Kashmir Separatists Enraged by Zubin Mehta Peace Concert

World renowned, India-born conductor to perform on Saturday but militant leaders have called for shutdowns and warned local people to stay away from the event

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Herwig Prammer / Reuters

Indian Maestro Zubin Mehta conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during rehearsal.

On Saturday, a peace concert led by internationally acclaimed, India-born conductor Zubin Mehta will bring music and a message of goodwill to the strife-ravaged population of India-administered Kashmir. But many living in the territory — subject of rival claims between India and Pakistan since 1947 and center stage of a bloody insurgency since 1989 — have been angered by the appearance of Mehta, who previously has led prestigious philharmonic orchestras in Berlin, New York, Tel Aviv and Vienna.

The weekend concert, which will be held at the historical Shalimar Bagh — renowned for its opulent music soirees during the Mughal period — will see Mehta leading the Munich-based Bayerische Staatsorchester symphonic orchestra. The program features compositions by Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky and a small piece in collaboration with Kashmiri musicians. “This is a wonderful cultural tribute to Kashmir and its warm-hearted and hospitable people,” German Ambassador to India Michael Steiner said in a press statement to announce the concert last month.

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Mehta’s peace mission, however, has found little favor with hardliners in the valley, who in 2011 forced the cancelation of a literature festival and in February disbanded an all-girl rock band. Separatist leaders called for shutdowns on Saturday, and three militant groups threatened Kashmiris to stay away from the event. Syed Ali Geelani, chairman of the separatist Hurriyat Conference umbrella organization, feared the concert would turn “focus away from the Kashmir issue.”

Moderate separatist leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq also opposed the show, saying, “Kashmir is not peaceful enough to hold such concerts.” Similarly, a protest song by Trinamool Congress MP and Bengali singer-songwriter Kabir Suman has become an instant hit with lyrics such as, “Dear Zubin Mehta, will your music weep for the martyrs … 70,000 Kashmiris killed … Will your music bring back the thousands disappeared in the shadows of hills.” By contrast, Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah says the concert has no bearing on politics, and that “if a musician can change the nature of Kashmir issue, then it won’t remain an issue anymore.”

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Despite this bluster, the show, organized by the German embassy in India, is slated to go ahead as planned. Supported by both the New Delhi and the Kashmiri regional governments, it will be telecast live throughout India and Europe and will be attended by nearly 1,500 people, including various public figures and Union ministers. “With the magic power of music, crossing geographical, political and cultural borders, we want to reach the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement,” said Steiner.

Mehta, a veteran of peace concerts in conflict areas — he put together a concert of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky to some 1,000 Israelis and 500 Palestinians in 2008, and conducted performances amid scud missile attacks during the Gulf War — remains unperturbed. The 77-year-old has repeatedly expressed his desire to lead a concert bringing together Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir. “Never underestimate the power of music,” the Mumbai-born conductor, considered one of the world’s foremost interpreters of great symphonic literature, told India’s Outlook Magazine on Monday. “I don’t know what we can change physically, but spiritually, we can bring some peace into people’s hearts.”

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