“I strongly believe that there is a lack of information and most importantly lack of correct information.” Omar Hafiz spoke to Pratiti Ganatra about the idea behind his peace project Athwaas - it’s execution and the unexpected popularity and appreciation it received.
In the span of two months, Omar Hafiz, a well-known development practitioner from Kashmir travelled to 17 states of India and met young artists in an attempt to sensitise them about the Kashmir issue. Hafiz has in the past worked and executed projects for international organisations like the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Conciliation Resources, Action Aid, Give India, Lombard, and the UNHCR. But this time, he chose a different approach. In the process of meeting these young artists across the country, he made a documentary-style video – titled ‘Screaming Canvases’, which gained immense popularity online.
What made you choose the documentary approach to broach this sensitive topic?
I would like to quote artists themselves here: We are artists; we come from different cultures, different states, different religions but we have one thing in common – we are humans. We don’t know any other language of expressing our solidarity with the people of Kashmir. So, here we paint our thoughts together in solidarity with the people of Kashmir with a hope that it will reach out to them in the same context as we paint it.
No doubt that this is a sensitive issue, but when sensitive issues are taken sensitively then a lot of things become easier to understand. My whole point is to transform the Kashmir conflict in a way that I can understand it and contribute to it as well. Creativity has bridged never-ending differences. Creative art is always inspiring, motivating and productive. The social media has given freedom of expression to the people of Kashmir to that level that it has helped in the sensitisation of the issue to the rest of the world. So, the tool to reach out to a global audience was the social media.
The documentary bit was because this involved hearing first hand from the artists themselves. It involved their real thoughts and messages along with showcasing their work for the people of Kashmir. It also helped to a great deal in building faith among the Kashmiri people and the immediate circles of the artists. The whole initiative was about to sensitise the Indian youth about the situation, and what it additionally did was develop and build some trust between the two parties.
The politically inactive faction of the Indian society, they actually don’t have any knowledge of the Kashmir issue – for them Kashmir is just a beautiful holiday destination; they do not understand the sufferings of the people there.
Do you believe that there is a lack of information about Kashmir or lack of correct information?Yes, I strongly believe that there is a lack of information and most importantly lack of correct information. Look, there are two important factions of the India society – the politically active faction and the politically inactive faction. The politically active faction has two elements, one is who are active but not inclined to any political party and the other is who are active and also inclined to a political party… so the faction which is active and not inclined to any political party, they are actually aware of the Kashmir issue, but they don’t know about the realities of the issue. The ones who have a leaning towards a political party, have some knowledge about the Kashmir issue, but that is incorrect, because it is the knowledge being passed on to them by the political party – they just have that version of the story. The politically inactive faction of the Indian society, they actually don’t have any knowledge of the Kashmir issue – for them Kashmir is just a beautiful holiday destination; they do not understand the sufferings of the people there. So this whole thing leads to utter chaos – you feel bogged down by the whole thing when you don’t even find a single Indian knowing the real suffering of Kashmir.
How happy/satisfied would you say you are as a Kashmiri about the coverage that mainstream media gives to this whole issue?As a Kashmiri, I am highly unsatisfied and unhappy about the coverage that mainstream media has been giving this Kashmir issue. It is crystal clear that this issue is a political issue and thus it requires a political solution but then India has never tried to change it’s stand on the issue, they just start debating about it when the resistance movement starts heating up – which at the same time gives logic to resistance moment in a way that Kashmir issue is always unheard by Indian state and resistance moment on ground brings them to a point where they have to listen to what the Kashmiris demand and aspire for. Till then there is no debate, there is no dialogue process that could have actually taken a different shape.
What the mainstream media does is keep tagging this resistance movement as something, which is being sponsored by PoK or Pakistan, which actually exaggerates the whole thing – it never leads to any solution in the end. So, I strongly believe that it is time for mainstream media to change its stand towards Kashmir and just give it the shape of an actually political issue, which needs an actual political solution.
The point of giving it a documentary style feel and shape was also because I was very aware of the power of social media – screening it at a particular place would have limited my audience, but with social media which is borderless, my reach would be limitless.
When you first started travelling, had you decided this was how it would turn out?So, when I first started travelling, I had just this brief idea that wherever I travelled, I just wanted to meet the youth and get a brief idea from them about what they knew about Kashmir. The reason for focussing on the youth was that in India, even the few who do know about the Kashmir issue are in the higher age bracket – the youth are misinformed, or don’t have any information about Kashmir at all. So I thought of beginning this initiative towards the youth.
Athwaas, is a Kashmiri word which means handshake. So I named this initiative as Athwaas, or Handshake For Peace, and starting meeting the youth of different parts. I then realised that not every section of the youth is sensitised to the Kashmir issue. Then after some introspection, I decided that I needed to sub-categorise the youth to focus on the more sensitive sections and that’s when I decided to shift my focus to artists. So first when I met the artists, I just wanted to get a feel of what they knew about the Kashmir issue. Also as artists I knew that their art matters more than what they actually say, so I had initially planned that I would take their canvasses and then maybe put them up as an exhibition or something. But then I thought that if I do this – first it would become a one-day affair, and secondly some might like it, others would politicise it. So finally the idea became about creating something with a message, creating awareness among the youth of India without politicising it. And then I decided to record the whole thing – their canvasses as well as what they wanted to say. At this initial stage I had jus thought I would save/archive this footage. But then I decided to merge the whole process, create a 5-8 minute video where the coverage of the artists could be given a documentary sort of shape.
The point of giving it a documentary style feel and shape was also because I was very aware of the power of social media – screening it at a particular place would have limited my audience, but with social media which is borderless, my reach would be limitless. The scope of taking this message forward was immense. So documentary and social media came into my mind during the process of shooting it and meeting new people during the travels. And the number of people it has reached has exceeded all my expectations – it has reached around 1.5 million people, which is pretty great. And most of them appreciated it because it was a different approach to create awareness, it wasn’t overtly emotional but at the same time tries to sensitise one to the issue.
What were the artists’ reactions when you met them and told them about your idea?When I met them individually, some of them were excited by the idea, some alienated me, some refused further talks about Kashmir, some came up with a lot of questions, some had the usual stereotypes and doubts in mind that are all Kashmiris terrorists because they all raise their voices against India. But I was expecting all of these reactions. We Kashmiris are used to such diverse reactions. It is a part of our daily lives when we travel outside Kashmir.
What kind of understanding did the artists already have? And how did that change once they met you?Most of the artists had no idea about the issue. They knew that there is something wrong there, and there are curfews but they did not know the real picture. So I just made it a process – the first time when I met the artists I tried to figure out what the artists already knew about Kashmir, and to my surprise rarely people knew about the issue. So when I left after the first meeting, I used to request them to take a couple of hours out and read up about the history of Kashmir. And it happened many a times, that as they started to read up, they used to call me up with questions. This made me really happy, that they were taking the initiative to read up. And at the same time, I was also very conscious about the fact that I was not sending them the reading material – they were reading it up on their own from whatever source they could get their hands on. And then the next time I would meet them, I would ask them what they felt and then ask them to paint it and put in on a canvas for Kashmir. So this is how the whole journey started.
And the success of this whole initiative lies in the fact that when these artists put up this work, this documentary on their blog, on their Facebook wall, on their social media accounts, they got a lot of questions there.
And the success of this whole initiative lies in the fact that when these artists put up this work, this documentary on their blog, on their Facebook wall, on their social media accounts, they got a lot of questions there. Their friends were either asking questions, or some were getting offended – but the good bit was that the artists were personally responding to each and every comment and question. The artists weren’t calling me, or referring them to me, they were answering the questions themselves – which according to me was the success of the project. The point was the sensitise people about the issue – and do it in this way – with logic, with facts and figures. That more and more people are appreciating it was an added advantage and just made the project bigger.
In the past, Kashmiris have tried innumerable things creatively to try and sensitise people about the issue in their own way but it has never taken this shape. I think the reason these artists from different parts of India are being heard, and not the Kashmiris who have tried before is that according to me, Kashmiris are alienated in the Indian society.
Do you think sensitisation to the Kashmir issue works more effectively if it comes from a Kashmiri or a non-Kashmiri like the artists you use in the documentary?Yes, I strongly believe that the sensitisation to the Kashmir issue works more effectively if it comes from a non-Kashmiri person. To be very honest, I had understood this fact a long time ago and so while working on Athwaas, I knew that if the message came from the youth of India, it would be more effective. In the past, Kashmiris have tried innumerable things creatively to try and sensitise people about the issue in their own way but it has never taken this shape. I think the reason these artists from different parts of India are being heard, and not the Kashmiris who have tried before is that according to me, Kashmiris are alienated in the Indian society. There are many reasons for this – both political and apolitical but I strongly felt that this message coming from a non-Kashmiri would be more effective than coming from a Kashmiri.
What would your next step be, seeing that this approach has gotten so much coverage and success?To be very honest, I had never thought that this small initiative of mine would get so much coverage and so much success. I am so happy with the coverage that it has received in the press, in magazines such as yours, and also on the social media accounts of so many people.
The next step would be to nuance, reshape and revamp the same message in a different way and to a broader spectrum of artists and audiences. One way of doing this may be to reach out to more famous artists across India and South Asia. I would also like to share this with the people working in the other units in J&K, like in Ladakh, Jammu, Baluchistan and Gilgit – it so happens that sometimes they are the ones who are most misinformed about Kashmir. So for now, these are the plans I am looking at. Creativity is such a powerful tool and this small documentary has just proved that. So there are a few ideas that came up during the making of this documentary – something more vibrant, something more creative but definitely something apolitical would be my way forward.