In a place where the image itself has become an integral component of the conflict
An arresting photograph, earlier this week, on the front page of this newspaper, caught my attention. Some 30 young women, in college uniform, faces partly covered, are gathered beside standee panels that say ‘Jio Dhan Dhana Dhan’. At least 10 of the girls hurl stones—dhan dhana dhan—in the direction of photographer Nissar Ahmad where he is, most probably, standing alongside the J&K Police or the Indian paramilitary.
The photograph draws notice for several reasons. For one, it is perhaps the first time we are seeing an image of Kashmiri girls/ women pelting stones. We’ve more or less got used, over the past decade or so, to images of Kashmiri boys/ men throwing stones. We’ve even seen the local police and armed forces indulge in stone throwing.
It had, in fact, begun to seem like a periodic ritual necessitated by the political logjam that has reduced any solution to the Kashmir crisis to an exercise in futility. Every time the incidents recurred and the mandatory photographs returned to occupy prime space in mainstream media, we would hear wise columnists cluck their tongues and write sagely about the insane cycle of violence that led to a dead end.
Guns in the Valley
Of course, for all of them, it was the boys who were being irrationally violent. None of them thought it necessary to mention that the mere presence of 7,00,000 armed personnel in the Valley, the largest mobilisation at a single point anywhere in the world is, by itself, an act of brute violence. For them, it was merely an exercise in LoC management. None thought it necessary to ask why the guns were pointed internally. The late Prof. Dharampal, one of the intellectuals the Hindutva brigade loves to quote, has pointed out an interesting moment in Valmiki Ramayana when, for the first time, the otherwise subservient Sita questions Rama. It is just before they are to set out to the forest. Seeing that both Rama and Lakshmana, though dressed austerely enough for the forest, are nevertheless carrying their bows and arrows, a troubled Sita breaks her silence and asks, “Why do you carry arms into the forest? Just as taking a flame to a bunch of dried wood can cause a fire, so too carrying arms into the forest can cause violence and war.” The presence of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir has similar consequences. Governance or resolution has been substituted by military occupation leading, inevitably, to endless attrition.
Anyway, I’m on another point. The photograph of the stone-pelting girls is a sign. It is a sign that India has lost the plot in Kashmir. Just as the sight of the brutal police attack on over 1,000 satyagrahis showing passive resistance during the march on Dharasana Salt Works in 1930 provoked Webb Miller, the American reporter for United Press, to file his copy saying, ‘Today the British Empire lost India’, we too can say that Kashmir seems to have slipped away. The body language of the girls shows it. There is none of the (much ridiculed in sexist comments) effeminacy here. The six girls, right in front, chucking the stuff could have done any cricket or throwball team proud. There is nothing tentative here. It is fearless and determined. It signals a rejection of the Indian empire. That we had to wait till we saw such defiance from a bunch of girls is a shame. Of course, the much-touted spin will be trotted out—that these are misguided youth, that they are agents of Pakistan and in its pay, that they are fronts for militants—and so on. But it will take long for the ‘idea of India’ to live down this ignominy—an ancient and (sometimes) wise civilisation, representing elegant cultural and philosophical values, being shown the door by a few pesky girls who, just with their proud and confident symbolic gesture, bring that entire set of values and philosophies into question. I am called upon here to, radically, question my own citizenship.
In fact, I have been thinking about this since I saw the recently released book of photographs, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/ Nine Photographers. Brilliantly curated and edited by filmmaker Sanjay Kak, the volume brings together 200 photographs of the past 30 years from the Valley, taken by nine photographers—the oldest being 58 and the youngest 20. In Kak’s words, it is an exercise in recovering and reconstituting memory through re-examining visual evidence. However, looking at the staggering body of work as an ‘outsider’, a non-Kashmiri, one is struck by the critical role of visual culture in sites of conflict. Seen as a compendium, it powerfully contextualises the conflict as well as one’s own implication in it—even if by silent consent. The book is, indubitably, one of the major events of our times.
In the 1970s, Susan Sontag, a pioneering theorist of the photographed image, had proposed that the photograph might have lost its ‘power to enrage’ and that a sensitive narrative might do this more effectively. However, the photographs from Kashmir prove otherwise. These images of the sheer takeover of the life and liberty of a people and the brutal violence they are subjected to; the constant interruption, disruption and dehumanisation of their lives; the blatant violation of local, national and international laws by instruments of the state; the impunity with which terror and torture is administered (by the state, not by ‘terrorists’); the unconscionable uses that AFSPA and pellet guns are put to, etc., certainly indicate how to transform outrage into political action. The young girls in the photograph are a product of that schooling.
Witness clearly establishes how the image itself has become an integral component of the waging of conflict. The public sphere gets constituted by the visual technologies integral to the conflict. Ironically, the photographer is often positioned within the perspective of the battle and even becomes a soldier/ reporter who visually consecrates the destructive acts of the conflict. The visual effects of the conflict, then, become the ground of everyday life, almost destroying our abilities of discrimination and focus. It is a situation where photographing a leaf or a bird or a bride could be interpreted as an act of betrayal.
It is interesting now to reflect on how, from the time of the Vietnam and Palestine wars and now recently in Iraq, Syria and Kashmir, the visual realm has converted the victim of aggression into a non-being, a metal (therefore, non-human) shield, who can be assaulted at will, without scruple or shame. The Indian army’s use of pellet guns on unarmed youngsters or of tying a civilian to the bonnet of a vehicle is a product of such immoral thinking. When the larger civil society does not respond to such acts is when this immorality becomes a collective crime.
And that is when little girls pick up stones and take to the streets to make us re-examine our conscience—and our nationhood.
The writer went with his camera, for 25 years, to many conflict situations; today he is conflicted about the role of photography.