Kashmiri Bella Ciao — An Exclusive Interview with Zanaan Wanaan
April 29, 2020

During August 5 2019, Kashmir was put under complete lockdown with a telecommunications, internet, press and public transport blockade while a series of mass arrests were taking place during many other unprecedented range of state actions that Kashmir observers and experts have called “a siege.” In the aftermath of such impositions and enforced circumstances over an already struggling Kashmiri population, an anonymous creative "collective of Kashmiri women writing and singing their stories of resistance" emerged on social media with Kashmiri Bella Ciao, a song that has become familiar to many. Inverse Journal was able to reach out to the anonymous Zanaan Wanaan creative collective via their official social media account for an exclusive email interview to get a broader understanding of their creative work and ideas (presented here along with relevant links from the media).

Zanaan Wanaan Kashmiri Bella Ciao Video Courtesy of Stand With Kashmir

Inverse Journal: By now, a lot of people, and particularly Kashmiris, are familiar with your song “Kashmiri Bella Ciao.” Can you tell us more about how the song came to fruition and what motivated you to produce it in an anonymous manner? Also, please give the background details and context behind the song for readers and listeners who aren’t familiar with it.

Zanaan Wanaan: Everything changed for us in Kashmir after August 5 and nothing had changed for people around us in India. Many of us had left Kashmir for survival and sustenance post the abrogation. There was a lot of frustration, pain, anger, hopelessnesswhich probably a lot of Kashmiris can relate to. We were being asked questions as if our lives didn’t matter, people in India were going about their normal livesthe apathy of Indian friends and acquaintances was disappointing, if not shocking.

In our enforced migration, we could not speak with our family members, we did not know what was happening to them. On one night, among the many long nights, we sat down to pen down our feelings and memories, as there was no space for us to vent our anger and sadness. You see, whenever there is solidarity for an international movement you associate it with the revolutionary symbols, slogans, songsit pushed us to think for something like that for Kashmir.

We had been listening to Bella Ciao, an Italian protest song which was sung by women first in the 19th century and was then adapted by the Italian partisans against the Nazis during World War II. So many countries around the world have their versions of Bella Ciao, to mark their protests against fascist forces, we penned down our thoughts which eventually developed into a Kashmiri adaptation of the song.

This song was a comprehensive version of our protest against the occupation, probably an elaborate and nuanced way of saying hindustanas trath.There was a lot to speak about so we didn’t have to think a lot. It was not an attempt to make it a public song, it was just a few women coming together and sharing collective experiences. The process of writing lyrics for the Kashmiri adaptation happened overnight, we did not sit on it, it was an emotional process, we were thinking and saying things out loud, together. We wanted to remember everything that had happened and led to August 5. We wanted to write our pain in Kashmiri, as we couldn’t express it in  any other language, we wanted to use raw kashmiri words, we did not make any big changes, we were writing in hope that everything Kashmiris have been subjected to will end someday, even if we are not alive to see that day.

We had written the song when state surveillance and suppression was at its peak. For our safety and to be able to write more, we decided to produce it anonymously.

Inverse: Kashmir has a long history of folk songs sung by women, particularly during weddings and on other special occasions that include tragic events. How does this song fit into that folk tradition?

Zanaan: Indeed! We believe that rhymes, songs and poetry are deeply embedded in our culture and hence, comes naturally to us. Baeth, marsia, dhikr form a part of our oral tradition which we have grown up listening to. This oral tradition has also been a response against patriarchal structures and norms as is visible in Lal Ded’s vaakh, in Habba Khatoon’s poetry. Our song becomes a part of that continued resistance against the hyper-masculine Indian occupation. The song also connects with other resistance songs around the world like Thawra in Lebanon and Leve Palestina.

It is also a reclamation of our language which has been categorically erased from our discourse. For our generation, this tradition of folk songs was missing for a long time, especially in urban settings. It is only now that you see people singing and writing in Kashmiri. But this space of creative and musical exposition doesn’t see many women as opposed to many young boys. There is a lack of social acceptance with the visibility of women in public/virtual spheres. So, our attempt is to create that space for Kashmiri women.

Inverse: Do you plan on remaining anonymous as a collective? What is the reasoning or thought process behind not providing any particular or specific/individual information about who forms the Zanaan Wanaan collective? Is there a way for more women to join your collective?

Zanaan: As already mentioned, the reason for anonymity is state suppression. So for now we plan to continue to remain anonymous. We are planning to collaborate with different Kashmiri women to create more resistance art and indigenous feminist work.

Inverse: In your original post of “Kashmiri Bella Ciao” on social media, you stated that the “song was written on an odd night, away from home, in the aftermath of Aug 5 by a few young Kashmiri women.” Can you narrate your experiences of all the events that transpired before, during and after August 5 when Kashmir was put under complete lockdown, with an unprecedented press, media, broadcasting, telecommunications and internet blockade while more Indian soldiers were marched into the Valley as India changed its constitution as per its convenience in regards to Kashmir? Can you comment on your states of mind, the affective, psychological and emotional impact of seeing such things happen while away from home and out of communication with your loved ones and friends?

Zanaan: August 5 changed the course of how we thought and existed in our surroundings. It wasn’t that we were unaware of the brutality of what the Indian state was capable of doing, we had grown up witnessing it. It was everything that accompanied the announcement that Amit Shah made that day in their parliament. It was brazen, unashamed and out in the open for the world to see. The world was never unaware about Kashmir but now they had thrown the gauntlet and stripped us of our rights. The silence that ensued, the one that was enforced by the Indian state and the one that friends outside of Kashmir chose to adopt rang in our ears for a long time.

During this time Kashmir was witnessing an increased military presence in the already heavily militarized region. All of us were in Kashmir on August 5, sitting in our respective homes, anticipating the worst. Due to the incommunicado, we were banking upon whispers and rumours heard in our localities till finally, the much-dreaded Parliament session was aired on TV. We sat there in front of our TV screens, staring in dread and hopelessness, as our identity was being ripped apart in a hall in New Delhi. While none of us had any expectations from the state, or had any whims of justice from them, the inability to even organise or agitate in any form was taken away from us. Given that some of us had our education to complete and some of us had to fend for ourselves, we left Kashmir in the coming months.

Once we were back in India, it did not take us long to realise that everything had changed for us. The people we used to call friends, their friendships had not stood the test of time. We were alone and only had each other in those terrible times. We could not speak to anyone at home, some of our family members and acquaintances were subjected to state violence and we were completely helpless.

Finding jobs, sustaining ourselves, finding a place to live in an increasingly Islamophobic India was among the long list of problems we were facing. We often talk about life now as before August 5 and after August 5. Things have not settled ever since, we operate in a frenzy. It has changed the way we look at our allies. For some of us it has changed the course of work we were going to do. As for our mental health, I think hardly any of us can afford the hours of therapy we need to address the trauma caused to us by the Indian state.

Inverse: How do you balance anonymity with familiarity in a Kashmiri creative and intellectual community where everybody knows everybody?

Zanaan: Our attempt is not really to hide our identity from the creative/intellectual community in Kashmir. Those we trust, we reveal our identity to them.

Inverse: What are your views on gender equality within the framework of Kashmiri society and the larger framework of the patriarcho-fascist state with its militarized establishment” (as many dissenters have called it)? In particular, what do you have to say about the many well-funded womens’ rights initiatives that state organizations seasonally boast about in the press as harbingers of gender equality and promoters of women’s rights?

Zanaan:  There is no doubt that women in Kashmir bear the brunt of multiple oppressionspatriarchal and militaristic. We firmly believe that the militarisation and occupation limits the scope for gender equality for women in Kashmir, even at a social level. The hyper-masculine state is the biggest aggressor against women rights. So any attempts made by the state towards gender equality are futile. Giving freebies in the name of gender development is only a propaganda to further the Indian state’s (il)legitimacy in Kashmir. One cannot distinguish women rights from human rights. Rights to mobility, to autonomy, agency, free speech are all deeply intertwined with women’s rights.

Inverse: Where do you see Kashmiri women in the resistance movement at the present and considering history?

Zanaan: There is no doubt in our minds that women have to be at the forefront of our resistance movement and only then, our ‘muhim’ will attain its ‘manzil.’ Women have been actively involved in the resistance from the very onset of our movement. They have come out on the streets to demand their rights, asserted their voicesbe it during the loss of ‘Mo-e-Muqaddas' in 1963 or as recent as the movement in Aanchar. They enable the movement with their labour, their strength and their resilience.

Inverse: Are there any common misconceptions about Kashmiri women that you would like to discuss here?

Zanaan: There are so many. Firstly, Kashmiri women do not need saving by the Indian state or the Indian liberals or anyone who believes that we are not in a position to speak for ourselves or fight our own fight. The saviour complex is colonial in nature and was exactly how the British demonised the brown men of the subcontinent. It is the same colonial obsession of saving the women from the indigenous men. In film and media, Kashmiri women are represented as exotic, burkha-clad, fair creatures in a very Islamophobic light. Kashmiri women want Azadifrom the Indian occupation, from patriarchy and they will get their Azadi themselves.

Inverse: What are your views on the #MeToo movement and its entry into the public debate in Kashmiri society? Do you have any specific message of support for the victims? Would you like to send a message to the perpetrators and the accused?

Zanaan: The #MeToo movement raised very important and necessary conversations. As survivors, we firmly believe that there is a necessity for redressal mechanisms for women which at the moment are absent. One has to understand that the movement was amplified on the internet and was a discussion with an urban, English-speaking, internet-using group of people particularly over social media. Despite certain privileges that come along with these identities, there were no consequences for the harassers. These men enjoy legitimacy and liberty by the dint of their professional/intellectual footing in society. Till now, the aggressors who were called out did not suffer any consequences, there was no intervention. It is a tricky situation for Kashmiri women because some of these men form an important part of the resistance discourse, their politics with respect to Kashmir may even seem very important but do we even want a society where we cannot enable a safe space for women? These are very important internal debates that we as a Kashmiri society need to have and address.

Relevant LINKS

Kashmiri Bella Ciao — by Zanaan Wanaan
(with Lyrics in English and Kashmiri Transliteration)

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