Kashmiri artist detained over ‘We Are Palestine’ graffiti

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Photographs by Umer Asif.

As Palestinians faced devastating Israeli aerial strikes and dozens of children were killed in Gaza, a neighbourhood in Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar decided to express solidarity. They asked Mudasir Gul, a professional artist, to paint graffiti. 

A few meters away from his home in Padshahi Bagh, Gul climbed onto a platform and started painting, eyewitnesses told The Kashmir Walla

The 32-year-old artist, who mainly made his living by truck art and painting shop fronts, painted a face of a sobbing woman, wearing Palestine’s flag as the headscarf, and wrote: “We Are Palestine”.

The men stood near the graffiti, holding the flags of Palestine, and raised anti-Israel slogans. The visuals were an instant hit in Kashmir’s social media space, always abuzz with users drawing similarities with Palestine. Then the police reached the neighbourhood.

“The police took Mudasir out of his house and made him climb the bridge again,” said Gul’s elder brother, Badr-ul-Islam. “They asked him to rub his painting totally.” Gul defaced the graffiti with patches of black paint.

Kashmir graffiti artist
Inside the room of Mudasir Gul.

The police then detained Gul, his brother said, and took him away. Late in the night, at 12:30 am, the police vehicles returned for a raid. In the raid, the eye-witnesses told The Kashmir Walla, the police personnel detained at least seven more men, including Janbaaz Mustafa.

Janbaaz, 30, wasn’t the target of the police raid but the brother of one of the suspects for whom the police had come. His father, Ghulam Mustafa, was asleep in his two-storey house. “They were looking for my younger son Dilnawaz but he wasn’t home,” he said. “So they detained my elder son. What can we do?”

At least two other men were detained in a similar fashion. Kashmir’s police chief said that at least twenty persons were arrested from several places in Srinagar. Vijay Kumar said in a statement that the police are keeping a close watch on “elements who are attempting to leverage the unfortunate situation in Palestine to disturb public peace and order in the Kashmir valley.”

The police, he said, won’t “allow cynical encashment of the public anger to trigger violence, lawlessness, and disorder on Kashmir streets”.

“Israel has killed children in Palestine, they have attacked Al-Aqsa mosque,” Mustafa exclaimed, sitting outside his house. “Can’t we even talk about it? They [Jammu and Kashmir Police] have all the power. They do it because they have guns.”

“A gem of an artist”

kashmiri artist, kashmir sketch
Gul’s elder brother showcasing his detained brother’s sketches.

Gul’s art was a gift of God, his brother Badr-ul-Islam said showcasing his paintings. In his small room, rough sketches are strewn around and the bed is unmade, cigarette butts were scattered. 

From the scenery from his window to the faces he saw around them, he could do them all. Gul had started painting at the age of 12.  

To pursue it professionally, Gul enrolled in Fine Arts at the University of Kashmir. “He could make anything,” Badr said. “He once painted my face on the window’s glass in minutes because he was bored.”

His trunk is full of certificates and awards that the family is proud of. Inside his room, hung his dreams: portraits of models, wailing children, and the trees around Jhelum. But when he couldn’t make a proper living out of them, he sat on the city’s bridges to draw portraits or painted walls of parks and zoos. 

“In 2012, he was awarded by the ADG (Additional Director General of Police) for his work in a competition,” Badr added. “He is a gem of an artist.”

Kashmir artists
The certificate signed by then ADG of Police, recognising Gul’s participation in a painting competition, where he ranked third.

The Padhshahi Bagh was one of the boiling points in the 2016 civilian uprising after a militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in a July gunfight. “Boys threw stones the whole day and the unity was such that they always pushed out the police,” a local, surrounded by a dozen other men, said. “The boys would not let the police touch anyone here.”

However, Gul would not involve himself in the resistance art. “He is a weak-hearted person who never threw a stone,” Gul’s brother added. “But when you see children being massacred in bombings, whose heart won’t beat?”

“The whole world came out in protest against Israel; my brother wasn’t alone,” he added. “Everyone has freedom of speech. And his work wasn’t even related to India.”

“Police are scared”

Mudasir Gul. Photograph courtesy: Facebook


kashmiri artist, kashmir sketch

kashmiri artist, kashmir sketch

After the police detained eight men, and are still looking for three more, the elders in the neighbourhood gathered today morning to negotiate with the government forces. But Ghulam Mustafa told The Kashmir Walla that the demand was simple: “bring your boys and take back their brothers.”

They followed. Mustafa turned in his 25-year-old son, Dilnawaz. So did two other parents. 

But the families weren’t told of any charges. “We waited for three hours but the SHO [Station House Officer] didn’t come,” said Mustafa. “They were arrested for a painting? This isn’t even an allegation.”

Sajad Shah, the superintendent of police for Srinagar South, told The Kashmir Walla that the police have detained “some people”. The official, however, said he will have to check if the charges have been pressed against them, if any.

However, at least two families of the detainees told The Kashmir Walla that they were told by the police that “the boys had broken Covid-19 lockdown protocols”. When Mustafa went to the police station today, he saw seven of the men were locked up inside a 12×12 cell with minimum ventilation. So far, more than 1,45,500 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Kashmir while 1,656 have succumbed.

“They don’t even want a spark that can light a fire in Kashmir,” said Mustafa, adding his fear of reprisal for this interview too. “They want people to bow down their heads and walk in silence.” 

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