Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi was completed in 2007. The film on Kashmir’s long “intifada” came under fire from rightwing groups. In Mumbai, the police cracked down on public screenings on the grounds that it did not have the clearance of the Central Board of Film Certification. Over the years, the film has been screened at cultural centres and festivals aimed at promoting free speech. Jashn-e-Azadi has finally seen its official web release through the ezine Raiot, at the end of a harrowing week in Kashmir where protests were put down by force and newspapers silenced.
In 2007, the Valley was recovering from the wave of militancy that started in 1989, peaked in the mid-1990s and was winding down by the early 2000s. Burhan Wani had not yet left to become a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, gather a fan following on the internet and become a local legend. His death had not yet pitched Kashmir into a new cycle of violence.
Yet, the 2007 film is grimly prescient. You hear the same words that would fashion a new phase of militancy in the Valley – 500 years of “zulm” or oppression under various “occupiers” and the “shahadat” or martyrdom of the few who took on the Army and the government. It is as if the Valley were fated for this new turbulence, as if the passions of a decade had been building up towards this denouement. It is hard to watch the documentary today as Kashmir revives its tragic romance with azadi. The same words are repeated, the same slogans break out again.
The tragedy is folded into the title itself, Jashn-e- Azadi, or “How We Celebrate Freedom”. As the documentary explains, azadi in the Valley is the object of eternal yearning, an ideal state that will come “one day”. Perhaps it is political freedom or perhaps it is “jannat”, the paradise promised to martyrs. Either way, it is always an absence.
This longing has spawned its own songs and slogans. Kak dwells on satirical sketches performed by Kashmir’s folk performers known as bhands, street marches where hundreds of fists are pumped in the air, and the insistent beat of “Hum kya chahte? Azadi.” These have elements of the carnivalesque.
But the carnivalesque is also found in an extravagance of grief. Kak’s camera travels over snow piling upon snow in a martyrs’ graveyard, where a father cannot find his son’s grave anymore. It stops at an old man counting the dead from his village and follows fires spreading wantonly across settlements, laying waste to scores of houses.
Grief lies in dirges sung for militants pledged to death, in the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali and Zarif Ahmed Zarif, in the constant fight against forgetting, in the horrors that patients at a psychiatric hospital cannot forget. This, the documentary seems to tell you, is how Kashmiris celebrate freedom.
This is a non-linear documentary, not particularly troubled by chronology, throwing up bits of journalistic detail only to have them melt away. How many dead, how many disappeared, what exactly happened? We may never know.
Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah, Kashmir (2012), the other documentary that has shaped conversations on the Valley, is more deliberate in its storytelling, following specific cases and gathering evidence to build a picture of human rights violations. Kak seems more concerned with how things are felt to happen, with the ironies that emerge when one image is set against another.
In Jashn-e- Azadi, footage from 2003 of unmarked graves still fresh on the ground is interrupted by grainy shots taken in the 1990s of militants training with guns, bodies on stretchers and crowds gathered outside mosques. The scene shifts to 2005, when a layer of dust has formed over old memories. The camera moves, fugue-like, through the years – 2003, 2007, 1991, 1992, 1993, 2004. It could have kept going into 2008, 2010, 2016.
If there is a story, it lies in the polemical energy of the images – the stillness of the Dal Lake, worshippers floating into a mosque, red chillies near the scene of an encounter, militants cresting a hill, the expressions on the faces of Kashmiri villagers rounded up by the army for a lecture on development.
Azadi, that eternal absence, is suggested in a dirge-like repetition of images. This repetition also seems to mimic the pattern of Kashmir’s history. Kak returns again and again to Lal Chowk on August 15, for instance, where police and army attend a flag hoisting ceremony every year. On Independence Day in 2004, guns peer out of windows and armoured vehicles rumble down the street. In the background, there are patriotic songs about that other azadi, won in 1947. It is a bleak celebration.