People in the Valley are using graffiti to show their dissent, and as an arena where disagreements with the state play out.
A 23-year-old amateur graffiti artist from the Barzulla area of Srinagar, who did not want to identified, leaves his home early in the morning or even late in the evening, without informing his family. He is joined by three like-minded friends and they assemble at a chosen spot along the Srinagar airport road. They take out their sprays cans from their bags and quickly paint pro-freedom and anti-state graffiti on the walls, hoping their messages are seen by the tourists and visitors to the city.
“We feel the airport roads are the perfect places for us to paint graffiti and let people from the outside know what we’re witnessing here,” he says, adding that his group started painting on the city walls in 2008 after watching online videos showing graffiti painted on walls of Gaza in Palestine.
The group is careful and discreet about the way they work, picking their spots with caution to avoid being seen by police authorities. They make preparations beforehand and assemble at an appointed hour without contacting each other on the phone. When they’re together, they paint in pairs, taking turns at standing guard to watch over each other. They paint the walls with red and black spray paint. “Red signifies blood and martyrdom and black is the colour of protest,” the artist says, adding that they paint direct anti-state and pro-freedom messages with minimum words that are easily understood.
“The graffiti scene in Kashmir is more of a protest medium than an art form, quite similar to what the pioneers of modern graffiti did when they went around writing on the streets or walls with paint in the West,” says Suhail Naqshbandi, a prominent cartoonist from the Valley, who believes that graffiti as an art form is still in its infancy and yet to evolve fully in Kashmir.
“Though I see some bubble writing in a few places, but content wise, the graffiti here is very strong,” says Naqshbandi. “Some very straight, hard talk.”
Interestingly, he adds, one may see an anti-establishment statement written on the walls one day and the very next day it could be covered by another scribble by those who don’t like it, especially the state authorities. “But in that striking out, you get to see these word shapes, which makes up for some sort of weird but interesting art form,” explains Naqshbandi. “One can draw so many layers of connotations from such pieces, the action and reaction factor.”
He believes political graffiti has tremendous potential in Kashmir, provided street artists rise to the occasion. “It can be one of the best ways of putting your point across,” he says. “But then, given the conditions that we live in, there is very little scope for its development as you can always be troubled and punished by the government authorities for painting political graffiti on walls.”
In August, the state government reportedly invoked the ‘anti-defacement law’ to thwart the Hurriyat leadership’s call to start that month by painting the walls and roads with pro-freedom graffiti and slogans. “In this regard, our chief revenue officer has issued notices asking people to desist from such acts as we have the anti-defacement laws in place under which action would be taken against the violators,” the report quoted commissioner of Srinagar municipal corporation Bashir Ahmad Khan as saying.
Before the arrival of the Rajnath Singh led all-party delegation to Kashmir on September 4, the authorities had to remove “provocative” graffiti and slogans like “Go India, Go Back”, “Burhan Wani, Our Hero” and other anti-state graffiti messages painted on the walls lining the airport road in Srinagar and other main city roads. The graffiti was smudged and made unreadable by the police authorities.
Even before the present unrest, graffiti could be spotted on walls in many towns and districts across Kashmir. Also evident on the walls and shop shutters were visible attempts made by the authorities to erase anti-state graffiti and at times paint the walls over with pro-state graffiti messages. For example, about 30 km north of Srinagar, almost all the walls lining the main roads in Palhallan town of Baramulla district are painted with anti-establishment graffiti. “Go India Go Back”, painted in capital black letters on one wall. Another graffiti message, “Stop politicizing education here”, was written on the wall of a government high school that is converted into a polling booth at the time of elections.
The anti-establishment graffiti on the walls resurfaces every time it’s erased by the authorities. But the authorities make sure they have the final word, even on the walls. “We the Hamas” for example, written on one of the walls in Palhallan town, was erased with black ink and painted over with three letters in white paint: “We the Indians.”
More recently, government authorities came up with graffiti to counter the pro-freedom slogans painted on a wall surrounding a the building in south Kashmir’s Shopian district. “Taleem chahiye hathyar nahi (Want education, not weapons),” it read.
“Resistance graffiti marks the transference of the cry for freedom of the people of Kashmir onto the local landscape, on buildings, walls, shops, schools, homes and everywhere else you can find it,” says ‘Kashmiri Cabbage Walker’, who identifies himself as a Kashmiri performance artist without revealing his full identity. The pheran clad anonymous artist was spotted earlier this year in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk and other areas walking a leashed cabbage on a small roller-cart, in a unique art performance that left many onlookers puzzled.
“In such a heavily militarised zone, resistance graffiti seems to indicate that since people cannot protest (peacefully or otherwise) without getting savagely attacked by Indian forces,” the artist said in an email, “they in the least can leave a note of resistance to the state and its enforcers to register their protest 24/7.”
The anonymous performance artist says while there are means of leaving clear and unapologetic messages on the local architecture and the street, which is visible to all, these manifestations in the form of graffiti acquire a certain permanence, so as to say, “read the writing on the wall, it is loud and clear as graffiti tends to be often times.”
“These markers of truth and dissent are a constant reminder of the will and demand of the Kashmiri people,” he says, adding that the fact that the state feels the need to erase such forms of writing, while the local residents on whose walls they glow do not. “Is symbolic of how the state has since the beginning tried to make Kashmiri voices disappear many times along with Kashmiri bodies.” It is almost impossible not to think of the erasure of resistance graffiti by the state as a reminder of all else that the state has tried to erase since the beginning, he adds.
History of protest graffiti
“Kashmir has not had a strong tradition of graffiti writing in the past, though people did take recourse to it once in a while as an act of resistance,” says Idrees Kanth, a research fellow in history at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
In August 1953, when popular Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah was arrested, people came out in large numbers in Kashmir to protest. “They were beaten up and many were also killed,” says Kanth whose research interests are in the modern history of Kashmir and South Asia. “Nonetheless, people continued to protest and among other things scribbled “Go India Go” on the road surface itself. However, police forced them to wash off the graffiti.”
Kanth says as political acts, issuing posters and putting up banners were much more common in both the pre- and post-1947 period in Kashmir. For instance, he says, on the occasion of the Janamashtami festival in September 1945, a big contingent of Kashmiri Pandits took out processions in the upper part of the city demanding that the cultural symbols of the community be protected.
“Raising slogans of ‘Long Live Hindu culture, Hindi script, Hindu religion, AkhandHindustan and Har Har Mahadev,’ the processionists distributed pencil posters exhorting their co-religionists to nominate such persons as would safeguard their community interests and popularise Hindi language in the state,” he says. Similarly, on the occasion of Eid festival in 1945, following the prayers, the supporters of the Mirwaiz group and those of the National Conference wanted to form a procession but were not allowed to do so because the police anticipated that it would create excitement and result in stone pelting, Kanth continues. “Nonetheless, the members of the two parties hung placards across the city in an effort to mock at each other’s supporters.”
In this constant tussle between those who paint the anti-state graffiti on the walls and the state authorities who erase and remove all these graffiti messages they don’t want people to see, what remains stark is the state that exercises authority on all spaces and criminalises graffiti that reclaims these spaces for political dissent.
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based out of Srinagar, Kashmir.