Srinagar: Suhail Naqshbandi, a prominent cartoonist for the leading Kashmir daily Greater Kashmir, recently made a scathing cartoon for his newspaper in which chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is shown leading a group of children, bandaged and blinded by pellets, towards a ‘dark future’.
“When kids as young as four fall victim to pellet gunfire, it numbs your senses, especially if you happen to be the parent of a young kid,” says Naqshbandi who moved back to Kashmir earlier this year after several years of working in Delhi.
Pained by the sight of children and teenagers blinded by pellets during the recent unrest, he says that no explanation on the part of the government can justify the cruelty inflicted on children. “It is a war crime.”
“I can’t believe that a 4-year-old girl can be a threat and cause a law and order situation,” he says, unable to come to terms with the plight of many kids who have been rendered partially or completely blind by pellets. “They have a dark future ahead of them.”
Another popular cartoon he made shows the ex-chief minister, Omar Abdullah, and the present chief minister with a dead man lying in front of them, alternately accusing each other of killing people in 2010 and 2016 civil uprising.
“These unfortunate cycles of unrest in Kashmir keep on exposing the hypocrisy of the political class in Kashmir,” he says. “Mehbooba was accusing Omar of civilian killings in the 2010 unrest and this time Omar is accusing her of the latest killings, so both parties and politicians keep on reaping political mileage out of people’s misery.”
One of Naqshbandi’s cartoons shows an ambulance, with broken windows being carried on a stretcher to the hospital. “Even in war zones, ambulances are allowed to move freely,” he says. “But in Kashmir, every rule of humanity is broken and even ambulance drivers are beaten by the security forces, their window glasses broken.” And in some cases, he adds, even the injured people being ferried in the ambulances are not spared by the police and CRPF personnel.
In one cartoon, that went viral on social media, he shows the irony of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s often repeated ‘Insaniyat’ and ‘Jamhooriyat’ talk on Kashmir.
“The Vajpayee rhetoric of Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat sounds hollow. On the one hand you oppress and obliterate people, while on the other hand talk about humanity and democracy,” he says.
In another cartoon made on a similar theme, the cartoonist showed a caged bird repeatedly saying ‘freedom!’, while Mehbooba Mufti parrots ‘Vajpayee ji!’ in reply.
“Whenever Mehbooba Mufti talks about the process of dialogue, she keeps on parroting Vajpayee Ji’s approach on Kashmir,” he says. “But she and other politicians from the mainstream camp don’t hear what the caged people have been saying and asking, for more than a month now. And this attitude of putting square pegs in round holes won’t lead New Delhi and the state government anywhere.”
Naqshbandi also made a strong comment through one of his cartoons on Rajnath Singh’s two-day Srinagar visit last month, which failed in its desired objective to calm tempers in Kashmir.
“The home minister’s visit seemed like a rehash of political tokenism that New Delhi has always been indulging in when it comes to dealing with the Kashmir issue,” he says, adding that Singh’s statements were mere rhetoric, stale and on expected lines, persistently blaming Pakistan for Kashmir’s troubles. “So obviously the fire kept raging in the Valley even after he left.”
One of his cartoons mocks Rajnath Singh’s ‘restraint’ talk in Srinagar, in which he urged the paramilitary forces to refrain from using pellet guns. “Despite the home minister asking the paramilitary to refrain from using pellet guns, they continue to be used here with impunity,” he says. “In fact, the same day when Rajnath returned to Delhi, pellet guns were used again, against protesters here.”
Naqshbandi also came up with several cartoons depicting the unrestrained use of pellet guns on protesters. “Banned everywhere in the world for their use on humans, the pellet gun was actually used by hunters to prey on wild animals,” he says. “The pellets are actually called buck shots, but look at the cruel analogy: Kashmiris are treated as animals and Kashmir as a jungle by the government.”
Drawing, playing with pain
Another popular Kashmir-based cartoonist, Mir Suhail, also came up with powerful cartoons and graphic artwork reflecting the suffering of the people and the pain of youngsters and children blinded by pellets for the past month.
Many aspects of the ongoing siege in Kashmir are reflected in his cartoons. One of his more viral cartoons, made last month shows a frame in which a kid is bandaged, blinded in both eyes by pellets, and the other half of the frame shows Mehbooba Mufti with the tricolour wrapped around her eyes.
“The cartoon shows the apathy of the state government and the chief minister towards the suffering of people here,” explains Suhail who believes that as the head of the state, and even as a Kashmiri, Mehbooba Mufti should have at least spoken against the civilian killings and the blinding of children and teenagers by pellet guns. “But it’s unfortunate that she can’t see beyond the flag and her chair which she has held on to despite all these killings.”
Apart from cartoons, Suhail also came up with other digital works to evoke the pain and loss of vision among the pellet blinded youth. He put a bandage on one eye in the Mona Lisa painting, depicting the disfigured state of a pellet blinded person.
He provided new meaning to the photos of popular Indian freedom fighters and leaders by showing them bandaged in one or both eyes with blood stains, as if hit by pellets, to drive home a point and reflect on the present realities in Kashmir.
He altered Mahatma Ghandhi’s photo, showing one of his eyes bandaged to evoke empathy for the victims of pellet guns in Kashmir.
Suhail also played with the poster of a popular Bollywood film Kashmir Ki Kali in which the actress Sharmila Tagore is shown bandaged and blinded by pellets. The transformed image acquires a different meaning in Kashmir’s present context and went viral on social media.
The idea came to Suhail when he had a look at some recent Bollywood films on Kashmir like Jab Tak Hai Jan etc., films in which, he says, “the beauty of the valley is shown but the people of Kashmir are reduced to stereotypes and background, minor characters.”
When he saw the poster of an old Hindi film Kashmir ki Kali, he thought of ‘blinding’ the Kali, the actress symbolising Kashmir’s beauty in the film. Blinded, she thus embodies the reality of Kashmir today. “The altered film poster came out well in the end,” he says, “and the way Shami Kapoor looks at the pellet blinded actress, as if pained and bewildered by her condition, acquired a different meaning in the current Kashmir context.”
Suhail says that through his cartoons he tries to reflect and comment on what’s happening on the streets. “It is also a way of educating people outside through visuals about the everyday realities of people here who are just asking for the freedom to live a life of dignity,” he says, adding that a political issue like Kashmir requires addressing the political aspirations of people.
Although he’s been appreciated for his work by lots of people, even outside the state, he’s also received hatred for his Kashmir cartoons. He’s been called a ‘terrorist’ and asked to ‘go to Pakistan’. “You can’t label me as a Pakistani when I was born and brought up here in Kashmir and so were my parents and forefathers,” he says with a smile. “I’m not going anywhere from here. This is my home.”
In place of his bio on his popular Facebook page, where he posts all his daily cartoons and digital artwork, Suhail has kept a Charlie Chaplin quote which aptly sums up what he’s trying to achieve through his cartoons: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”