The advantages of having the scope to teach the same set of students over successive months under the Human Rights Defenders Programme, are manifold. Covering the geographically expansive range of genocides that the module does, any shorter an engagement would leave little room for the thought generation and discussions essential to developing a critical, sensitive and structural understanding of these diverse events of mass scale violence.
ccccSo when it was time for me to substitute for Proiti and Samya for a couple of classes at Chowringhee High, I was uncertain what I would hold the class on. Should I continue on the Liberian civil wars (their last class’s topic), start something else entirely, how would I ensure a sense of continuity, how necessary was it to do so? And then the Pulwama attack took place.
ccccAmidst rallies by multiple political parties, the aggressively competitive mainstream media coverage(s) of questionable accuracy and ethics, and the almost overnight evolution of staunch, aggressive anti-Pakistan political opinions and pro-war stances among large numbers of people, I was certain about what I wanted to address in my classes.
ccccWhen I say Kashmir, what do you think of? I asked the students in the first of my two classes. The first ever unanimous response I’d received from them: Pulwama.
ccccOn probing further, the most common responses were that it is ‘very beautiful’ and that India, Pakistan and China are fighting over it. Finding it interesting that the students had not said ‘Pakistan and China are fighting over Kashmir, a part of India’, I asked why they thought Kashmir was being fought over and here we returned to ‘beauty’ again.
ccccSince the entry point the Human Rights Defenders module primarily uses is events of mass scale violence, I decided to approach the subject of Kashmir through what some international media have titled the ‘blindness epidemic’—the mass blinding of civilians in Kashmir (regardless of age) as a ‘control measure’ by the Indian army, through the usage of ‘non-fatal’ pellet guns. We read out sections of a newspaper article on accounts of young pellet victims and its impact on their everyday—what did the students feel about what they read? From here I proceeded to play them a slideshow of powerful artworks—responses by Kashmiri artists Masood Hussain and Mir Suhail to the rising numbers of pellet injuries—pelleted hands feeling a leaden Gandhi’s face, a blinded Sharmila Tagore in a photoshopped Kashmir ki Kali poster, a blinded Mona Lisa. What questions came to mind? What did they think the artists were trying to say? More importantly, what did they make of the images?
ccccHassain’s Gandhi image had a noticeable impact, some remarked that Gandhi looked ‘different’ than they are used to seeing. The photoshopped famous artworks and film posters (by Mir Suhail) one student remarked was very clever strategy because it ‘shocks’. To take the discussion beyond easy sympathy and to encourage an interest in a closer look at the ‘Kashmir problem’, my second (and last) class was on Seeing (Kashmir).
Seeing (Kashmir), 26/2/2019
I decided to begin the class playing the videos of three Bollywood songs about and/or based in Kashmir—Kitni khubsurat ye tasveer hai (that their teacher sang along to, much to the students’ amusement) from Bemisal (1982), Ye chand sa roshan chehra—which all the students were familiar with and sang along to, from Kashmir ki Kali (1964) and Chupke se sun from Mission Kashmir (2000)—giving them the gist of the plots for all three films. What did they think the songs were showing or saying? Amidst speculation about the characters, one observation to come up was that things were a lot more peaceful in the older films, Chupke se sun had flashes of violence. How do they know things were more peaceful in the older films? Because in one song a man and a woman in Kashmiri dress are singing and dancing and in the other, three people are on holiday and having tea while looking at the view. Whom are you seeing in the first two songs and where are they? People who are not from Kashmir, in scenic places there. ‘There’s the Kashmiri woman in Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra’—‘but she doesn’t really sing anything’, the students continued. If things were indeed more peaceful in the older films set in Kashmir, what did it mean? That society was more peaceful, a student quipped. Do films only show what is already extant in reality? This they were not very certain about.
ccccOne student shared with us her interaction with her father: she had asked him why India, Pakistan and China fight over Kashmir, having been unable to answer the question in the previous class. Her father replied it was because of Kashmir’s beauty, which the student had scoffed at, remarking, ‘These are countries, not children!’ We returned to this question. If India and Pakistan are fighting for Kashmir, what was the scenario pre-1947, when India and Pakistan were not two separate nations, or even nations at all? Briefly tracing the history of Kashmir backwards from 1947, we read out sections from the ten articles of the infamous Amritsar Treaty—the students were particularly astounded by the inclusion of a horse, twelve goats and cashmere shawls in Article 10, before we went on to discuss the rationality/limitations of clubbing tenures of different rulers of distinct dynasties into blanket notions of x centuries of ‘Muslim rule’ and ‘Hindu rule’.
ccccAs we wrapped up class, a few students declared they would watch and listen to Bollywood songs more carefully. The scope of my classes felt unsatisfactory, limited as they were by time—especially in view of the complexities of discussing something like Kashmir. I cannot know tangibly what the students took from these two classes, but the hope is that the discussions we had will somewhere help instil the capacity to pause, think and question, in times when being swept away by blind nationalist fervour is easier and increasingly, the norm.