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Photo Essay

Walls of defiance in downtown Srinagar

Published : Dec 29, 2022 10:15 IST

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Walls of defiance in downtown Srinagar

An artwork depicting Maqbool Bhat in Shalimar in January 2022. Bhat was hanged on February 11, 1984, in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

An artwork depicting Maqbool Bhat in Shalimar in January 2022. Bhat was hanged on February 11, 1984, in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza

Graffiti is a statement of both resistance and remembrance in Kashmir.

The word “resistance” has different connotations, which can extend from the political to the psychological. The visual representation of political resistance often takes the form of graffiti, which the Street Art Museum, Amsterdam, defines as “an anti-hegemonic art form able to cross bourgeois conventions and redeem itself as an instrument of social claim and critique”. Oppressed groups, whose voices go unheard in the corridors of power, express what they want through graffiti, which, being unashamedly in your face, is difficult to ignore.

Graffiti in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal locality in December 2021.
Graffiti in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal locality in December 2021. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza
Graffiti in Srinagar’s Kokar Bazar area.
Graffiti in Srinagar’s Kokar Bazar area. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza

Kashmir has a long history of resistance, which has found expression in art. In recent years, graffiti has evolved as one of the most impactful tools in the hands of artists protesting against government diktats. Shouting out from the walls of private houses and public buildings, it is a mark of both resistance and remembrance.

A blackened “We remember Neelofar” graffiti in Lalchowk, Srinagar, on the wall of a government building. It refers to the Shopian rape and murder case, also known as the Asiya-Neelofar case, in which two young women were abducted, raped and murdered allegedly by personnel of the Indian Army in 2009 in Jammu and Kashmir’s Shopian district.
A blackened “We remember Neelofar” graffiti in Lalchowk, Srinagar, on the wall of a government building. It refers to the Shopian rape and murder case, also known as the Asiya-Neelofar case, in which two young women were abducted, raped and murdered allegedly by personnel of the Indian Army in 2009 in Jammu and Kashmir’s Shopian district. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza
A graffiti in Srinagar’s Mehjoor Nagar area, stating Shaheedun ke khoon ka sauda na karna (“Don’t sell the blood of the martyrs”)
A graffiti in Srinagar’s Mehjoor Nagar area, stating Shaheedun ke khoon ka sauda na karna (“Don’t sell the blood of the martyrs”) | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza

Graffiti became a common sight from the 1990s onward and surged in 2016, when the Valley went into lockdown after the assassination of Burhan Wani, commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, separatist leader and chief of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, called upon his followers to spray-paint slogans on their walls. A wall of Geelani’s residence had “Go India, Go Back” written on it. What was apparently in the minds of hundreds of civilians was suddenly out in the open. In a State where any form of dissidence is repressed brutally, graffiti gives artists a precious space where they can remain anonymous and yet talk openly. One of the most common examples of graffiti on the streets of Kashmir is “Azaadi”, written in Urdu.

Graffiti on a college wall in downtown Srinagar in December 2022.
Graffiti on a college wall in downtown Srinagar in December 2022. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza
Graffiti glorifying Kashmiri rebel leader Zakir Musa.
Graffiti glorifying Kashmiri rebel leader Zakir Musa. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza

Ahmed (name changed) was 16 when Indian soldiers assassinated Burhan Wani. In the ensuing turmoil, Ahmed, who resides in Old Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal, started painting graffiti on city walls. “Kashmir was going through a really hard time. There were casualties. Some of my friends received pellet injuries. Everything was under siege, with paramilitary troops stationed everywhere,” Ahmed recalls. As a protest against the state, he spray-painted a street sign saying “Drive Slow” into “Pakistan Town”.

“Freedom” written on a shop shutter in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal in December 2022.
“Freedom” written on a shop shutter in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal in December 2022. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza
Graffiti in Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh area in January 2022.
Graffiti in Srinagar’s Shalimar Bagh area in January 2022. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza

Similarly, Faizan (name changed), an art student in his 20s, recalls drawing the Pakistani flag on a shop shutter in his neighbourhood. “I also painted the Palestinian flag on a tin fence in my alley,” Faizan said. He is inspired by Palestinian graffiti. “I first learnt about graffiti while watching the 2011-12 Gaza protests on television. Later, I made my own on walls in my area,” he said.

Defaced graffiti in downtown Srinagar.
Defaced graffiti in downtown Srinagar. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza
The flag of Azad Jammu and Kashmir on a wall in Lalchowk in May 2022.
The flag of Azad Jammu and Kashmir on a wall in Lalchowk in May 2022. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza
“Free Kashmir” graffiti in Srinagar’s Hawal area in October 2022.
“Free Kashmir” graffiti in Srinagar’s Hawal area in October 2022. | Photo Credit: Hassnain Riza

Artists often find their graffiti altered into pro-government statements or erased overnight with black paint. Then they create more, which are changed or blackened again, and the cycle goes on. The slogans are a reminder to the establishment that the people will not be gagged even if they are not given a chance to protest.

Hassnain Riza is a journalist based in Srinagar. His work has appeared in several Indian and International organisations such as Associated Press, Alamy, and Article 14. He tweets at @hasnain_riza.

Mehak Wani is an English literature graduate from Srinagar. She tweets at @mehakwani26.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 13, 2023.)

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