Beneath the iconic clock tower of Lal Chowk, Srinagar, Mir Suhail Qadiri sketches a pool of human targets. Suhail posted it with the hashtag #KashmiriLivesMatter – evoking the dangerous reality of Kashmiris. The cartoon was posted after a Kashmiri lawyer, Babar Qadiri was shot dead at his house.
The 31-year-old Kashmiri political cartoonist is earning a reputation for his compelling illustrations on Indian atrocities in Kashmir. His works, shared by thousands on social media, at times engage beyond the valley to portray different political crises of the world.
“People have pointed out my cartoons as not being funny. How can we show comedy in the plights of farmers, migrant labourers?” asks Suhail. Dark humour dominates his illustrations which at times evoke anger than satiric laughter. “It shows ‘reality,” says Suhail.
Provocative cartoons against the India’s Hindu nationalist regime have made the artist a prey of cyberbullying from right-wing parties. Currently residing in New York, Suhail believes that he would have been sent to jail for his work if he had remained back home.
“They are putting terror charges on students and journalists,” Suhail points out. At least four Kashmiri journalists are have been booked under India’s stringent terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967. Several journalists from the valley got sentenced recently.
“I will be jailed if I come back. I only worry about my family. I can’t come back.”
Mir Suhail was born in 1989 in Downtown Srinagar, the epicentre of anti-India protests and insurgency. The artist grew up in the nineties, the bloodiest time of the Kashmir rebellion against India.
“When I was young, I repeatedly saw a nightmare where a whole place was burning down. One day I shared it with my mother who told me such an incident happened when I was two years old,” explains Suhail. “Experts say we develop our senses in a mother’s womb. It leaves a mark in life.”
The first-hand experiences of hostility during his childhood influence his imagination. “When you come from a place like Kashmir, things are different. I saw my friend’s blood on the road who got killed in a clash. It only gets worse in Kashmir.”
For Suhail, cartoons became a medium to express himself. Although pursuing art was unconventional for a middle-class family, His parents supported him. “I grew up watching cartoons like anybody but I saw it differently. For me, Tom and Jerry is very political.” He started sketching in his early teens and got published before fifteen. The recognition gave him the confidence to pursue fine arts.
Suhail wants his cartoons to connect to all groups of people. Although he worked mostly for English dailies, he drew cartoons with less text to make sure his drawings communicated easily. “The visual needs to draw attention. Newspapers reach beyond their subscribers. We use it to wrap and pack items. Everyone will have a chance to read it. I want them to understand my cartoon.”
His years in Kashmir were inconsistent. In a decade Suhail worked for half a dozen Kashmiri media houses partially due to his safety and freedom. According to Suhail, editorial policies change overnight due to political pressures.
“Once my editor informed me that army had threatened me. I asked them to make it news and do something about it. They backed out saying it was only a rumour. Have you heard about verified threats?” The artist had to live with precautions in Kashmir as unknown men followed him after work. “It was terrifying, my mother was worried.”
With a career at stake, his girlfriend convinced him to shift to Delhi for better opportunities and safety. “She bought me the tickets to Delhi.”
Misfit in Delhi
“I stayed in JNU for a month before finding a job in ScoopWhoop,” Suhail recalls from his early days in India’s capital. He was placed under scrutiny from his first day in office. Suhail stopped shaving kept a beard to look like a Punjabi. Delhi had a notorious history of confrontation with Kashmiris. In Modi’s India, Suhail felt insecure while walking to metros with a tattoo that read ‘Allah’ on his hand.
Suhail soon got an offer in Network 18, one of the leading television networks in India. But as an art director, Suhail claims he was never allowed to draw a cartoon on Kashmir issues. The years in Indian television industry reflects in his new illustrations that constantly take a dig on Indian journalists.
“They are criminals,” declares Suhail. “They speak for the government and always lie about Kashmir. They never speak to ordinary people but go to army officers.”
Suhail believes that what is happening to Kashmir will soon become a reality for minorities in India. “Forced disappearance, police brutality, arbitrary arrest… Kashmir has been dealing with it for a long time.”
After Pulwama attack in 2019, Suhail had to vacate his apartment immediately due to his Kashmiri identity. “People refused to rent an apartment even though I had a reputed job in a prominent media house.”
Suhail was flagged and restricted from making political commentary on social media by his editor. Once, he was asked to deactivate his account after right-wing trollers targeted his Facebook post. During these years he had no choice but to stay.
Strokes of resistance
“I got married six days before the abrogation of Article 370. I was in Kashmir and I was furious.”
On August 5 last year, India withdrew the special status of Kashmir and kept Kashmir under siege by imposing communication blockade and indefinite curfew. Suhail knew there was nothing he could do from India when many Indian media turned a blind eye on the inhumane occupation by the military.
“Nobody in Delhi was willing to understand our problem. Media showed normalcy when nothing was normal,” lamented Suhail. He knew he should leave and join his wife in New York.
Suhail came out with hard-hitting cartoons against India’s narratives. Metaphorically, the angry artist showed the disproportionate power of the army in Kashmir. Boots and blood in the foreground of grunge, dark backgrounds depicted the cruelties of Indian forces in the valley.
In New York, Suhail is happy and free. He cooks for his partner who is preparing for her law exams. Suhail met Mahum Shabir at his college, when she was visiting the department to learn about traditional instrument. “She supported me with my education, career and helped me step by step in the process of getting my visa. She helps me a lot.”
From #BlackLivesMatter to Corona awareness, Suhail’s cartoons touch upon many Indian and international issues that need attention from masses. He also illustrated the oppression of Muslims and Dalits in mainland India, the plight of migrant workers and farmer’s protest.
“It is important to speak about all the injustice. If we stand for them, they will listen to us. Sometimes I see new conversations in my comment box.”
The Kashmiri artist was featured in AlJazeera after his cartoons went viral invoking global attention to Kashmir crisis. Edex and the New Indian Express have featured him as one of the 40 under 40 personalities. Although Suhail is ready to explore new opportunities in a new phase, he commits to always draw for Kashmir.