That Kashmir would have its first all-female rock group, Pragaash, should have been met with a hearty chorus. It was quite inconceivable that it could snowball into a controversy involving, if not threats to their lives, at least the threat of disbanding, while also a steady dose of moralistic castigation from every quarter.
The three 15-year-olds may be clad in jeans and tops – the last of the things to even matter – but their stated goal was to be another voice in the valley drawing on its Kashmiri roots, and taking their stories beyond. Jamming for hours at a music institute in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar locality was one of the many ways to get to that goal. These are girls who did more than just listen to the likes of Daughtry, Avril Lavigne, Metallica and Cradle of Filth. But of course, those choices that buckle our claims of living in a democracy have been snatched away from these girls, who now, thanks to the online insults and a fatwa by Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, have called it quits.
In her interview to Tehelka in October 2012, band-member Aneeqa had said her pursuit of rock music was an attempt to break free of “the predictability of Kashmirlife” with its fewer career options for Kashmiri girls. Last year, a younger-than-15 Aneeqa spoke like a responsible adult when she said they “knew it was a fairly ambitious goal and they had a long way to go but this is what they wanted to do in their lives.” Nodding her head in agreement by her side was the (drummer, singer,guitar) Numa, “It’s about us, about who we are and what we want from our lives.”
Cut to now, a somber-looking Farah Deeba, the drummer of the band, has this to say: “I quit. If my society thinks it’s immoral to make music, I will not do it.” Deeba’s bandmates, the vocalist Aneeqa Khalid and guitarist Numa Nazir, have similarly decided to stop performing following a barrage of online criticism and threats. The two have now shifted to New Delhi to escape the intense public attention back home.
The band shot to fame when the girls held their first public concert at Indoor Stadium in Srinagar, on 24 December. They rendered some of poet Bulle Shah’s verses in their version of Sufi rock, to a standing ovation from the audience. They won the third prize and a Rs 6,000 award in what was supposed to be a “battle of the bands”.
But the fact that the performance was sponsored by the CRPF didn’t go down well with a section of the public. What followed was a torrent of abuse on Facebook and other social networking sites, with users hiding behind fake accounts hurling threats and obscenities at the girls. One such audacious troll-post advocated this: “Post this status in advance. The three band girls rapedJammu. And thrown in river,” [sic] on the Facebook page of Kashmir News. Another shameless one wrote, “Personally, I consider them shameless and spoiled brats…” [sic]. Some, of course, termed their music ‘unIslamic’.
According to Deeba’s mother Shameema, the profanities appalled the family. “I called my daughter and told her to quit it. We didn’t want her to become a subject of abuse,” Shameema told TEHELKA. She said they are willing to allow Deeba to carry on with music, but the fresh public storm needs to abate first. “Our daughter prays five times a day now. She follows Islamic tenets and does not play music that is haraam (sinful).”
Among the threatening posts, however, was also an equal number of encouraging ones. “Why the hell people are not minding their own business and let the girls live their own lives! It’s their choice… who are u to question them… idiots!” wrote one supporter.
Another was less forgiving of the rabble-rousers: “The above f*** who are abusing these girls should be caught and then shot…… these f*** elements should be cleaned up from the society!! Girls you rock!! Carry on…India is with you!”
Everything changed, however, when the media got wind of the online incidents. Reports about the band’s decision to quit set off a mini political storm, with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah coming out in their support and directing the police to investigate and bring the offenders to book. Fishing for opportunity, the Valley’s hereditary Grand Mufti then issued a decree terming the singing un-Islamic. This was followed by both Hurriyat factions and the separatist women’s outfit Dukhtaran-i-Millat calling on the girls not “to slide towards westernisation and follow Islamic values and traditions of the Valley”.
Moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq chimed in: “We belong to thelandofSufisaints, where there is no place for rock music concerts. It is an irony that our girls are now being diverted towards westernisation. There is no place for such acts in Islam.”
On the other hand, mainstream parties like the ruling National Conference and the opposition People’s Democratic Party jumped to the defence of the girls. “Shame on those who claim freedom of speech via social media and then use that freedom to threaten girls who have the right to choose to sing,” Omar Abdullah tweeted.
The swirling controversy, however, has upset many well-known artists in the Valley who see the issue as a creation of the media. “Here again is a case where fringe elements have been given a chance to spout unsolicited advice. With the result that a generally tolerant Kashmiri society is being projected as socially backward,” says Muhammad Amin, a noted theatre personality inKashmir. “Who are these people on Facebook who issued threats to the girls? They have no faces and identities. A few bigoted people with a handful of fake accounts don’t represent a community.”
Amin makes a point that resonates with many.Kashmirhas had a long tradition of great singing talents that were often women. One of Valley’s most prominent historical figure, the poet-queen Habba Khatoon, was believed to have been a singer too. The advent of radio in the early last century saw many women become a household name in singing.
Referred to as Kashmir’s own Umm Kulthum, it was Raj Begum who broke the taboo when her voice floated through the microphone into the lives of the Kashmiris. There are many others like Zoona Begum, Kailash Mehra, and Shameema Dev, wife of Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Interestingly, Mehmeet Sayeed, 25, is the current singing sensation. Most sought-after on Radio Kashmir and Srinagar Doordarshan, her CDs are one of the bestselling music albums in the market. She has never faced any threat or opposition from any quarter.
There are some who think the story was hyped as it fit a stereotypical trope, of three young girls trying to carve a niche in a conservative society. “While I strongly condemn the threats to the girls, one also wishes the issue had not got blown up. Such incidents, despite their pettiness, inadvertently serve to promote and reinforce an image of the community that is far from real,” says Naseer Ahmad, author of <Kashmir Pending>. “It is sad but there is a universal stereotype of the Muslim community that needs an intermittent shot of such stories to survive and endure. In the process, we help bring the fringe voices into the centre of the discourse,” he added.
In the local newspapers, columnists blamed the national media for twisting the story into propaganda. “It was moral recklessness on part of the girls to participate in a concert organised by a security agency responsible for killing Kashmiri children,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, a Facebook user. “If the participation of these vulnerable girls generated a debate on Facebook, where threats and abuses were liberally exchanged on both sides, how come it became the staple Kashmiri-fanatics-are-against-women’s liberation debate on the Indian media?”