Inside story

The accumulated knowledge of two lobby hacks can't enliven a Westminster farce.

It was the Sun wot wrote it! Or in this case, the Sun's Whitehall editor, Clodagh Hartley, with her accomplice John Higginson, of Metro, who have scripted a "riotous satire" for the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick.

The journalists from these two mighty organs -- sorry, it's catching -- have constructed a light Westminster farce about the expenses scandal, that could have been nicely timed to lob a "plague on both your houses" sort of hex just in time for the election (for the purposes of this play, the Lib Dems don't exist). As things stand, however, I think the politicians can sleep easy in their beds. About this matter, at least.

Now, imagine the most riotous satire, in your experience: Swift's A Modest Proposal perhaps, or in recent times, anything by Chris Morris. Now take everything that is riotous or indeed satirical out of it. Replace Iannucci with innuendo, if you will. The toothless inanity you are left with might be quite like Stiffed!

To be fair, the play is supposed to be featherweight. The cast list sets up a fanciful Restoration comedy mood: Paula Stiff (matron!) and George Moore-Lys (fnarr, fnarr!) are the Chancellor and her Shadow respectively, and both about to be embarrassed by the revelations of honest Sally Pauper, the journalist who is, of course, the heroine of this tale. Christopher Hone's set aptly underlines the play's flimsiness, as it appears to be made out of paper, with wiggly lines drawn on in felt-tip, like a pop-up book. The Commons is quite literally a House of Card, with neat pull-out sections enabling a seat here, a bar there. It positively invites a slick, Feydeau farce-style use of its many doors; a hysterical vortex of entrances and exits.

But Dan Herd's direction never delivers this sort of drive, which would have been a welcome shot in the arm to an anaemic script. The only actor to push into the realms of physical grotesquerie is Mark Wall as the Daily Telegraph editor, and he just ends up looking like he's in the wrong show, and head-butting innocent bystanders.

It all started promisingly enough, with the actors wandering on informally and looking about them. Unfortunately, on the night I was there, four latecomers also wandered on informally, looking about them, and I had high hopes for some time that they were part of the show and about to do something spectacular to save it. Disappointingly they weren't, and didn't.

One problem that soon becomes apparent is that the story to be satirised is itself so preposterous -- a real case of truth being stranger than fiction -- that the exaggeration typical of satirical swipes is left with nowhere to go. There is little more ludicrous than taking public money to build your ducks a house, so the play's equivalent, the statue of Churchill designed to ward off the foxes, grows pale and uninteresting by comparison.

The actors, though competent, are under-used. There are glimmers: Laura Evelyn's Sally Pauper is a pleasing straight woman, who, when drunk, has a kooky habit of speaking journalistic cant in heavily flagged quotation marks. Brendan Murphy, as Tory new boy Quentin Dellaware, has a Rob Brydon vibe going on, and also appears to speak in jittery inverted commas. There are inchoate hints here about the sound bite habit that bedevils both poacher and gamekeeper. Both characters' promising biographical details (she: lonely and loveless, he: gay) are picked up and then simply thrown out, however.

The atmosphere perks up somewhat when the auditorium is co-opted into the House of Commons, and we audience members are courted by the frontbenchers as they stand up and sound off like wheedling mountebanks: I can understand the apparent need of backbenchers to heckle like rowdy schoolchildren at a pantomime. Michael Martin is represented by a tiny puppet, subject to the tweaks and pulls of strings on both sides, and this reduction of Speaker to a plaintively screeching homunculus is where the satire suddenly grows teeth.

Considering this was written by "insiders" and supposedly reveals the "inner workings of parliament, the press and politicians" (sic) there is nothing here we didn't already know. We know when we've been stiffed, all right.

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How the death of a militant in Kashmir went viral

Burhan Wani was a 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander. In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival.

His photographs began to circulate on Facebook last year. In one, he leans against a cedar tree in a forest in southern Kashmir, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. In another, he stands before lush green mountains under a cloudless sky.

But the picture that created the myth of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old Hizb al-Mujahedin commander, was a group shot with ten armed associates standing around him. They faced the camera calmly, a hint of a smile tugging at their lips. The photograph went viral, not only in Kashmir but also across India and Pakistan.

On 8 July, when Wani and two other rebels were shot dead in a joint operation by the police and paramilitary forces, thousands of people across southern Kashmir took to the streets to mourn and protest. The mosques reverberated with slogans of freedom – a throwback to the late 1980s, when armed struggle against Indian rule broke out in the region. The protesters lobbed stones. The police fired back.

The following morning, news of protesters’ deaths started to emerge. The injured, numbering in their hundreds, began to reach the hospitals in Srinagar. Many had been hit in the eyes with pellets from pump-action guns, non-lethal weapons used for crowd control in Kashmir since 2010.

The eye doctors at Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said that more than a hundred people had been partially or completely blinded. Among them was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Insha Malik, who lost the vision in both eyes. A picture of her pellet-riddled face has become the symbol of the ongoing mayhem.

The fury soon spread across Kashmir. Mosque loudspeakers boomed with slogans and songs calling for resistance against India. Apart from the government-owned broadband service, internet and mobile-phone networks were shut down. Yet this made little difference. Roughly sixty people – many of them teenagers – have lost their lives. According to figures presented to parliament by the Indian home minister on 11 August, 4,515 security personnel and 3,356 civilians have been injured in the protests.

What made Burhan Wani important enough to warrant such widespread mourning and anger? The answer is tacitly understood in Kashmir but little articulated. In his six years as a rebel, Wani revived anti-India militancy from near-extinction. His strategy was primarily tech-driven – according to police in Kashmir, he hadn’t fired a single shot.

The image of a handsome young man in battle fatigues against a pastoral backdrop, calling for a new attempt at jihad against India, held a powerful appeal for a young generation in Kashmir. These are the people who are enduring the fallout of more than two decades of separatist insurgency, and they are bitter about New Delhi’s oppressive hold over their homeland. With his fresh, viral image, Wani separated his movement from Kashmir’s history and bestowed a new moral glamour on their actions.

He was soon joined by scores of recruits. In 2015, for the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered outsiders. This year, out of 145 active rebels, 91 are from Indian-administered Kashmir and most of the rest are from Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir (though this is still a far cry from the early 1990s, when thousands of militants, both local and from elsewhere, roamed the valley). The recruits – many of them home-grown, Wani-inspired youths – are replenishing the ranks as others are killed.

As the ongoing turmoil shows, Wani long ago transcended his modest militant credentials. He has become an emblem of Kashmir’s deepening alienation from India and a role model for young people for whom guns seem to be the only route to a better future.

In life, he resuscitated the flagging insurgency. Now, his death has put it on a firm road to revival. Unlike during the mass uprisings of 2008 and 2010, Kashmir today is drifting back to active militancy, with the myths about Wani enlivening the separatist narrative.

“You will kill one Burhan; thousands of Burhans will be born”, one slogan goes. “Burhan, your blood will bring revolution”, promises another. The millennial generation has little memory of the horrors of the 1990s, of the innumerable killings and disappearances. An estimated 60,000 people have been killed in the armed rebellion against New Delhi, in part aided by Pakistan (which claims Kashmir as part of its territory, in a dispute that stretches back to the 1947 partition of India). Human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances in the present conflict at 8,000.

Contributing to this mood are India’s rightward turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the perception that New Delhi wants to forcibly change the demographics in Kashmir. This fear has been reinforced by recent government measures to set up colonies to be settled by Indian soldiers and Kashmiri Pandits – the latter from a small Hindu community that was forced to flee the region during the separatist violence.

At Wani’s funeral on 9 July, all eyes were on a group of masked rebels in the front row. They fired their guns in salute to their fallen chief. When prayers ended, the mourners strained to catch a glimpse of Wani’s comrades. Those who were close enough kissed them on the forehead before they escaped.

More than a month later, the anger on the streets shows no sign of abating. Protests take place daily across Kashmir. Businesses are shut down for most of the day, opening only briefly late in the evening and early in the morning. Internet access is restricted, except through the state-owned broadband. With each week of disturbances, the numbers of deaths and injuries continue to mount.

Meanwhile, a new video has appeared on Facebook and YouTube. This time, it comes from Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Wani’s successor. Again, it shows a commander and his associates in battle fatigues, in a forest in southern Kashmir. Bhat waves to the camera as the others remain engrossed by their phones. It, too, has gone viral. 

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge