a camp told me during our first conversation on the incident, “Photo ma haz chu taem dohukh” (I don’t even have a photograph of that day).
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For long, Kashmiris have been captivated by the power of photography. But why?[/perfectpullquote]
Another friend who knows a Kashmiri Muslim who has become a keen champion of Kashmiri Pandits on social media, regrets that he does not have proper evidence of this champion stealing carpets from Pandit households in Islambad/Anantnag in the early 1990s. “Whenever I see him talking about how Kashmiri Pandits got a sour deal at the hands of Kashmiri Muslims, I so wish I had a photograph of him holding one end of a rolled carpet inside a Pandit household while one of his partners held the other end outside the window.”
A photograph attempts to disappear reality in the space between time-gaps
For long, Kashmiris have been captivated by the power of photography. But why? Photography is framing and, as Susan Sontag warns us, framing is exclusion. Why would Kashmiris want themselves to be enframed into exclusion? Is it because the only alternative is oblivion and nothingness? Painted into a corner by a mighty occupation, is being photographed a desperate attempt to hold onto the edges of bare existence, if not to return to the centrestage of meaning? Why have so many of the world’s greatest geniuses with the camera produced some of their best work in Kashmir? Is it the unique tragicomedy of spectacular natural beauty and a gruesome conflict that has consumed generations? Why are there so many good photojournalists and photographers in Kashmir and why is their number on the rise? Better and more readily-available technology can only be part of the answer. Is the sense of betrayal by outsiders who refuse to tell our story properly so complete that we they have decided to tell it ourselves? If that is the case, how far have we been able to succeed in this endeavour? Insofar as photography is prone to a lot of interpretation, how does the work by Kashmiri photojournalists deal with such vulnerability? What is the aesthetics of this body of work?
Witness, published by Yaarbal and edited by Sanjay Kak, in presenting select frames of nine of Kashmir’s leading and emerging photojournalists (there are other equally good photojournalists in Kashmir, the process of whose work to include in the book must have been like the framing of a photograph, it focuses on what is inside the frame, but what is excluded is as important), not only documents the period between 1986 and 2016 in the ever-turbulent valley, but also subtly joins in the search for answers to these questions and more. Early on, one of the more intriguing feature of the book that catches the eye is the fact that despite coming from very similar backgrounds and being subject to almost the same social and political forces, the photojournalists whose work appears in the book present an array of approaches to photography. Yet there are enough similarities to cast a hopeful net for an aesthetics of Kashmiri photography. They are all men, self-taught for the most part, with the period of armed insurrection and India’s bloody counter-insurgency playing a big role in shaping their personal and professional lives. Only Sumit Dayal can be considered an outsider, but only at first, until you realize that the political conflict in Kashmir is not always merely the solid objects in the photograph, but also the long shadows creeping into and out of those photographs, agitating the frame.
Shadow play is in fact an integral part of the work of all good photojournalism in Kashmir, as it is of the work of painters, cartoonists, folk artists and writers. It can even be argued that one prime reason poetry has been the dominant form of expression in Kashmir down the ages is because it is always shadow play. This then is one principle of Kashmiri aesthetics of photography, but it is more evident in the work of Javeed Shah, Showkat Nanda and, unsurprisingly, Sumit Dayal himself. While Javeed openly embraces the principle, Showkat and Sumit arrive to it on the back of their personalities and personal histories. Look for Javeed’s photograph with a soldier standing upright in a puddle, with his own self and that of the Kashmiris in the background under his boot. Sumit’s dilution of the expression on Shakeel’s face (whose sister and wife were raped and killed in Shopian in 2009) with the faces of his neighbours in the background leaps off the page. In young Azaan’s work, the frame is upturned and the shadow becomes the object and vice versa.
Another highlight of the book is its close examination of the risks photojournalists in Kashmir take on an everyday basis. The work of Dar Yasin, Javed Dar, Altaf Qadri and Syed Shahriyar has an eerie quality of stillness when the objects all want to move. They manage to calm the movement by getting so close to it that their camera can almost caress it. Look for Javed’s photograph of migrant labourers dancing in the snow for a rejoinder to Walter Benjamin’s aura, or Altaf’s photograph of the aftermath of a grenade attack for lessons in colour in the age of swatches. Also look at how Syed Shahriyar summons the whorls of a rose and the colours of a sunflower in a rooftop that has collapsed during an encounter; and then there is that old master MD (Merajud Din, for the uninitiated), the one who has seen it all. Look particularly at his contrapuntal image of two women standing side-by-side in a protest outside Tsrar-e-Sharif, the older one with her fist raised angrily in the air, the younger one coquettishly adjusting the scarf on her head.
After 2008, when stonepelting gained the status of the dominant mode of protest in Kashmir, pitched battles between stonepelters, mostly teenagers, and Indian soldiers armed with regular guns as well as teargas and birdshot shotguns has become a regular feature of Kashmir’s political landscape. Photojournalists have been part of many such battles, at great risk to body and equipment (there have been instances where photojournalists have had their equipment broken, or have been blinded, beaten up or shot), but they have always stayed true to the action, resulting in some noteworthy close-up photography. Look out for Yasin’s picture of a stonepelter wearing a white kameez yazaar, his body mid-air and a poem in motion. Look for Showkat’s lone stonepelter (12 years of age) confronting soldiers on a bridge after they have killed his friend and classmate.
Punctum and studium
Things have changed. There are photographs of the funerals of Ishaaq Ahmed Rishi and the other civilian, as well as the four insurgents martyred in the encounter in Nagbal-Frisal. These photographs show the dead bodies of the insurgents, mutilated but defiant. They show thousands of people in attendance. They show the nimbleness of anonymous fingers as they approach to touch the martyrs’ bodies and faces one last time. They show those same fingers raised in fists of defiance and anger. There are photographs, and you can see them.
There are even videos of the day. Amateur videos taken on cell phones and showing soldiers firing at the civilians, even the ones holding the camera phone, and some people carrying the injured away, while the rest inch back to where their beloved insurgents are holed up, shouting Allah-u-Akbar without fear. The days when Doordarshan and All India Radio could pass off a fisherman as a militant and an insurgent as a terrorist are gone. Things have changed.
Or have they?
In the last decade, the twin technological tectonic shifts of the birth of social media and the ubiquity of digital photography, and the resultant deluge of images coming out of Kashmir has been mind-numbing. While it is no longer possible for anyone to pretend ignorance on the goings-on in Kashmir, it has also produced a vast desensitization both inside and outside Kashmir. However, various factors make the desensitization within Kashmir qualitatively different from the one produced outside, particularly in India. In Kashmir, there is always what Barthes calls a “punctum” associated with the photographs; I could immediately recognize the mixture of terror and rage Ishaaq must have felt in his last moments, as would thousands of other Kashmiris who have a template of what it means to be a human shield in their own lives. The picture of a protesting crowd, or being caught in a cross fire, or seeing blood, or snow, or blood and snow in the streets is only half outside the eyes for most Kashmiris. So even in the relentless bombardment of images, there is the recognition of meaning and reality, of life itself.
But in India, the proliferation of images on Kashmir carries with it the weight of guilt. See the blood in the streets, they seem to say, and know what it being done in your name. Even photographs focussing on the beauty sans the brutality in Kashmir contain, in their suggestion of alternatives and possibilities, an accusation. The most common response to this indictment in images has been denial at first, and when that fails, shifting the moral goalpost. During the past decade, Indian citizens have moved from pleading ignorance or denying the brutality inflicted in their names in Kashmir to arguing that there is no alternative, if a people rebel against a state, the state has a right to protect itself by any means possible.
Once this shift is made in the ethical paradigm, it is easier to latch onto silly and obnoxious arguments. The insurgency in Kashmir is Pak-sponsored (and the people have no agency, but there agency magically returns when they vote in elections India itself holds and calls it a plebiscite in its own favour); what about Kashmiri Pandits (you threw them out, so now we have the right to occupy and kill you); only sections, classes, sects, regions of J&K want this “so-called azadi” (but we will not put this theory to vote through a plebiscite); and so on and so forth. Perhaps the most dangerous of these arguments is this: “We know there have been cases of human rights violations by Indian soldiers in Kashmir, but you cannot blame the whole country for it, you are our integral part and we will see to it that you get justice.” This presentation of a rapist as a benevolent person willing to marry his victim is insufferable. The studium is sought to be made an enemy of the punctum.
Outside the sub-continent, the consumption of Kashmiri photography reinforces these notions and complicates things for us. In the last few years, the work of many Kashmiri photojournalists has been sheared of context and utilized in generic portrayals of “the Muslim”. Well-established newspapers and magazines in US and Europe have used Kashmir’s photographs in stories on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc. One of the more famous of these pictures is the “Islamic rage boy”, a gentle man from Srinagar, whose face has become an internet sensation as a symbol of everything that is wrong with Islam and Muslims.
Indian audiences voraciously consume this contextualization, as it helps to fight the guilt. When everything else fails, there is always Photoshop. As the manipulation of the image becomes more and more sophisticated, the sanctity of the photographs is rendered vulnerable to the same interplay of power politics as the reality the photographs seek to document. This is a big advantage for established power centres and resourceful hegemonies, like states. In the war between the truth of Kashmir and the propaganda of the Indian state, the latter has got a digital shot in the arm. While it has rendered Indian society and politics that much sicker, it has also widened the gap between Kashmir and azadi.
Let’s look at photographs together
Where do we go from here? Could there be a more loud and clear clarion call for a much deeper, even sentimental, engagement with photographs, and an ever-alert and intelligent contextualization? A photograph is worth a thousand words, because it takes every single one of those words to interpret it, to give it a context, otherwise, it is just a feather caught in a gale. Another great strength of the book is the clever interspersion of text with the photographs. [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]when Kashmir obtains azadi, our truth will be redeemed[/perfectpullquote]
This is done by making use of three kinds of text, anecdotes and short biographies of the photojournalists, as narrated to the editor, captions to the pictures and brief explanations, and a superbly done glossary of some of the important terms which keep cropping up. Together, they scaffold the narratives in the photographs and give them a context. But this has been done without a sense of finality. The brevity of the descriptions is an invitation for taking the conversation forward. It is like a photographer telling the story of the making of an image, and then asking you to judge it.
When I first came to study in India and made my first Indian friends, it took me a lot of time to open up and tell them about life in Kashmir. One day, I received the shock of my life when I narrated the human shield story to someone I considered a good friend and he told me on my face that I was a liar. Soon others joined in to support him, saying “Itna bhi nahi hota hoga yaar” (We are sure you are guilty of exaggeration). Over the years, I have been greeted with so much disbelief that it hardly even matters now. Most of the time I don’t even try to convince anyone, when Kashmir obtains azadi, our truth will be redeemed. What can convincing some Indians how bad their armies have been achieve in comparison?
Yet, every now and then you meet someone who is genuinely interested in knowing and changing. On such occasions, you wish there were a conversation starter, a building block, a compass of truth. Taem dohukh photova gatshey aasun.