The ban on mobile SMSes in Kashmir has evoked a unique work of art, by a young artist from Australia. The work beautifully captures the banality of what has been barred in Kashmir in the name of security. After being exhibited in India and the world, the project, named ‘Paper txt msgs from Kashmir,’ has now been released on the internet as an e-book.
Shabi to Fancy: “Where are you, Chhoti? Come fast, Papa is searching for you. He is very angry because nobody has given him noon chai. Come fast and prepare noon chai for him.”
[Noon chai or “Salt tea” is the common form of tea consumed in Kashmir.]
It was the summer of 2008. The valley had boiled over in protest against a transfer of 40 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, the body which manages the annual Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage in Kashmir. Scores of unarmed Kashmiri protesters had fallen to state police and Indian troops’ bullets. While there were major concerns for the environmental costs that the land transfer was going to draw, Kashmir also feared the move to be an attempt by India to change the demographic character of the valley by creating settlements for non-Kashmiris, as has been done by Israel in case of Palestine.
On the other hand, protests in Jammu – in support of the land transfer – throttled Kashmir as the only road connecting the valley to the outside world, the highway that runs through Jammu, was blocked. As goods lay dead and fruit began to rot, Kashmiri traders decided to turn their trucks in the direction of its historic trade routes that went through territories under Pakistani control, a route blocked since, ironically, 1947. The march to go across the border was promptly banned by the Indian government.
What was also banned in Kashmir around the same time was the facility that enabled people to send and receive text messages on their mobile phones – like the one above that Shabi wants to send to Fancy. On the midnight of August 4, 2008, thus, countless subscribers received an SMS on their mobiles: “Local administration ke ahkamat par J&K ke sabhi mobile operators ki SMS facility aaj raat se filhal bandh ki ja rahi hai. Shuru hone pe aap ko itlah di jayegi… As per the directions of the local administration, the SMS facility of all the mobile service providers is being stopped for now. When the services are allowed, you will be informed.” Since then, the ban has been removed and re-imposed several times, especially in the wake of the 2010 summer protests. Even today, though partially lifted, the ban virtually remains intact.
Worse, in November 2009, the central government for reasons of security imposed a blanket ban on all pre-paid mobile phone connections across the Kashmir region. Needless to say, the “security” measure soon became a nightmare for millions of mobile phone users in the valley.
But it also affected the mind of a young artist. Alana Hunt, then an arts student based in Delhi, was taking keen interest in the developments. “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,” she says. “Hundreds of thousands of mobile phone users – people conducting business, college students, families, distanced lovers – left without means of telecommunication virtually overnight.”
“I thought of the feelings of alienation the pre-paid ban would generate… and I wondered what could be done,” she says. It actually required imagination, she adds. And for Alana, originally from Australia, it didn’t take too long to imagine what that response could be.
The idea was simple. Take a blank piece of paper and ask mobile phone users to write what they might have normally written in an SMS at that particular time had the facility been allowed. This was what Alana called a “Paper Text Message.”
The idea was a kind of light-hearted gesture into the situation, Alana says. It offered an alternative communicative tool which would in some way facilitate a different kind of space, something that would further discussion in a creative and meaningful way, she adds.
The cards were distributed in the southern and northern regions of the valley, apart from Srinagar. There were close to 1,000 paper text messages in total, which were divided into piles and distributed through friends, family and colleagues. “Close to 150 paper text messages made their way back to me in packages, in peoples’ pockets and individually in the post,” says Alana.
The project generated keen interest, both in India and abroad. Paper text messages went on display in exhibitions last year at Sarai in New Delhi and Fraser Studio in Sydney. In late March this year, the work was shown, among other places, in Berlin and in the Netherlands as part of the Memefest.
The collection – which has now been compiled into an e-book and a video – was recently released on the internet. The e-book also features essays and poems contributed by Kashmiri writers and artists, all in reaction to the ban. “Responses,” Alana says, “were positive. People were intrigued and engaged.”
That the ban on SMSes should intrigue people can hardly be overemphasised. A look through the messages, like the ones above, shows the benign nature of what is being prevented by the authorities in the name of security. Sheikh Sibtain, for example, writes to his mom: “Don’t wait for me at dinner. I’ll be late as usual.” Most of the messages in the collection are related to the everyday life, a pointer towards how life remains affected in Kashmir even in the times of relative calm.
Subzaar writes to Shafi: “Hey, if you are near the market, just bring 1 kg of meat and half a kilo of onion. Some guests have come. Be quick. Mama is waiting. She has to cook.”
Love too is all around the messages. Rukaiya tells Aftab: “Hum ne tumhe qismat ki lakeeron se churaaya hai… I’ve stolen you from the passages of destiny.” And the one that Nusrat tells Hakrash: “I love you dear. This pre-paid ban has turned us into two sad people. Please come to see me on Sunday. I miss you.”
The messages hardly leave anyone unaddressed. Among the people supposed to be the recipients of the paper messages are the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram. There are messages sent to the people as well as the government of India. The US president Barack Obama also gets a few messages. And there are messages even addressed to god!
In a region where the 3G services have recently been launched by almost every mobile service provider, the ban on SMSes seems more unreasonable. But then, it also means that for the poor, who won’t be able to afford the costlier 3G services, the ban on effective communication remains. In a sense, this simply goes with the belief in the security establishment that the threat to peace remains from such sections of Kashmiri society. Though post-paid users are allowed to send messages of late, they can do so only within their own service provider’s network leaving the ban almost complete. Alana’s work may not lead to any immediate change in the government’s security policy but it certainly makes the ban look stupid.
One of the messages for Chidambaram goes: “Are you going to ban auto rickshaws too? Syed Ali Shah Geelani (the Kashmiri pro-Independence leader spearheading major anti-India protests) of late has been travelling in auto rickshaws.” The dig is not misplaced, since the restrictions have generally been ordered from the home ministry.
Alana’s work marks brilliance with messages that have to do with the most basic, unassuming issues of life: “You social science students know crap about how the world goes around!” It’s a message from Mudasir meant for Aijaz.
There are many messages which directly talk about the ban on mobile messaging. And such messages – many of them angry – tend to distract the reader from the real import of the work. Perhaps the collection would have been richer had the message writers been asked not to write about the issue of the ban per se. But then, humour makes up for it. Read what Mudasir has to tell Baseer: “No need to buy the mobile now. Just get me some pigeons.” On the other hand, Hyder mixes very evocatively both life and the ban when he writes to his beloved: “Let them ban everything but they cannot ban our hearts beating for each other. Lolz!”
The poem “Stationary” by Agha Shahid Ali, one of Kashmir’s most celebrated poets, features to perfection at the end: “The world is full of paper. Write to me.”
The e-book and the video can be accessed at www.alanahunt.com
Nawaz Gul Qanungo is a Srinagar-based writer and journalist. He was formerly based in New Delhi with India’s major financial daily Business Standard. His work has appeared in some of India’s major publications including Business Standard, Tehelka, Down to Earth, the Tamil Dinamalar and Kashmir Times.