Defiance and different shades of politics over Pheran

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When 75-year-old Ali Mohammad Mir heard rumours that pheran, loose traditional winter cloaks, would be banned, he bought a new one for himself.

The pheran has been the papier mache artisan’s go-to dress irrespective of the occasion. “I remember our elderly used to wear it throughout the year, sometimes to hide their lower body. such was the poverty that they could not afford a trouser,” Mir said. “So in a way pheran has been a savior for us all.”

Mir is among Kashmiris who reacted to right-wing Hindu militant organisation Bajrang Dal’s call to ban the pheran claiming that militants used pherans to hide weapons. In Kashmir, youth responded by uploading pictures of themselves donning their best pherans while some like Mir chose to buy new ones as a mark of resistance and vowed to wear them throughout the year — much like his ancestors.

The call to ban Kashmiri culture was also endorsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. A party spokesperson based in Jammu, Abhijeet Jasrotia told a national news channel that traditional Kashmiri dresses have been misused by “terrorists” to hide weapons underneath them. “Our soldiers can not differentiate between a normal person wearing this traditional dress and somebody who is carrying arms under this dress. So it should be banned in public spaces or offices,” he said.

In the early 1990s when the armed insurgency was at its zenith, anti-government militants who carried weapons also wore the pheran. This led to demonisation of the garment worn by both Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir. However this month, it was again forced in the news — by the Indian media — after a militant shot at two policemen in Srinagar outskirts. The duo later succumbed to injuries. CCTV images of the act and the attacker went viral on social media, he was wearing a pheran.

With the waning of militancy in Kashmir, the hostility towards pheran had also receded, albeit temporarily. Pheran in the second decade of 2000 became a tool of politics with almost every politician choosing to wear it on their Kashmir visit, so much so that leaders from the Hindu nationalist BJP, famously even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have worn it on several public occasions.

In 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also used the garment to send out a message on Kashmir.

Not only politicians but even Bollywood that has otherwise shown Kashmiri in either negative or poor light have also embraced the pheran. Ranbir Kapoor in the film Rockstar and later Shahid Kapoor in Haider have worn the Kashmiri pheran. As new fashion trends in pheran emerged, more and more Kashmiris, particularly the youth, have again embraced the garment.

Days after the Bajrang Dal called for a ban, the Jammu and Kashmir Police and paramilitary forces were seen directing ordinary Kashmiris to remove the pheran during surprise frisking on the roads, reminiscent of the 1990s stereotyping of Kashmiris. This renewed resentment for the police and other government forces across Kashmir. Even a septuagenarian, Mir said: “I don’t mind being harassed by forces for wearing a pheran, it is my identity.”

Not only are Kashmiris like Mir aghast at right wing parties demanding a ban on pheran or the government forces’ forcing Kashmiris to it, even the BJP’s Kashmiri sympathisers were against the demonising. Javid Qureshi, a self-proclaimed BJP sympathiser from north Kashmir’s Handwara held a demonstration in the town’s main market in favour of pheran, which the Jammu unit of the BJP has demanded to be banned.

“Pheran is our identity and to give such a statement by Bajrang Dal is condemnable,” shouted Qureshi, who is famous for tearing his own clothes in his dramatic style of protests.

Qureshi, who has claimed to be affiliated with the BJP, criticised the demand for a ban on pheran and said that those demanding it have “no idea about the origin of pheran and its significance… We will never give them a chance and will never let sectarianism rule here.”

That this came from someone who even held fasts for ailing BJP leaders’ recovery much to the chagrin of the Kashmiri public shows the importance of pheran for the inhabitants of Valley.

Qureshi accused the Bajrang Dal of hurting the sentiments of Kashmiris. “This is sectarianism. I really want their voices to be suppressed,” he said. “We won’t be scared and think before you give another statement for Kashmir or about its culture.”

The anxiety revolving around the ban was finally put to rest by the J-K administration which said that there was no such ban in place. Pandurang K Pole, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, said there is no official order for the removal of pheran outside the secretariat. “No, there is nothing like that. It’s just a security check,” he had told The Kashmir Walla. “When you have to enter important offices, the checking is done even of all the employees.”

This was not the first time that pheran was in news, in 2018 the Kashmir administration banned wearing of pheran in the civil secretariat. The ban was withdrawn after it caused public outrage. Journalists, too, on occasions boycotted Army’s pressers where pherans are banned. While it remains to be seen whether pheran will return to the news or not, the fact is that Kashmiris like Mir will continue to wear and adore it.

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