Words by:
Photography: Syed Shahriyar
Illustration: Anis Wani

On 5 August, 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of India deployed 10,000 extra military personnel to Kashmir, already one of the most volatile and militarised zones in the world. The government, led by India’s incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi, had, without warning, abrogated the state’s special status and split Kashmir into two union territories.

“The atmosphere was hostile,” recalls Zeeshan Nabi, bandleader of rock group Ramooz. “My bandmates had just arrived from New Delhi to record our album and we were in the studio, just waiting. It was a ticking time bomb. Then, silence.”

© Syed Shahriyar
Shopian District, south Kashmir, December 2020

To enforce a state-sanctioned curfew, reports surfaced alleging that a further 25,000 extra troops were ordered to arrive, adding to the 500,000 already present in the region. Srinagar, the capital, was parcelled out into small, manageable blocks, cordoned off on all sides. Suddenly, a cloud of darkness had landed over the region’s idyllic landscapes. From the crystal clear waters of the Dal Lake to the snow-capped mountain villages, locals were being held captive in their own home. Parallels were immediately drawn with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and given the BJP’s fondness of Israel, the comparisons still do not look out of place. This new, oppressive dawn felt like a siege. “I wouldn’t even say it was scary,” Nabi says. “It was traumatising. We didn’t know how to process it.”

Since Partition in 1947 split the region into Pakistan and India, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir has been the subject of territorial dispute, seperatist insurgency and resistance against Indian rule. Bordering China, Pakistan and India, the Himalayan domain is two-thirds controlled by India, with the other third under Pakistan administration, questionably-titled ‘Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir’. After more than seven decades of occupation, Kashmiri citizens are fighting for their autonomy – for a life free of persecution.

Artists in Kashmir are no strangers to oppression. It’s been their fuel for creativity, their art a way to deal with the recurrent trauma of seeing loved ones die year after year. In 2010, MC Kash, one of Kashmir’s most revered political rappers, released I Protest. The track is a stinging statement about human rights abuses in Kashmir, which includes the lyrics, “My paradise is burning/ With troops left loose with ammo/ Who murder and rape/ Then hide behind a political shadow.” It instantly went viral for its controversial lyrics, eventually leading to Kash’s arrest. His studio was raided, he was detained by police and, eventually in 2016, he retired from music before he’d even started.

© Anis Wani

Over the next decade, Kashmiri artists fizzled and popped, never seeming to keep momentum for longer than a few years. At least that was the case until the arrival of rapper Ahmer Javed, signed to emerging label Azadi Records in 2018. After building anticipation with a string of successful singles, Javed released his debut, Little Kid, Big Dreams, a collaborative project with India’s most in-demand producer, Sez on the Beat. Rapped purely in Kashmiri – a language spoken by roughly seven million, primarily within Kashmir and Jammu – the album is full of barbed lyrics exploring Javed’s identity as a Kashmiri while portraying a life growing up in a highly militarised state. The album was released in July 2019, a month before the Indian state curtailed Kashmiris’ freedoms. Weeks after the abrogation, Javed boarded a flight back from New Delhi, where he recorded his album, unsure whether he would ever be back.

“I stopped making music,” he sighs. “My parents were depressed; I could see it on their faces. Everyone that I met wasn’t doing well because everything completely collapsed in a month. The [government] didn’t have the decency to let the people [of Kashmir] know they were going through with this.”

“When survival becomes a primary focus, nothing else matters”
– Zeeshan Nabi

In the nearly two years since that disastrous day, artists across Kashmir have been left frustrated. They’ve lived through a continuous lockdown, reinforced by the Covid-19 pandemic which has spread through the state in circular waves, killing thousands – echoing the current surge of cases ravaging through India. This has been underpinned by limited to no connection, with only small pockets of 2G found in the region as entire swathes of rural Kashmir remained without internet or phone access.

“I had to smuggle a pen drive to New Delhi with all my demos on it,” admits Ali Saffudin, a folk singer-songwriter in the state. His personal history as a musician has been closely intertwined with Kashmir’s political struggles over the last decade, rising and falling just as conflicts would arise and subside. When the pandemic hit, Saffudin found solace in his craft, recording demos at home using only a laptop and microphone. He’s been busy in lockdown, creating a politically urgent album addressing Kashmir’s issues over the last few decades. With a guttural, soothing voice, Saffudin’s music is personal and bone-deep. On Wadiyon, Saffudin bitterly croons, “Mujhe naaz hai main uss jagah se hoon /Jo baliyon aur viron ka ghar hai/ Jahaan qaid hai har ek nazara aur azadi har ek nazar hai” which translates to, “Where you see freedom curtailed at every point, but still see freedom in each stare”.

© Syed Shahriyar

“I recorded all the songs I had from the past ten years of my life,” Saffudin says. “I charted it out and had a concept of an album, every single song having a story of its own. Hiding it on a USB along with photos and videos to send to New Delhi made it feel so meaningless.” Meanwhile, Javed channelled his visceral rage into a four-track mixtape, Inqalab, which carried his eyewitness accounts of occupied Kashmir: “Yahan qatil kehlaate mahan/ Tujh se chheene tere armaan/ Tujh se chheeni teri pehchaan/ Tu maange insaaf ye badle zubaan,” or, “Out here, murderers are celebrated/ They snatch away all your desires and aspirations/ They have snatched your identity too/ You ask for justice, but they don’t want you to”.

Artists like Javed and Saffudin were outliers who either had an established following or support from record labels that helped them record and broadcast their music. For Nabi, things were different. “I lost the sense of direction of what I should be doing in life,” he says. “When survival becomes a primary focus, nothing else matters. Losing friends and family in all of this, it’s very difficult to cope with it.”

“We can say things away from this cruelty which we have been facing for 70 years. We want to talk about our culture, our daily lives”
– Tufail, SOS

“I’ve [also] been in that zone where I felt like this is hopeless,” Javed admits. “Why am I making music? It doesn’t make a difference if I make music and I’m outspoken because I’ll be locked up the next day and won’t be able to get out.”

Despite the uncertainty over their future, Saffudin, Javed and Nabi have inspired a new generation of artists. Tufail and Arsalan met on Instagram right before the pandemic set in. They created the rap duo Straight Outta Srinagar (SOS) and have spent the last year hurriedly recording and releasing music. “The main motive of SOS,” Tufail explains, “is that we can say things away from this cruelty, which we have been facing for 70 years. We want to talk about our culture, our daily lives.”

© Anis Wani

SOS envision a world after Azadi, after liberation, where the shackles of their oppressors don’t dictate their day-to-day. “It’s about the future,” Tufail reiterates. “Our music is what people will listen to after we fight for freedom.” With scorching lyrics coupled with music videos showcasing the vast, picturesque panoramas of Kashmir, SOS’s passion has lit a fire under others. They’ve used this collective vigour as a fulcrum to come together, utilising the continuous two-year lockdown to their advantage. “We never had that collective space to be together,” Nabi says. “Now we can understand more about each other’s sounds. That is when doors start opening up, when different artists start collaborating.”

“A lot of it has to do with this process of being knocked down and gradually putting yourself back together,” Saffudin reflects. “One of the biggest setbacks of being in turmoil, which I want people to understand, is that the state has been successful in creating trust deficit amongst people, but we need to persevere.”

“It’s not just us putting songs out that will make people feel good, we’re educating people about our culture”
– Ahmer Javed

“We have this place in Kashmir,” Javed reveals, “it’s called zero bridge. There’s a tea stall there and this guy, Mushtaq, runs it. Every musician, every journalist, whenever they get time, they come and sit down there.” This sense of self-built kinship was once born out of a lack of acceptance in mainland India. Now, it’s a point of pride. “The aim is to do something for the community,” Javed says, “because if it’s not a Kashmiri telling you what a Kashmiri is going through, who else is it going to be? We live here. We see what happens to us in the streets, we go through that experience.”

And that experience has been a consistent reel of horror. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed; thousands of people have disappeared; tens of thousands have passed through the torture chambers which dot the valley; and, in the age of information, a government-enforced media blackout, ending as recently as this year, forecasts an alarming future. Still, the musicians creating art in these spaces hold out for hope.

“We never want people to call this Bollywood or Indian or Desi,” Javed says. “It’s Kashmiri. We have our own roots. We have a different language that you need to know about. We’re not just putting songs out that will make people feel good, we’re educating people about our culture. We’ve already made a mark on the South Asian scene and we’re proud of that. But now, our focus is to tell the world.”

Additional reporting by Uday Kapur.