SILENT VALLEY: In 2009, the Jammu and Kashmir government banned pre-paid SMS services. An Australian student reacted by getting ordinary people to exchange paper missives
To: My Beloved; From: Mantasha ; Paper txt msg: I want to say “sorry” , but can’t as SMS doesn’t go through. Love you Miss your smsez 😉
Pre-paid short message service (SMS) has been banned in Jammu and Kashmir for over a year. The stoppage in service disrupted the lives of almost 4 lakh mobile phone users. While the lives of all these people were virtually isolated, international media barely took notice. The ban was considered just another logistical inconvenience for a people who have been long harrowed by military occupation.
Alana Hunt, a 26-year-old Australian, visited Delhi to undertake an artist residency at Sarai in 2008 and stayed on to pursue a Master’s from the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU. Hunt, who was in Kashmir in 2009 when the ban came into effect, had a first-hand view of its implications. “It was the sudden ban of something that was so everyday, so unassuming, and the amount of people it immediately affected that really struck me,” says Hunt in an email interview. “The banning of a phone service for an entire population just seemed absurd, though that absurdity is just one of the tragic facets of life in Kashmir today.”
The ban prompted Hunt to take on a rather unusual participatory art project, Paper Txt Msgs from Kashmir. In a light-hearted response to the situation, pre-paid subscribers were invited to write out a ‘paper-text-message’, and say anything they would like to say but were unable to communicate, to any person real or imagined. “Quite simply the paper text messages moved from hand to hand, from one individual to another,” says Hunt. “It was really all very simple and casual.” Close to 1,000 paper text messages addressed to real and imaginary persons were passed, in the winter of 2009, throughout Srinagar and the southern and northern regions of the Valley, from person to person, between friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and so forth. On the back of the paper was an address in New Delhi, to which the sender was asked to post the message.
Upon her return to Delhi, Hunt received the first paper text message in her letterbox. The text, addressed to the late Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali, referenced his poem ‘The Country without a Post Office’ and spoke of the current pre-paid phone ban. Approximately 150 of these pieces of paper, glimpses of stories of the everyday lives of Kashmiris, then made their way back to Delhi. “I do not know where those 850 paper text messages that were not returned lie today. Perhaps in someone’s wallet, lost on a road, perhaps in the drawer of someone’s bedroom, in a garbage bin, perhaps one is being used as a bookmark, or held as a love letter deep in the pocket of a pheran….,” says Hunt.
The project hopes to create an understanding, both creative and meaningful, of what is at stake when modes of communication are cut down. “One evening, there was shooting in Sopore — young people were throwing stones and the Army firing back,” says Hunt. “It happened right outside my friend’s home; her windows were smashed. It was a phone call from her father, on our way home that day, which stopped us from walking straight into that firing. Wherever one may be in the world, we can all imagine what the inability to communicate would mean in daily life. In Kashmir there is the added urgency of the conflict, safety and the need to know where loved ones are.”
The simple act of SMSing, taken for granted in modern life, being suddenly banned is almost strangulating for a people struggling to survive. It is symbolic of the routine way in which, in this region, military occupation is impinging on daily life. “It is the very normalcy of the lives of people that is at stake as communication is the lifeline of people in today’s society,” says Suvaid Yaseen, 24, a Kashmiri student of political science at the University of Delhi who helped distribute the paper text messages and contributed to the e-book. “This for them was an alternative way of expressing their feelings and also a unique way through which they lodged their protest against the unnecessary crackdown on communication in Kashmir by the state which feeds on a sense of insecurity and paranoia.”
A montage of these paper text messages, along with a series of essays by Kashmiri writers have been compiled in the form of an e-book released online last month. Authors contributing to the book include Suvaid Yaseen, Majid Maqbool, Zooni Tickoo and Iram Razzaq. The collaborative work also includes a video with a soundtrack produced by the Sydney-based duo Black Cracker, with Jon Watts and Rishin Singh. This incisive initiative that provides an unusual entry point into the experiences of Kashmir was exhibited at Sarai in New Delhi, Lbjuania, Berlin and in Nijemgan as part of Memefest, a festival of works that use media to effect social change. Initiated by Hunt, whose work has engaged creatively across a vast range of different social contexts from the valley of Kashmir to the suburbs of Sydney and the streets of New Delhi, the project has found resonance and been warmly appreciated both within Kashmir and outside.
“You can’t stop people from expressing themselves,” says veteran Kashmiri journalist Majid Maqbool who contributed an essay to the book. “When the state banned text messages and even phone services for long periods, people would communicate through social networking sites like Facebook, helping each other in distress. Last year during one of the week-long harsh curfews imposed, an old couple was in need of some emergency medicines. When I got to know about it I posted a help message on a social networking site, mentioning the details of the medicine that they needed. Within an hour, they got help — multiple packets of the required medicine were dropped by strangers at their door. They had to disconnect their landline the next day as people began calling, all wanting to help.”
To: Daniyaal; From: Irfan Rashid; Paper txt msg: May you grow up in free Kashmir
To view the e-book, visit http://www.alanahunt.net
This piece appeared in the Times of India Crest Edition on July 2,2011.