Reclaiming street spaces – A photo essay

Graffiti as a political expression by a besieged people have frequently been used by Kashmiris since early 2008 and before too. In 2016, following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, the use of graffiti on the walls and shop-shutters became more widespread. Some streets in Kashmir valley are now known by the graffiti on their walls. The graffiti in this photo essay by Insha bint Bashir are all taken in Islamabad (Anantnag) district of the Kashmir valley and is an attempt to place these graffiti in the contestation of public spaces in Kashmir. 

Just when you walk down the streets or you happen to roam around any city or town in Kashmir, you could see the Graffiti on the closed shop shutters and walls. They no doubt catch your eye for they are political and iconic statements. Screaming out from the walls, these graffiti declarations create an impact on the minds of people. They often make the passerby think, question, hate or act.

Graffiti in Kashmir is an important extension of the resistance culture and part of the many approaches through which Kashmiris have tried to express their political aspirations.  Graffiti has always existed in some form ever since the advent of occupation in the region; it is also any attempt to immortalize resistance and keep the flame alive in public spaces. Employment of Graffiti or murals is a manifestation of countering hegemonic narratives of the state.  When means to express and spaces for engagements are totally absent, graffiti therein, forms an important discourse, and provides an alternative political understanding and simultaneously reclaims spaces.

The expression of street art has been used by political activists, guerrilla fighters, anti capitalist groups all across the world. In Palestine, Latin America, and many marginalized states, and occupied zones, one finds ubiquitous use of political graffiti’s and mostly in urban spaces. Graffitis found in Kashmir is an attempt to disseminate the political ideologues and question the occupation of the region.

The sanitized murals of the state, which normalize violence and implicitly manufacture consent, are tackled by the slogans of freedom and rejection. In Islamabad, Ikhwanis used to paint the walls with threats to imbibe an unsettling aura around the city. Post 2008, people countered these threats by writing explicit statements without any ambiguity, and this culture fostered courage and strengthened the resolve of people to fight for another day. Also tourists coming from outside were acquainted with the harsh realities and were forced, if not to accept, but at least question their understanding of Kashmir in general. The sites used for graffiti differ from place to place. Sometimes, people targeted abodes of collaborators or people working for the state to draw a clear distinguishable political margin within the society. Graffiti can be seen in the dark alleys, where no mortal would visit unless he or she is lost, and they can also be seen in busy public spaces demanding to be seen, almost as if questioning the very existence of the external gaze.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

This graffiti is strategically drawn on the wall near K.P Road. It is the road that passes through Islamabad town (Anantnag) and connects with Pahalgam.  Every year many tourists, including the Yatris use this road to reach to Pahalgam and to visit Amarnath Shrine which starts in summer every year. This graffiti eulogizes the martyrdom of Commander Burhan Wani, whose killing in 2016 led to a massive uprising against the state. 

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

Graffiti in Kashmir constantly use slogans of Azaadi and freedom; the right to self determination which is constantly denied to people of J&K. The very use of  Azaadi signifies a political discourse that Kashmiris seek to disseminate and convey to the world. These words can be found on closed shop shutters, walls, and  even on roads in different parts of valley, and and the political graffiti is used as an expression of it.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

Made popular during 2008 uprising, “Go India, Go back” conveys a strong political message and a challenge to Indian occupation. Graffiti in here is an expression of questioning the presence of India in Kashmir. The graffiti expresses the political narrative of Kashmiri people.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

This graffiti points to the legitimate right of plebiscite which was promised in 1947. Kashmir’s conflict dates to partition of India and the birth of Pakistan. The choice of choosing to be independent or being dominion of Pakistan, this graffiti clearly states and underscores Kashmiris choice and right to decide their future which has been historically denied to them. 

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

This picture manifests two realities, one of the Indian armed personal standing right next to the political discourse graffiti of freedom in Kashmir. This illustrates a struggle between a powerful state that is trying to neutralize the aspirations of the people using a brute force and as well using counter-ideology. It also illustrates the struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed that is fought on various fronts, and including in public spaces.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

Many of the lanes and by lanes, walls and shutters in old town and colonies of Islamabad town are brushed with these graffiti. It delineates the struggle and the state of war people are caught up in.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

The picture symbolizes protest culture within valley, and constant questioning to Indian forces' presence in Kashmir.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

There is always an attempt on part of the state to erase or paint these graffiti. In this graffiti an attempt is made to appropriate the slogan with words of love with black colour.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

Azaadi is synonymous with the word freedom. A constant use of the term Azaadi is an important lexicon in resistance culture of Kashmir.

Graffiti
Photo by Insha Bint Bashir

There are many graffiti which have been either whitewashed or completely appropriated. Irrespective of defacement, a keen observer will be able to find the writing on the wall. ♦   



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