Look beyond Pragaash

BY Mir Ubaid| IN Media Freedom | 08/02/2013
Media coverage of the fracas over the Kashmiri girl band has eclipsed other serious violations of freedom of expression in the Valley,
says MIR UBAID. Pix: Firstpost.com

The controversy over the Kashmiri all-girl band Pragaash has snowballed into full-blown absurdity. There is almost no escaping any talk of the issue—in any form of media.

Opinions have always been a dime a dozen, and in the era of hyper social media usage, any opinion can fast track itself to stardom—or notoriety. And that’s exactly what’s happened with the Pragaash issue. Islam exhorts Muslims to stay away from hypocrisy and to seek the path of self-improvement. So when people claiming to be “Muslims” comment on what a Muslim girl must or mustn’t do, it makes one wonder how far they’ve come along in their individual struggles with self improvement that they feel confident about preaching to another.

Furthermore, the issue contradicts some of the basic elements of Kashmiri heritage. Kashmir has a rich history and tradition of arts and culture, including much loved female artists such as LalDed and Raj Begum. So why is the thought of young Kashmiri girls expressing themselves through music seen as being so unthinkable and foreign? Is it because of the image of a girl holding a guitar, wearing jeans and a Hijab?

There is no dearth of creative expression in Kashmir, with at least 50 or more bands and several hundred artists in the Valley. Few of them get media attention, despite their talent and originality. As someone who also played in a band as a guitarist, the writer can affirm that it is long, hard road to reinventing and rediscovering oneself as one grows to understand music, and the layers of creative processes that go into developing it. It is indeed a pity that this kind of negative publicity came the way of the young girls, who are clearly still very young and their journey still in its infancy.

No doubt the hardliners who abused the girls were strongly located within the prism of religion. However, it is disturbing that the media sensationalized it so much and this actually hurt the girls more! The girls could ignore the abuses on social media and for some months they were doing exactly that. However, the media attention intensified and they couldn't escape it.

Selective Coverage by Indian media

It is amazing how the Indian media has been such an active player in fomenting the debate—and how selective it has been in terms of what elements of Kashmir to report on. The intention of the media was perhaps to raise awareness about this issue and in turn help the girls in their cause, but the amount of attention this particular story received was very surprising—leading to more intense reactions from people in Kashmir.  Incidents of curbs on free speech in Kashmir are rarely reported by Indian media, but the Pragaash issue was widely reported in every print, broadcast and online media in the country.

This was not the case for Kashmiri rapper RoushanIllahi (aka MC Kash), who saw his recording studio raided in 2010—not by religious outfits but by the police. His story garnered the attention of the international press, but not so much by the Indian media counterparts. In his case, the official government stance was that his politically-charged lyrics were a threat to the security of the nation!

In the Pragaash case, Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah quickly tweeted in favor of the girl band after a reported Fatwa against them by the region’s Grand Mufti. Abdullah even publicly stated he would offer any support and protection that the girls needed. Evidently, as long as you don’t use art to express yourself in a way that seemingly threatens the security of the nation, you will be in the news. SMS service on prepaid is still banned and local media channels do not have a right to broadcast news and current affairs in Kashmir. But those issues are not important to the media in this country.

‘Virtual’ Controversy

An important aspect of the Pragaash issue to note is that the debates were all born in the virtual world of social media. Does it continue to live there or has it migrated to the ‘real’ world too? Unfortunately, the Pragaash debate was entirely conceived, executed and propagated online. Given the fact that the Internet is still a luxury afforded by very few, it would be premature to correlate online activity and behavior of a few to the real life activity and behavior of the masses.

If you walk the streets of Kashmir today, you might witness a protest, or hear slogans of freedom or Azaadi, but you don’t hear slogans for or against Pragaash. Walk into the general market area, or any place where average Kashmiris would congregate, and you’ll quickly find that this debate is really not a priority for them, and is not consuming their lives, not filling them with hate nor with sympathy.

Despite numerous reports and discussions about the Pragaash debate in Indian media, none have focused on the issue and possibility of internet trolling. This is surprising, considering that educated users of the Internet are aware of the multitude of security issues and loopholes. There are probably just as many fake profiles on the Internet as there are opinions; there are even multiple versions of the girl band’s Facebook page at this point—all pointing to the fact that everything online can’t be taken at face value. Those supposedly preaching Islam to these girls online were also using abusive language, which Islam strongly forbids.

Fatwas, political posturing and the ground reality

As of right now, every political party in Kashmir is distancing itself from the Grand Mufti’s Fatwa against the girls from Pragaash. The Hurriyat Conference did the same, stating “Fatwas can only be issued under an Islamic Sharia rule.” The vast majority of Kashmiris do not take the ‘Grand Mufti’ seriously at all, something that even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah acknowledged in a Tweet that he later deleted.

As the story continues to make its rounds in the media, many Kashmiris say they are frustrated at what the media chooses to prioritize when it comes to Kashmir. Amongst the many lingering issues for the state is that of unemployment, which is progressively getting worse. Thousands of youth end up with depression as a result of this; something they say is more important and deserves attention.When will reportage on Kashmir focus on all these real issues and examine all these stories in greater detail?


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