Hey Hey, My My, Rock & Roll is Here to Die

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

IT WASN’T supposed to end like this. That Pragaash was the first all-female rock band to emerge in Jammu & Kashmir should have been a reason to cheer. Instead, it degenerated into a controversy involving threats to the band members’ lives and a steady dose of moral castigation from every quarter.

The three 15-year-olds may be clad in jeans and tops, but their stated goal was to draw on their Kashmiri roots, use it to shape their music and take it to the world. Jamming for hours every day at a music institute in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar locality was their path to that goal. These are girls who did more than just listen to the likes of Daughtry, Avril Lavigne, Metallica and Cradle of Filth. But the noise that hamstrings our claims of living in a democracy has snatched that goal away from the girls, who, thanks to the online insults and a fatwa by Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, have had to call it quits.

Speaking to TEHELKA in October 2012, vocalist Aneeqa Khalid had said her pursuit of rock music was an attempt to break free of “the predictability of Kashmir life”, with its declining career options for girls. She spoke like a responsible adult when she said, “We understand it is a fairly ambitious goal and we have a long way to go, but this is what we seek to do in our lives.” Nodding in agreement, guitarist Numa Nazir added, “It’s about us, who we are, and what we want from our lives.”

Cut to now: Farah Deeba, the drummer of the band, holds back tears and says: “I quit. If my society thinks it’s immoral to make music, I will not do it.” Khalid and Nazeer have similarly decided to stop performing following a barrage of online criticism and threats. The two have now shifted to New Delhi to escape the attention back home.

The band shot to fame when it held its first public concert at a ‘battle of the bands’ at Srinagar’s Indoor Stadium on 24 December last year. The girls, who specialise in Sufi rock, sang the poetry of Bulleh Shah to a standing ovation, winning the third prize and a 6,000 award.

But the fact that the competition was sponsored by the CRPF didn’t go down well with a section of the public bound by the strict ideological binary of the Valley. What followed was a torrent of abuse on Facebook and other social networking sites, with fake accounts being used to hurl threats and obscenities at the girls. “Post this status in advance,” wrote someone on Facebook. “The three band girls raped Jammu [sic]. And thrown in river.” Another one wrote, “Personally, I consider them shameless and spoiled brats”. Some, of course, simply termed their music ‘un- Islamic’.

According to Deeba’s mother, Shameema, the profanities appalled the family. “I called my daughter and told her to quit. We didn’t want her to become a subject of abuse,” she says. She adds that they are willing to allow Deeba to carry on with music, but the public storm needs to abate first. “Our daughter prays five times a day now. She follows Islamic tenets and does not play music that is haraam.”

Shameema says she was always against her daughter’s singing. “But then I went along with Farah after seeing she was really passionate. I ensured that her brother accompanied her when she went to perform”.

Alongside the threatening posts, however, were also an equal number of encouraging ones. “Why the hell people are not minding their own business and let the girls live their own lives! It’s their choice… who are u to question them… idiots!” wrote one supporter.

Another comment was less forgiving of the rabblerousers: “The above f*** who are abusing these girls should be caught and then shot… these f*** elements should be cleaned up from the society!! Girls you rock!!”

EVERYTHING CHANGED, however, when the media got wind of the online abuse. Reports about the band’s decision to quit set off a political storm, with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah coming out in their support and directing the police to investigate and bring the offenders to book. The Valley’s Grand Mufti then issued a decree, terming the singing un-Islamic. This was followed by both Hurriyat factions and separatist women’s outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat calling on the girls not “to slide towards westernisation and to follow Islamic values and the traditions of the Valley”.

Moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq chimed in: “We belong to the land of Sufi saints, where there is no place for rock music concerts. It is an irony that our girls are now being diverted towards westernisation. There is no place for such acts in Islam.”

On the other hand, mainstream parties like the ruling National Conference and the opposition People’s Democratic Party jumped to the defence of the girls. “Shame on those who claim freedom of speech via social media and then use that freedom to threaten girls who have the right to choose to sing,” Abdullah tweeted.

The swirling controversy, however, has upset many artists in the Valley who see the issue as a media creation. “Here again is a case where fringe elements have been given a chance to spout unsolicited advice. With the result that a generally tolerant Kashmiri society is being projected as socially backward,” said Muhammad Amin, a theatre personality in Kashmir. “Who are these people on Facebook who issued threats to the girls? They have no faces and identities. A few bigoted people with a handful of fake accounts don’t represent a community.”

Amin makes a point that resonates with many. Kashmir has had a long tradition of great singing talents that were often women. One of the Valley’s most prominent historical figures, the poetqueen Habba Khatoon, was believed to have been a singer too. The advent of radio early in the last century saw many women singers become household names.

Referred to as Kashmir’s own Umm Kulthum, it was Raj Begum who broke many taboos when her voice floated through the microphone into the lives of Kashmiris. There are many others, like Zoona Begum, Kailash Mehra, and Shameema Dev, wife of union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Interestingly, Mehmeet Sayeed, 25, is the current singing sensation. Most sought-after on Radio Kashmir and Srinagar Doordarshan, her CDs are among the best-selling music albums on the market. She has never faced any threat or opposition from any quarter.

There are some who think the story was hyped as it fit a stereotype, of three young girls trying to carve a niche in a conservative society. “While I strongly condemn the threats to the girls, one also wishes the issue had not blown up. Such incidents inadvertently serve to promote and reinforce an image of the community that is far from real,” says Naseer Ahmad, author of Kashmir Pending. “It is sad but there is a stereotype of the Muslim community that needs an intermittent shot of such stories to survive and endure. In the process, we help bring the fringe voices into the centre of the discourse,” he added.

Some columnists and social media users blame the media for twisting the story into propaganda. “It was recklessness on the part of the girls to participate in a concert organised by a security agency responsible for killing Kashmiri children,” said Aftab Ahmad, a columnist with a local daily. “If the participation of these vulnerable girls generated a debate on Facebook, where threats and abuse were liberally exchanged on both sides, how come it became the staple Kashmiri-fanatics-are-aga – inst-women’s liberation debate for the Indian media?”