Zubin Mehta, Kashmir and everyday complicities

It is difficult to say what state of mind celebrated Indian music conductor Zubin Mehta will be in when he arrives in Melbourne next month to perform with the Australian World Orchestra. I don’t know for sure, but it is possible that he’ll fly to Melbourne from India, having performed in Kashmir just a few days before. Apart from a mild jetlag, one wonders whether the politics surrounding his concert in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on 7 September, would keep his mind occupied. Maybe he’ll sigh with relief that his Australian concerts will only be about music and not politics, as if the two can be kept apart so neatly. Maybe there’ll be no protests either, for which Mehta will also be relieved. With post-election fatigue having set in, and Australia revelling in successfully reviving conservatism, listening to Mehta’s rendition of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring would likely be a great way to spend a relaxed Melbourne spring evening.

As an Indian citizen living in Australia, I was both excited and bothered when Mehta’s concert was announced many months back. I love music. I don’t necessarily have an ear for western classical works, but had heard much about Mehta’s spectacular histrionics as a conductor. An opportunity to watch him live is rare in India. I was bothered because having been an active participant in the academic boycott campaigns against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, I would have to suspend my commitment to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to attend Mehta’s concert. He is ‘Music Director for Life’ with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), and also received the Israel Prize in 1991 – one of the few non-Israelis to be awarded. IPO performances conducted by Mehta have faced boycotts from BDS activists, notably in New York in 2012 and only last month in Buenos Aires. On both occasions the concerts took place despite the protests. It is argued that the IPO is used by the government of Israel to ‘whitewash’ its military occupation of Palestine. Mehta has previously been critical of Israel’s politics in Palestine, while at the same time opposing the BDS movement boycotting the IPO, despite IPO receiving state funds. Since 2009, he has been running a music program in Israel for Israeli-Arabs.

Given that Mehta’s own political stand on Israeli apartheid has been somewhat ambiguous, to arrive at a decision about attending his Melbourne concert, I had to find a slip that could keep my conscience clear of any complicity. In other words, I had to find a justification that would provide a cover for my decision to compromise my politics. The fact that the Melbourne event is not (at least visibly) supported by the Israeli state, and that the IPO is not performing here, were decent, but flaky justifications nonetheless. But before I could get the tickets, Mehta’s concert in Kashmir complicated matters.

Mehta’s Srinagar concert with the Bavarian State Orchestra – titled Ehsaas-e-Kashmir (‘The experience of Kashmir’) – was a state organised event held at the picturesque Shalimar Bagh, originally built in the seventeenth century by Mughal emperor Jehangir. At the behest of Herr Michael Steiner, the German Ambassador in India, who wanted to realise Mehta’s long-time wish of performing in Kashmir, the event was organised, as a German Embassy press release noted, ‘to reach the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement’. It was meant to be ‘a wonderful cultural tribute to Kashmir’. The sugary framing of this announcement, and the strategic agreement between India and Germany in choosing Kashmir rather than any other location, was, many say, to normalise India’s military occupation of Kashmir and to obfuscate the Indian army’s long-standing belligerence – 66 years and counting – against the people of Kashmir, especially Muslims. Mehta’s wish was meant to serve as a convenient cover.

In response to this announcement both separatists and civil society members in Kashmir raised objections to the concert. While separatists threatened to disrupt the event and called for a strike, a group of civil society representatives – lawyers, activists, poets and scholars – issued a letter of protest to Steiner at the German Embassy in Delhi, noting:

[L]egitimising an occupation via a musical concert is completely unacceptable… the occupation will be amply reflected in the demographics of the audience of the proposed concert – the list of ‘invitees only’ is bound to be restricted to the members of the apparatuses of the Occupying State… A Zubin Mehta performance in Jammu and Kashmir, though a privilege, cannot be used to further an occupying State’s narrative. Therefore, it is incumbent on the German Embassy to immediately recognize the reality within which this concert is taking place.

The letter received no response from the German Embassy. The group issued an open letter, this time addressed to the ‘people of Germany’, urging them to put pressure on their embassy in India to withdraw from the event. India’s strategy in using music to show that all was well in Kashmir was obvious, but one wonders what Germany’s stakes were. Hermann Denecke, a Berlin-based journalist, wrote that ‘the choice of Kashmir is a clear if tacit legitimisation by Germany through its highest representative here, of India’s sovereignty in the state’. Another reporter noted that ‘the German Ambassador could earn brownie points in Berlin for coming up with something greater than “soft” initiatives’. Veteran human rights activist Ravi Nair, in a brilliant analysis of Steiner’s history of controversial political engagements, wrote about how he, after assuming office in India, got Narendra Modi – a Hindu fundamentalist political leader and chief minister of Gujarat state – invited to the German Embassy and ended his isolation by the countries of the European Union. Modi is accused of having orchestrated a state-supported pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

Steiner’s political past as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2010 to 2012 and his crucial role in getting Germany to agree to the deployment of German troops in Afghanistan, as Nair goes on to explain, has to do with expanding Germany’s foreign policy presence in the Af-Pak region, and Kashmir seemed like a good place to take ahead that enterprise. And enterprise it really was – a sophisticated collaboration between state hegemony and neoliberal capital – with some of Germany and India’s largest corporations sponsoring the concert: from Reliance to Tata to Deutsche Bank to Lufthansa. An estimated US $760,000 was spent on putting the event together that included huge security escalations in Srinagar, which is already one of the world’s most militarised cities.

The propagandist claim that the concert was meant for the people of Kashmir was a blatantly hollow one. The concert had its own select list of 1500 invitees, primarily comprising VIPs, state guests and celebrities. The protests made the organisers yield to adding 500 extra seats at the last moment. There were of course no free seats, and the security forces were told to keep all common people at a distance of nine kilometers from the venue. Several Kashmiris, including students from the University of Kashmir, were not cleared by the security agencies to attend the concert. The general manager of the BSO, Nikolaus Bachler, has publicly said that they were ‘misled’ by the German Embassy about the nature of the event. They thought that he event was open to all and not a restricted and elitist ‘embassy concert’. Newspapers also reported that the members of the Kashmiri folk music group Soz-o-Saaz that accompanied the BSO were denied entry at a state dinner hosted by the chief minister.

The elitist, exclusivist and securitised nature of the event – which also attempted to normalise India’s occupation of Kashmir – led to a civil society coalition, formed in opposition of the concert, to organise their own event called Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir (‘The reality of Kashmir’). It was held on the same day as Mehta’s Ehsaas-e-Kashmir, and aimed to be a cultural and aesthetic tribute to the resilience and struggle of the people of Jammu & Kashmir. Khurram Parvez, a civil rights activist and one of the main organisers of Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir said in an interview:

The purpose of the rival concert is to celebrate our art and resistance. It is an attempt to continue the struggle to reclaim public space and narratives. While initially a reaction to the Zubin Mehta concert, it is now an opportunity for us to pay tribute to the martyrs of our brave struggle, and celebrate art in a way that is deeply respectful to them, and to the ongoing struggle for azadi (freedom). This is an event for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

The state government granted approval to the Haqeeqat organisers at the last moment. The event attracted huge support and participation from regular Kashmiris – despite police barricades all over the city – and featured music, rap, poetry, theater and art. Each performance powerfully expressed the tragedy of occupation and the resistance of the freedom movement. The struggle for azadi over several years has been strengthened by a very rich culture of aesthetic forms of resistance that draw on Kashmiri culture, traditions of Sufism and contemporary art forms like Forum Theater and rap music. Along with protesting the state occupation, it also highlighted the violence faced by the ordinary Kashmiri at the hands of the separatist militants, and brought to the fore the violations faced by the Kashmiri Pandits (Hindu community), several of who had to flee the state in the wake of armed insurgency. Haqeeqat allowed for an opportunity to bring all of these together in an act of deep solidarity with ordinary people.

On 7 September, Ehsaas began with diplomatic drivel by Steiner, and the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, both waxing eloquent about the reality of violence in the state and hoped that music will pave the path to peace. Zubin Mehta addressed his detractors (who were of course not present), and said that the next time he is back in Kashmir to perform it should happen at a huge stadium, open for all to attend. In the midst of a sophisticated state-military-corporate orchestration that the concert was, their words sounded woefully synthetic. None of the Kashmiris they were referring to were allowed into the concert. For a man of art, who is sensitive to why his IPO never plays a Wagner, the politics surrounding Ehsaas seemed to have escaped Mehta. Looks like he was overwhelmed by the poetics of the place and being able to realise his dream of performing in Kashmir, albeit at a concert that only perpetuated the Indian state’s violent hegemony in the valley and established his complicity in it.

A few hours before Mehta mellifluously started moving his baton in the air and the audience listened spellbound, Indian paramilitary forces gunned down four young men in the Shopian district, not very far from Srinagar. The forces say that they were militants, whereas the locals in the area vouch that they were civilians. Under the climate of state impunity in Kashmir, such incidents have become tragically regular. The orchestral echoes of the Mehta concert silenced this news for most Indians who watched the performance live on state television and couldn’t stop raving about it on social media, conveniently oblivious about what their consumption of the event meant in ideological terms. The pathetic liberal response was: music transcends politics, and Kashmir is beautiful – symptomatic of the collective denial of India’s violent state occupation by a majority of middle-class and elite Indians.

Last year I visited Kashmir as a tourist. Travel companies that organise these tours for touristy ‘Indians’ take you only to sanitised places where military presence and the signs and symbols of the azadi struggles don’t come as obstructions between your expensive SLRs and the beautiful Chinars. But it’s difficult not to notice the state’s guns and the struggle’s graffitied slogans. Most slogans that I saw were painted over. The one that remained intact was close to an army barrack on the highway connecting Gulmarg to Pahalgam. Painted in black on a large wall it said: ‘Go India! Go Back!’ I had heard this slogan earlier, and had seen it painted across streets in Srinagar in press photographs. Only this time a perverse addition had been made: white paint had been used to add a few letters, so it read: ‘Go(od) India! Go(od) Back!’

In the light of these events it was easy for me to decide I will not attend Mehta’s Melbourne concert. I’ve long been a supporter of Kashmiri self-determination. To maintain fidelity to both the BDS and azadi movements, it seemed most apt to boycott it. (Not to mention, for an international PhD student, the ticket prices were also pretty high!) But something continued to bother me. This decision led me to asking myself some uncomfortable questions about my own politics, and the politics of the BDS movement. Despite believing that India maintains brutal occupation over Kashmir, why have I never thought of boycotting India? Furthermore, how do you boycott your country of citizenship? Does it mean you will not participate in anything endorsed by the Indian state? How do you do that?

I might feel that I have claimed moral high ground by boycotting the Mehta concert in Melbourne, but how would I resist complicity in the multifarious and invisible state-building exercises that I am participating in every day, both knowingly and unknowingly? The very fact that I carry an Indian passport and identify as an Indian endorses my affiliation to the brutal Indian state. Why isn’t there a global BDS movement against India’s occupation of Kashmir? What makes India different from Israel in its use of military force against innocent people in the occupied territories? Why do we not extend the BDS movement to boycott coloniser countries for the devastating consequences that post-colonial states and indigenous peoples in settler countries are still facing? The BDS movement is pretty active in Australia, a country with a very violent settler colonial past. How should the movement here negotiate its demands for a free Palestine when they are being articulated from a location with a scarred history that is yet to heal? Moreover, can we participate in the BDS movement, shouting slogans on the street even as we buy cheap clothes made for Australian brands, and thus partly responsible for the death of over 1000 Bangladeshi laborers earlier this year when Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed into a rubble?

One way to get out of this morass of questions is to constantly question our own everyday complicities in big and small, public and private occupations, even as we continue to protest and boycott. For politically astute minds, this seems like the easiest thing to do. Pity we never actually get around to doing it. Either we dismiss these questions as naive concerns with unattainable pure politics, or train our political lives in ways that enable us to identify but not disturb our complex entanglements with structures of power. We need a cover, and our belief in progressive politics ends up being that escapist shield.

An hour before Zubin Mehta’s performance at the Melbourne Arts Centre on 2 October, at 7pm an ‘in conversation’ event has been organised with the ‘maestro’, where where we will get to hear ‘his story’. Any left progressives attending this event have an ethical responsibility to ask Mehta – at least to redeem themselves for failing to stop Abbott from becoming prime minister, and for Gillard’s abstinence from voting for Palestine’s recognition as a non-member state of the UN – about his complicity in endorsing military occupations in both Palestine and Kashmir. His music cannot be the artistic cover for his politics – and silence cannot be an option if you are there as conscientious citizens. I would have attended the event and asked this question if not for my decision to boycott.

It is another matter entirely that this event is ticketed and has no concession fares! So it’s not just music – even Maestro Mehta’s conversations seem to be reserved for the elite.


Artwork by Manzoor Ahmad Bhat; image by Harris Qadri.


Oishik Sircar

Oishik Sircar is a legal academic and documentary filmmaker from India. He is presently a Teaching fellow and Doctoral Scholar at the Institute for International Law and the Humanities, Melbourne Law School. He writes a column called Rights & Resistance for InfoChange.

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