Concert Stirs Strife In Disputed Kashmir Region
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The location of this next story is what makes it amazing. Internationally acclaimed conductor Zubin Mehta raised his baton before the musicians of the Bavarian State Orchestra on Saturday evening, and on his cue they erupted into the raptures of Beethoven.
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INSKEEP: The German government sponsored this concert and chose Srinagar, Kashmir as the venue. That's the disputed territory in the Himalayas over which India and Pakistan have twice gone to war. Indian-controlled Kashmir has been torn by internal conflict as well as, for two decades, by separatists who fought to expel Indian forces.
NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that staging an internationally broadcast concert there only stirred the strife.
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JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The setting for the concert could not have been more luminous. Rows of fountains made their own music framed by crimson flowers. Shadows lengthened in the late afternoon as silk-saried women and well-tailored men slipped into their seats here in the Shalimar Gardens of Srinagar. Recently restored, the gardens revive a centuries-old heritage.
The Bombay-born Zubin Mehta opened the concert with a premiere of a lively Kashmiri composition, in which the Bavarian Orchestra performed alongside local musicians - some of whom had never heard Western classical music before.
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MCCARTHY: All seems tranquil. But this is Kashmir and conflict is never far from the surface. Many Kashmiris are asking why the German Embassy and Zubin Mehta have chosen this spot, so fraught with conflict, to state an international musical extravaganza.
KHURRAM PARVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Across town in a scrubby park, human rights activist Khurram Parvez scrambled with preparations for a counter-concert. He argues that an international event cannot be held in a disputed territory. Kashmiris have been waiting for a referendum on self-determination since the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan 65 years ago. Parvez co-authored a petition that said the Zubin Mehta concert legitimized what the signatories called India's state brutality, in which they said 8,000 people have disappeared.
With Kashmiris living under the heavy presence of police, Parvez says the music was being used as propaganda to portray the situation in the valley as one of peace and normalcy.
PARVEZ: These programs are aimed at obfuscating the truth. These programs are aimed as whitewashing the crimes of the Indian government. What was the need for the German government to organize this program? I think German government, unfortunately, is becoming complicit in the crimes the government of India is perpetrating here.
MCCARTHY: Civil society activist Zahir Ud Din says he has nothing against Zubin Mehta, but nor does he have a yearning to hear his music.
ZAHIR UD DIN: Because I have no taste for it - I've never been to a concert. So why do you impose a concert here?
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MCCARTHY: Invitations for the concert were coveted by India's elite. Opponents said ordinary Kashmiris were nudged aside for dignitaries from New Delhi, and the politically connected in Kashmir - who drivers ferried in and out on roads protected by layers of police. One commentator asked: How can music bring people together when the concert is characterized by three-tier security?
Zubin Mehta, who had conducted the New York Philharmonic in the ruins of Bosnia's National Library as a goodwill gesture for the people of Sarajevo, had wanted to do much the same in Kashmir 19 years later. The maestro pointedly acknowledged the hurt that had been caused and offered to make amends.
ZUBIN MEHTA: Next time let's do this concert (Foreign language spoken) stadium. Everybody should come.
MEHTA: We don't want only a select few although we have here over 2,000 tonight.
MCCARTHY: German ambassador Michael Steiner, who organized the concert, fielded questions from the media, saying that the German embassy was not tone-deaf to the reality of Kashmir.
AMBASSADOR MICHAEL STEINER: And I understand that there is frustration. I myself want to do more here. I need the support for doing that. I'm not saying that's the solution, such a concert, but it might be a little help to mobilize the support for Kashmir. Thank you.
MCCARTHY: Violin soloist Julian Rachlin said the performance was intended to unite, not divide.
JULIAN RACHLIN: That's what it's all about. We hope that we can send a message here. Music is a very powerful messenger, an ambassador for peace and for joy.
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MCCARTHY: As he stepped from the stage, Zubin Mehta offered this critique of his concert that included Beethoven, Hayden and Tchaikovsky.
MEHTA: We are playing for a virgin audience, almost. This is not a letdown, but we have to gauge it probably the "Beethoven Fifth" even was a little too heavy. Anyway, they reacted beautifully and they were all smiling. That's all I wanted to see.
MCCARTHY: As the last strains of music dyed away, word spread that four people had been fatally shot traveling near a police camp south of Srinagar. As the performance closed, young men who had not attended the concert swarmed the area outside the gates of the garden, as did scores of police.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News.
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.