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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.