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J&K’s Public Outreach: Can Culture, Lit Fests Replacing Militancy, Bring Change?

Kashmir's political parties have cynically reacted to such events as “psychological conditioning” of J&K's youth

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Three years into the abrogation of article 370, Kashmir valley is still reeling under its chaotic aftermath, marked by renewed armed violence, sustained political clampdown, and the government’s aggressive push to clear out what it believes are the last surviving outposts of separatism.

For many months, observers have been complaining that these tough political actions are fuelling further political alienation in the restive region.
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Kashmir’s Dwindling Political Mood

As people feel less willing to articulate the political sentiments on the ground, it has become increasingly difficult to estimate the political mood in Kashmir even though people living in the peripheral parts of the erstwhile states like Ladakh and Jammu have frequently erupted to express displeasure with some of Modi government’s recent decisions.

While the government has so far, shown no inclinations of granting political concessions to Kashmiris, it has, however, chosen a different path for trying to address this perceived gulf between the people and the establishment as well as engineering a “positive” perception about the valley.
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Government’s Plan for ‘Positive’ Change

Throughout the month of October, Kashmir valley hosted a number of public outreach programs including cultural and literary festivals some of which were organised privately and many by the army, police and the civil administration. 

The aim of these programs, organisers and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) say, was to promote “feelings of positivity” and increase the youth engagement with a vision of fostering the “spirit of national integration.”

On 11 October, the Army organised Jashn-e-Bahara Festival in the Avantipura town in the South Kashmir district of Pulwama where senior members from the Indian army and civil administration felicitated meritorious students for their academic excellence.

On 13 October, the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) unveiled the teaser of a music show ‘The Beats of J&K’. The program that was launched by Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, aimed “to inspire budding artists to exhibit their distinguished skills, giving a much-needed push to local art forms in singing, dancing, and allied disciplines.”

In the same week, the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) of Indian Army and the Jammu Tourism came together to organise the concluding day of Banihal Youth Festival 2022. Although Banihal falls under the jurisdiction of the Jammu division, the region abuts the mountainous ring surrounding the Valley and has also seen spells of militant violence.

On 21 October, Kashmir’s divisional commissioner, PK Pole inaugurated a Kids Festival at Town Hall in the southern district of Shopian. The festival was organised by a Chennai-based start-up 'Jadooz', which had earlier established two mini cinema halls in Pulwama and Shopian districts back in September.

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Can the Government Mobilise J&K’s Youth?

In trying to complement these youth engagement drives, the J&K government on 25 October, announced, it has established around 4290 clubs across the Union Territory.

“The volunteers in these clubs are being trained in all aspects of government schemes and are part of emergency and crisis management plans and subsequently involved in planning and decision-making,” a government statement said. “The clubs serve as the focal point for positive engagement of the youth and endeavour to strive that they do not fall for radical propaganda and other social issues that trouble our youth.”

The same week, J&K’s Lt Governor inaugurated ‘Jashn-e-Kashmir – New Kashmir, New Hope’, a three-week-long cultural festival in Srinagar. The event was organised by All J&K Folk Artists Association and Shah Qalander Folk Theatre in association with several government departments.

The Lt Governor was specific to mention that the express purpose of such events was to “encourage artistes, artisans and craftsmen to promote the spirit of Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat”.
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Lit Fests To Integrate Valley’s Spirit

On 28 October, the Union Ministry of Culture co-sponsored ‘Literary Festival Samanbal’ in Magam area on the Baramulla while another essay writing competition was set up by the J&K Police to “honour and commemorate the sacrifices of police martyrs" at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Rajbagh on 30 October.

“The BJP government is trying to engage youth in good things so that they become great thinkers and imbibe patriotic feelings,” Ashok Kaul, BJP’s State General Secretary in J&K said. “The government has also directed for the identification of 15 youths at Panchayat levels for jobs. They will also be inspired to join sports so that such activities can get the shot in the arm in Kashmir. The idea is to connect the youth with these activities. These programs are also intended to bolster the cause of national integration and several organisations are working on it in Kashmir. They will take place in the future also.”

However, the bulk of media attention was hogged by the ambitious ‘Kumaon Lit Fest’. The two-day event was jointly organised by non-profit groups like Kyaari India and Indian Cinema Heritage Foundation.

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Given the hubbub around the festival, The Quint tried to join the venue at Kashmir International Convention Centre. However, the police guards refused entry on the grounds that only the ‘invitees’ were allowed.

However, some participants of the festival shared positive feedback about their experience. “It is a very good beginning,” said Aditya Raj Kaul, a Kashmiri journalist. “One cannot compare it with big lit fests since we haven’t had something big for a very long time. Authors not just from Kashmir but also outside had taken part. We have seen how previously literary festivals couldn’t happen in Kashmir on account of one thing or the other.”

Kaul said the best part about Kumaon Lit Fest was that it was a private initiative. “Government-led affairs are quickly accused of being done for the narratives but this wasn’t that. There was a lot of local participation. So many creative and talented youth could intermingle.”

Arhan Bagati, a co-organiser of the Lit Fest said that he wanted to “promote Kashmir in positive aspects.” 

“Media has highlighted Kashmir for other reasons so far,” said Bagati who heads 'Kyaari', a non-profit start-up involved in developmental research in J&K. “That’s why we partnered with Kumaon Lit Fest the country's only roving literary festival.”

Bagati who was born and brought up in Delhi but is of a Kashmiri Pandit heritage said that such events allow Kashmiri youth to get exposed to experienced authors. “We had 35 to 40 speakers from all parts of the country. There were around 150-200 participants.”

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However, political parties in Kashmir have reacted with cynicism to these events, calling them “psychological conditioning” of the youth in J&K.

Constructive Agenda or Propaganda?

“These events belie the ground reality in Kashmir,” said a member of the People’s Democratic Party, pleading anonymity because he feared “harassment” by the local administration. “They are trying to normalise the high-security environment that prevails in Kashmir. Institutions that are supposed to be apolitical are propping up to get involved in political activities and give fillip to certain perceptions.”

The Additional Director General of J&K Police Vijay Kumar did not respond to queries by The Quint seeking more information on the purpose behind the essay competition it had held recently.

Srinagar-based Public Relations Officer (PRO) Defence Col Emron Musavi said that the army routinely organised such events under the aegis of their Sadhbhavna (Goodwill) public outreach programs.

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.inArticle 14CaravanFirstpostThe Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  J&K   Bharatiya Janata Party   PM Modi 

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