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Youth in Indian-controlled Kashmir fight for independence with art

Despite a rising art scene across India-controlled Kashmir, a much-touted arts festival was canceled because of popular backlash against possible India government involvement.

By Rebecca ByerlyContributor / October 4, 2011



New Delhi

After nearly 20 years of conflict, a new sound is emerging in Kashmir, and it’s not the sound of bullets: Young writers, artists, and musicians are emerging across the disputed territory, offering a glimmer of hope in the region.

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The Harud (Autumn) Literary Festival, lauded as the first of its kind in Kashmir, was supposed to be held in Srinagar, the capital, in late September. But despite the rising art scene there, the festival was canceled because of popular backlash.

With many Kashmiris still actively seeking justice for disappearances, rapes, and killings of family members they say were suffered at the hands of Indian security forces, the arts festival fell into contention because of its association with the Indian government. The cancellation highlights many Kashmiris' desire for intellectual independence in a disputed region claimed by both India and Pakistan.

“There may well be dozens of excellent literary festivals in India, but in case no one has noticed, there's a firefight going on in Kashmir,” says Sanjay Kak, who recently published a book containing a collection of articles about 2010's summer unrest in Kashmir.

Several writers and academics joined prominent Kashmiri writers who spoke out against the event in an open letter on the Internet. The festival might give a false impression of normalization in the region, they said, expressing wariness about organizers’ ties to the Indian government.

How could a literature festival be held in a state where people are not allowed to freely speak their minds? they asked.

But will it hurt artists?

For writers such as Feroz Rather, a shaggy-haired, reflective young man just beginning to cut his teeth in the literary world, the cancellation of the festival is not likely to slow him down.

Growing up in one of the most violent villages in Kashmir, Mr. Rather continues to grapple with how to write about the disturbing events he witnessed. One of his most recent short stories was about his neighbor who was forced by the Indian Army to lick antiestablishment graffiti off a brick wall.

“After the Army made him lick the wall, bruising his tongue, they beat him severely, and the next day he left for Pakistan to become a militant,” writes Rather.

Though he had few resources growing up in Kashmir during the conflict, he says he found his writing voice through the words of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

“The novel shattered me and made me cry like a little boy,” Rather says, who is now earning a master of fine arts in fiction at California State University, Fresno. “It vindicated my belief that I will cease to exist the moment I subscribe to the grand-national narratives of India or Pakistan.”

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