Kashmir in turmoil over peace concert featuring Zubin Mehta


Indian workers carry a giant billboard as they work inside Shalimar garden, the venue for a concert by renowned Indian-born orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta, on the outskirts of Srinagar, India, , Sept. 3, 2013. Kashmiri separatists have called for a strike on Sept. 7 to protest against a concert by Mehta in Srinagar, accusing the event of distracting the public away from the problems that Kashmir faces. (Dar Yasin/AP)
September 6, 2013

The mood was tense at Shalimar Bagh, the terraced Mughal-era gardens set amid Himalayan peaks in Kashmir, where a concert for peace is supposed to happen Saturday.

As workers rushed one recent day to screw new spigots onto fountains that had been dry for years, two gardeners got into a shouting match, with one throwing down his twig broom and walking away in disgust. Most visitors were frisked at the entrance.

Things were worse outside the gates, however. Police and paramilitary ­forces were ramping up security in advance of the concert featuring internationally renowned conductor Zubin Mehta directing the Bavarian State Orchestra in an open-air performance.

More than 1,500 invited guests are expected to sit among the beds of yellow roses and fiery salvia to hear works by Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky as the sun fades over Dal Lake.

But what began as a nice idea by Mehta and some German diplomats to promote peace in this war-scarred region has instead wound up generating more animosity, a sign of the divisions in a land that has been bitterly contested by India and Pakistan since partition in 1947.


Indian conductor Zubin Mehta performing during a free concert with Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 25. (SILVINA FRYDLEWSKY/EPA)

Until a relative peace settled over the valley in recent years, violence by Muslim extremists and the military was a near-daily occurrence. Tens of thousands of people were killed in an insurgency that began in 1989 and was aimed at expelling India from the portion it controls of Kashmir, a mostly Muslim territory.

In recent days, Kashmiri separatist groups have denounced the musical event, saying no concert for peace put on by outsiders should be held until Kashmir is free from India, which is predominantly Hindu.

A general strike has been called by one hard-liner. Checkpoints have been set up around the city, and security ­forces are expected to patrol the lake in boats.

“Kashmir is a disputed region under a military occupation,” said Khurram Parvez, who heads the human rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. He was referring to the thousands of Indian troops in the part of Kashmir that India controls. “We don’t understand how anyone could disregard the reality of Kashmir.”

Parvez is organizing a free counter-concert to be held the same day, with performances ranging from Kashmiri folk music to rap.

Other Kashmiris have grumbled that the government has paid more than $500,000 to renovate the crumbling gardens at a time when it is short on funds for other, more practical projects.

They complain that few ordinary citizens are on the guest list. Parvez said that the invitees include Bollywood stars, government officials and the scions of some of India’s wealthiest families.

Organizers say that they have reached out to people from all walks of life and that the concert is not a VIP event but rather a “gesture of respect” toward the Kashmiris, as one diplomat put it.

The German Embassy in New Delhi and other organizers of the Mehta concert have been taken aback at the vitriol. The event, funded by private donations, will be live-streamed and broadcast live in India and Europe.

“I expected there would be opposition, but the way people came out of the woodwork, I was surprised and very disappointed actually,” said Salman Soz, a Kashmiri native and political activist who helped with some of the planning.

He said that he thinks the widespread criticism by separatistswas a mistake, a blunder of monumental proportions.”

It would have been better if the groups accepted the concert, he said, adding: “It’s a musical event.”

Mehta, 77, who was born in Bombay, now Mumbai, has conducted orchestras around the world and peace concerts in places such as Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, but he’s long wanted to do a performance in Kashmir that would bring together Hindus and Muslims, he has said.

German Embassy officials said they had no plans to cancel the concert, and Mehta had only a brief remark for one of his hometown newspapers about the controversy.

“Let the music speak for itself,” the maestro said.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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