Hand over your agency, Zooni — by Tabish Rafiq Mir
October 08, 2019

“Presenting Zooni … Because Kashmir is about its people, which needs to be seen and heard. “

On October 2, Indian fashion house Raw Mango/ Sanjay Garg (@raw_mango), released a long line of pictures of a hyper-exotic, deeply (in)grained bridal photoshoot under the name zooni on Instagram. Zooni, more famously known as Habba Khatoon who was the ‘last queen’ of kashmir whose husband, Yusuf Shah Chak was tricked into prison by a foreign (mughal) ruler in a manner almost perfectly repetitive for a Kashmir story. He died in exile.

Zooni, a series by Raw Mango

Outrage over the project.

The pictures in this project have been clicked by Avani Rai, the ‘project’ has been directed by her. Rai is an Indian photographer, who has been very vocal and very quick to share news on social media about the brutalities of the Indian State in Kashmir, with little mention, however, of the words self-determination and/or occupation. We shall come back to this later. She did, however, mention that the pictures were uploaded on Raw Mango, on this inauspicious moment without informing her, and against her timely will.

The Expendable Kashmiri that no one is answerable to malaise-

Within the first few hours, among all the back-patting and praise, the (raw mango) posts received an immense backlash from Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris, people who were hurt and offended that such a series was released while Kashmir was (and is) still reeling under a 60+ day shutdown, with thousands of people having been detained, brutalised and tortured, mentally, physically, and sexually. Sometime around 2 am, raw mango removed all its Zooni posts, secretively, albeit, and without a public apology, either by Raw Mango or by Avani Rai. What was written later on October 3, was perhaps even more subtly brazen and disrespectful. On its instagram handle, raw mango wrote that they had to remove the post due to public sentiment and “assumptions on intent”. The world is not ready for their bold art favours yet, sir. Until next morning, when it showed up on a page in The Hyderabad Times. This brazen lack of sensitivity and accountability cannot be seen as a mere editorial, systemic irresponsible handicap. It comes from what seems like a belief that Kashmiris (read minorities) are expendable, and that they can be accessorised at will, donned and worn out till the last pheran and the last kulcha, and when need be done, a flight out of the vale along with the narrative can be taken without being answerable to them. Almost similar to how the successive governments, both state and central, PDP including, have been treating Kashmir and its people. Exactly like how all our talks are had for us and not with us. Exactly like patriarchy. Reminds one of Westworld, an American science fiction TV series, depicting manufactured ecosystems for economically-able humans to do ‘whatever’ they want to, whenever they wish, with the very obedient androids hosting them.

Cruel juxtaposition of timing-

However, this is not the first time that this has happened. It just hurts a lot more right now with our parents, siblings, and friends being locked inside their homes, and prisons, weddings forced into hush-hushness, and hearts silenced into submission under fatigued glares and Israel-esque cross hairs. On September 19, an Italian photographer Camillo Pasquarelli, released a bunch of photographs for his kashmiri-pellet-victim exhibition in Rome, Italy, with captions explaining how “excited” he was and how “wonderful” the prints were. After just a little browsing, I found that he had been frequenting kashmir and unapologetically, supported by some kashmiri photographers, taking pictures of victims/survivors of the kashmir conflict and showing/exhibiting them all over the world in irrelevant wine-sipping crowds and exhibitions – the dystopian and the cold capitalist aesthetic eyes of the modern pouting art world. When called out for his ‘lack of sensitivity’ to the great pain that we carry inside of us, he asked me (and the other kashmiris on my facebook) to educate myself (themselves) a bit more about his work. On Kashmir. The place I have grown up in. We did; educate ourselves with a lot more of his work and to us, and it was more levels of cruel predatory exploitation. Co-incidentally, Avani Rai also shared his work on instagram.

Camillo, an Italian Photographer, using insensitive language in his posts.

Delving deeper into the idea of photography –

On August 21, Avani Rai did a Quint neon interview. Speaking of that, more precisely the part where she shows a picture of Kashmiri kids playing with toy guns; “These are kids after the day of eid, playing with guns actually” (she forgets to mention here that these are toy guns). Children all across the world ‘play with guns’ and that particular picture need not have been put in this context maybe? And maybe, just maybe, not follow it up with a tacit statement implying that every stone pelter is a potential militant? And maybe, just maybe, not implied that stone pelting and terrorism are synonymous? We all know what PSA does to dissenters. As a filmmaker, she must surely know that montage is a dangerous thing? If she is pointing out to the ‘problem’ of enacting a toy gun wielding child, we probably have movies to credit for that and the fact that we fetishise armed men, aggression, and patriarchy. I grew up as a child in downtown Kashmir and my gun-inspiration was always Sunny Deol. Patriarchy, though on steroids in kashmir, isn’t kashmir-centric though, is it? Guns, like stones, can be good, and bad, no? Violence, when defensive, can be good, no? Rebellions are not symptoms of bad times. We only ever have bad times. Rebellions are symptoms of freedom. Just like finger guns can be, no? Lets call a spade a spade. The convenient grey world of montage narratives and smokescreens on neon channels can be murderous, I think?

Avani’s documentary/interview is Avani speaking to herself, and sometimes, to her father with unsuspecting finger-gunning, juvenile, infantile, thoroughly exoticised Kashmiri kids as background music. Even if she didn’t intend on it, it really is all of that. In the same interview, what does Raghu Rai mean when he says “agar kashmir hamara hai – jo ki wo hai” – and just by the way, what does Avani Rai mean when she says ‘I am not their spokesperson’ and yet in her film, via her father’s rather imposing veteran photographer voice, puts across, perhaps the most political message for/against kashmir? Isn’t the struggle/suffering/protest of kashmir rooted in the denial of self determination (by India and Pakistan, even though Imran Khan recently called for self determination of Kashmiris at UNGA), the consequences of which are ’47, 50′, the twin wars, the 370, the coups, the debates, and the killings?

Self determination exists in a vacuum, without any need for acknowledgment by governments, discussion, dialogue, histories, and documentaries, and(or) contexts. It would only make sense if men and women who enjoy their share of privilege and self determination, would hold same views for the people of kashmir. The call for self determination, ideally, can also change over time. Just like consent. The thing about self-determination, which, by the way is the basis of all empowering isms and human rights, is that it works purely and entirely on consent. Large populations of people have to take/give it too and not just individuals in a bilateral relationship. Bilateral. That rings a more recent, less sonorous bell. Conventions. Legalities. Resolutions. The thing about law, which claims to take care of cumulative consent of a country, is that it is a large-scale socially acceptable form of vigilantism. So on and so forth…

“He’s not such a fan of it” – this photograph, says Avani. Raghu rai is not ‘such a fan’ of a photograph of a woman holding up a utensil ridden with bullet holes. We all know koi utensils mai nahi chupta hai. Conflict ka appropriation bhi nahi. The reason she is speaking today, is not ‘because very few people are’, as she claims. It’s because very few people are allowed to; and she is – allowed to. Because of her privilege, her state patronage with PDP and the tourism department, and because of her carefully chosen, meticulously curated, almost sympathising narrative. A lot like Iltija Mufti. We shall come back to this.

…Aur zimmedari bhi hamari honi chahiye? continues Raghu, in his speech, almost like the brown equivalent of the white-man complex here? Don’t mistake me for a disrespectful basher. I really am just asking questions here. This zimmedari statement spoken in isolation, though full of entitled vigilantism, is very heartwarming. However, when spoken in stride with the Kashmir narrative, and its relationship with India and Pakistan’s geographical claims, could probably be (and is) an effective way of emasculating the subjugated – a knife in the back, soft and slow. Soft and slow, passive aggressive entitlement. Gagging us while caressing our hair.

Avani says she creates space for conversation by exhibiting (only) her work around Kashmir. This wouldn’t be addressed in its entirety if I don’t recall the barbed wired, posterized, deeply HDRd, fisheye-d pictures of little Kashmiri boys and girls in a very minimalist post modern studio in Mumbai. Avani’s exhibition was a rather ‘successful’ event (not necessarily monetarily) if I may. It was thoroughly reported. Celebrities showed up, people spoke about kashmir, and a lot of people had the emotional depth to congratulate her on her work. Congratulate. con-gra-tu-late. But one cannot channel and censor reactions of people showing up at exhibitions. Surely Avani couldn’t help but watch. However, the response to those is your agency and Avani chose to share them as Instagram stories. It was quite exhibitionist, to be civil – the exchange of pleasantries, congratulations, and thank yous. Perhaps borderline predatory to the victims, too.

What exactly does Raghu Rai mean? “jo ki wo hai“…Is it the same naive universalism which holds all people, places, palaces and lands equal? if so, then in the same breath I guess he could even say Tanzania hamara hai with a pinch of jo ki wo hai. For context, all land is acquired, whether by force or diplomacy. ‘Acquired’ because no land inherently, or intrinsically belongs to anyone. India does not belong to indians the same way pakistan does not belong to pakistanis or other countries to the people who live there. Claim over a land is as (un)real as the ‘value’ of the currency/means with which it is acquired. The rule our species seem to have settled on over the years is that of squatting. You live in a place long enough and you call it yours and then the kings and the governments take it from you and they call it theirs and they tax you and beat your asses for it until they are annexed by more rulers and governments who tax them and beat their assess for it and so on and so forth. Among the paraphernalia of oppression, language is the most oppressive. If you don’t understand that, you understand nothing about modern warfare. If not the safe and delirious universalism, is there a historical context to the statement which seems to be hurled at us every time we speak? Speaking of language, for example, Avani knows quite a bit about kashmir and conflict because she has been coming to kashmir for ‘4 years’ but still chooses to call gunfights, encounters. Whether you are aware of it or not, the word encounter means and portrays in your head a police act to thwart/end a criminal act, not a militant one. Avani also still chooses to show a video about army oppression and uses the phrase ‘security’ forces in the same breath. It doesn’t make sense to me, because it is deeply conflicting in itself – the terminology and the essence.

What does Raghu Rai mean, really? Could it be that he is not aware of the ever-so-reiterated conditions under which the instrument of accession was signed? Rewind, actually. Does one not know how kashmir ‘acceded’ to india? A largely muslim populace signed over to an infantile ‘democracy’ by a dogra ‘ruler’. Signed over, not voted in. The dilution of article 370 over time could also have evaded the collective memory and conscience of the mainland indians. Is it possible that some people frequenting kashmir to understand it, perhaps, tend to miss/skip the most glaring details, the loudest cries, the deepest scars?

Relational dynamic –

Oppression is an egregious wrong. Resistance is ergeriously instinctive. Oppression is invasive and abusive. Resistance is defensive and innate. Oppression comes first. Resistance comes after. The oppressed and the persecuted are expected (passive aggressively) and encouraged by the occupier/oppressor think-tanks and propaganda churners to fight fair and nice, flowers against thorns, candles against tanks. Gaslighting doesn’t even cover it. The state tells you that the fatal weapon they hold has been placed in their hands by the gods, and that it is by the gods will that they bring it down lashing on you, breaking (only/not only) your bones. However, the non-fatal stone that you pick makes you a barbarian. a blood-drinking, bone-gnawing, pillaging, plundering, ruthless, ungrateful anti-national.

For us, it is a muscular and ideological war of propaganda. And that is why narratives and non-problematic, deeply empathetic, indigenous expression and representation matters to us, because in our case, it really is a matter of life and death.

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About the Contributor

Tabish Rafiq Mir writes sometimes, with pseudonyms Rumpelstiltskin or Tabish Rafiq Mitr. He has previously written vastly in multiple publications, among them Free Press Kashmir, Kashmir Life, Rising Kashmir, and several others. His blog entitled "Paradigm Shift" can be accessed at: https://paradigm90.wordpress.com