Saudi prince incites new clamour in Kashmir: open up the cinemas

Saudi prince incites new clamour in Kashmir: open up the cinemas

The recent announcement by Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman lifting a decades-long ban on cinemas in the ultra-conservative country has triggered a debate in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where movie theatres were ordered shut down by militants almost three decades ago. The clamour is growing for the reopening of cinema halls in the strife-torn valley, as people reason that when movies can be screened in the Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, why not in a liberal society like Kashmir.

It was 28 years ago that a now-defunct militant outfit calling itself 'Allah's Tigers' declared a ban on cinema halls as well as the sale and consumption of liquor in Kashmir. Led by self-styled 'Air Marshal' Noor Khan, the outfit announced the ban through local newspapers. December 31, 1989 was the day that the curtains were brought down on 19 cinema halls in Kashmir, including nine in Srinagar. As radical militants took over the streets within a matter of months, the campaign against cinemas, liquor shops and other businesses they deemed un-Islamic intensified.
In subsequent years, most of these venues of entertainment became security forces' camps and torture chambers. The barbed wires on the windows, the bunkers at the gates and the bullet-ridden walls of the cinemas have become posters for Kashmir's reality.

In 1998 three cinema halls in Srinagar -- Regal, Neelam and Broadway – did reopen, with covert support from the state government, but militants attacked Regal with grenades, killing one person and injuring a dozen. September 2005 brought an end to the experiment as Neelam –- the last-standing movie theatre in Srinagar by then – was the stage for an encounter between the security forces and fidayeen (suicide) militants, in which one of the latter was killed.

With Saudi culture undergoing "seismic" change with women being allowed to drive and music being concerts held, voices against ultraconservative dogmas and restrictions imposed by the militants at the behest of Pakistan since 1989 are growing louder with each passing day in Kashmir. Regional political parties – the ruling PDP and the opposition National Conference -- who till now hesitated to speak up for liberal values due to the fear of militants and mullahs are now openly favouring the opening of the cinema halls in Kashmir.

The Saudi crown prince's decision to open cinemas in the Islamic kingdom as part of a series of social reforms has united the PDP and the NC in Kashmir over at least some issues. Both welcomed the prince's decision, with PDP president and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeting on December 12: "Introspection and self-reform are marks of a progressive society."

The tweet triggered a long series of reactions on the microblogging site, with supporters maintaining that reopening cinema halls will be a welcome step, like opening up sports to the Kashmiri youth. "Time to reopen cinemas in Kashmir, too. It's an apolitical issue and shouldn't be delayed anymore. Have to give our people the semblance of a normal, social life along with peace and stability. Reopening cinemas doesn't negate the conflict or the need to resolve it," tweeted Junaid Azim Mattu, National Conference spokesman, after Mehbooba's assertion.

A majority of the young people from various universities and colleges in the Valley, who usually take to social media to oppose any government decision, too, were in favour of reviving the lost movie culture in Kashmir. They say cinema used to be a family affair in Kashmir. They reason that cinema still has the power to hold families together as the internet age is curtailing social interaction otherwise.

However, as usual, pro-Pakistan and radical separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani opposed the decision of Saudi Arabia. Octogenarian Geelani, while expressing dismay over allowing movie theatres in Saudi Arabia, termed it an 'un-Islamic move' and against the "norms of Islam". He said that the "rulers in Saudi Arabia, being the custodian of holy places like Mecca and Medina, need to take care. It is quite unfortunate that the present ruling elite (in Saudi Arabia) is allowing and promoting (the) same obscene culture, which Islam has prohibited," he said in a statement.

Notwithstanding Geelani's diktats, the common Kashmiri is more than ready to welcome the opening of movie halls. The Kashmiri asks, when cinemas are operating all over the world, including in Pakistan and now in Saudi Arabia, why people like Geelani are averse to it. The post-1990 generation in Kashmir have not known what life was like for the generations before them, who would go out for the night show at 9 pm and stay out late with friends, sipping tea and chatting. When youth in the rest of the country and the world were enjoying their lives, Kashmiri youngsters were either caged in their homes or facing the bullets. All the sources of entertainment were closed and the youth of Kashmir had no way to relax.

In Srinagar, there are already three liquor shops. Some years ago, a liquor bar also came up in a hotel and all of them do brisk business. In recent years, while Bollywood has somewhat rekindled its old romance with the valley, with several movies being shot here, the opening of cinema halls in Kashmir would be the icing on the cake as cine-lovers can regain the lost touch with Bollywood. But before cinemas are reopened in Kashmir, all sections of society will have to get involved and get ready for it.

The most worrying thing happening around Kashmir is the malevolent mixing up of religion with politics. But despite almost three decades of militancy, Kashmir's tolerant culture hasn't been overwhelmed. The attempts by Pakistan and its spy agency ISI to penetrate extremist ideology into Kashmir has, by and large, failed due to the liberal-minded Kashmiri society.


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