If you want a serious exploration of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits, this is not that movie.
Vivek Agnihotri once told us facts are not facts. He was onto something.
There are countless ways of looking at any given fact. What separates facts from knowledge is context. This context – narratives that help us weave together facts – is what makes them intelligible to our limited human mind. These narratives are at the heart of both drama and politics and, if used in a deliberately misleading way to serve a partisan cause, is also known as propaganda.
Mr Agnihotri gets several facts right about the Kashmiri exodus in his much talked about The Kashmir Files. The killings shown in the movie actually happened, as did the terrified flight on the Pandits. Yet the movie winds up as a particularly shallow and exploitative project, where the object of the storytelling is not to shine a light on the suffering of the Pandits but to use them as a springboard to illuminate the worldview of Mr Agnihotri.
This worldview also happens to align with the Hindu nationalists in power, which explains why the movie has been made tax-free in several BJP-governed states. It also explains why the prime minister publicly praised the movie today and condemned the “jamat” of its critics. The movie is now being marketed by the biggest marketer in India.
But what is that worldview?
The first aspect of it is that there is little difference between all Muslim political actors in the valley, all of whom are congenitally anti-Hindu and colluded to commit the “genocide” of Hindus. As chief minister, Farooq Abdullah is shown to be meeting and collaborating with JKLF militants. His party, the National Conference, as IAS Brahma Dutt (played by Mithun Chakraborty) says, was virtually a political front of the militants.
If this is true, then why were workers of the National Conference attacked and killed by militants? The movie also does not explain why Farooq Abdullah would collaborate with militant actors who slowly drained him of all power and legitimacy, which ultimately led to his resignation.
As VN Narayan, the editor of the Tribune, noted in 1989, the policy of Farooq Abdullah towards the gathering chaos in the valley was actually quite repressive: “He [Abdullah] has sought to shift his trust to the Central Reserve Police from the state police. The CRPF has brought a spell of deceptive calm to the city...Arrests and detention without charges have increased, the number is quite out of proportion to the officially claimed number of extremists in the state.”
Similarly, the militants are also portrayed as one undifferentiated mass. There is no difference between the pro-independence JKLF and the pro-Pakistan, Islamist Hizb ul Mujahideen. In fact, there cannot be political differences between militants because they don’t have any political grievances or aspirations – all of them are driven by their hatred towards the Hindu kafir. Indeed, in The Kashmir Files, Yasin Malik and Farooq Ahmad Dar (Bitta Karate) are conjoined to create one character, the main villain of the story.
As far as the civilian population of Kashmir goes, they are also completely in on the project of kafir persecution. Their women throw down the rations of Kashmiri women; their men eye the property of their neighbours and sell them out to militants; their religious leaders are lechers who demand sexual favours of Kashmiri widows; their children beat Pandit children into chanting pro-Islamic slogans. Again, some of this might have been true. But there is no single scene where a Kashmiri Muslim is shown to be motivated by anything other than malice and hatred.
Mr Agnihotri might say this is not Islamophobia, this is the reality of the Kashmiri Muslims: all of them perfidious, aggressive, hyper sexual, fundamentalists. It is only a coincidence that this is also happens to be standard Islamophobic template of the Muslim man in Hindu nationalist texts.
The second aspect of this worldview is that secular political parties sold out the Kashmiri Pandits because they wanted to “appease” the Kashmiri Muslims. Rajiv Gandhi didn't help the Pandits, Mithun Chakraborty tells us, because he didn’t want to ruin his friendship with Farooq Abdullah. It is another matter that the government of the day during the period of the exodus was led by VP Singh, supported by the BJP. This significant fact is not even mentioned once in the movie.
Also, the prime minister of a secular government had called to his office the main villain of the movie to discuss Kashmir. It must be noted that this was the same dreaded militant who is shown to have boasted to the media, without remorse, to have killed more than 20 Kashmiri Pandits, including Pandit civilians. This is where the artifice of conflating Yasin Malik and Bitta Karate really pays off. It was Yasin Malik, the high-profile ex-militant who had renounced violence and claimed to have devoted himself to a peaceful solution on Gandhian lines, who had met Manmohan Singh, not Bitta Karate, who was in jail at that time.
The movie also suggests that no prime minister could take tough decisions such as removing Article 370 because, in the words of the main villain, they wanted themselves to be loved rather than feared, unlike the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. Article 370 is also quite explicitly linked to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, and its removal is the main political demand of Anupam Kher throughout the second half of the movie. In reality, the Kashmiri exodus happened at a time of Governor's rule, when India's appointee enjoyed unlimited power, neither constrained by an elected state assembly nor the Parliament of India.
The third aspect of the worldview is that the Indian Intellectual class, particularly the leftists symbolised by the JNU campus, is morally bankrupt. This part is, of course, Mr Agnihotri's forte. We must remember that it was he who coined the term “urban naxals”, even writing a book on the subject. This term was borrowed from him by prime minister Modi who has used it in election speeches to describe anti-national dissidents and intellectuals. To describe The Kashmir Files’ portrayal of leftists as caricatures would perhaps be too generous.
Suffice it to say the leftists in this movie despise everything about India, are self-loathing Hindus who love Muslims, and whose existence revolves around peddling fake oppression to maintain their stranglehold over elite institutions. They manage to tempt the lead character, a young brainwashed Kashmiri Pandit, to also join their ranks until he is saved by Mithun and his gang of jaded Pandits. Here also, the engagement of leftist intellectuals with Yasin Malik is deliberately portrayed as an endorsement of Bitta Karate.
One might legitimately argue that the intellectual and political left has not given enough space to the Kashmiri Pandit cause, but their portrayal here is a screen version of a Twitter rant of Mr Agnihotri against urban naxals, rather than anything corresponding to reality.
Much of the movie is spent in illustrating these three aspects of Mr Agnihotri's worldview: his view of Kashmiri Muslims, secular politicians, and leftists intellectuals. The motivating force of the movie seems to be to demonise these sections, which also happen to be among the primary domestic targets of Hindu nationalist forces, rather than to enlighten the audience about the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits. The role of the Kashmiri Pandits is merely to act as lifeless corpses on which some grotesque sequences can be stringed together. If you want to see a serious exploration of the life of the Kashmiri Pandits before the exodus, how the exodus informed their collective identity, how they negotiate with the memory of their persecution, or how they have bounced back from their tragedy, this is not that movie.
Many years ago, the reply “what about Kashmiri Pandits” became an almost funny meme on the internet, using the plight of Kashmiri Pandits to distract from any political issue inconvenient to the government. This is the movie equivalent of that meme: an exploitative device that abuses the oppression of the Kashmiri Pandits to delegitimize political narratives inconvenient to the government, and reinforce the narratives favoured by it.
I saw this picture last night in a charged-up theatre in the national capital, where dialogues were interspersed with right-wing slogans and occasional applause. The biggest applause was reserved for Anupam Kher's demand for the removal of Article 370. At the end of the movie, as the closing credits were rolling down the screen, a posse of men in the crowd broke out in a demonstration from their seats. Holding aloft Indian flags, they chanted a variety of menacing slogans: “thok ke denge azadi”, “Afzal ko di hai azadi”, “JNU ko denge azadi”, “jis Hindu ka khoon na khole woh khoon nahi woh pani hai”, “Jai Shri Ram”, and “har har Mahadev”.
I suspected many of them were RSS activists pretending to be regular movie-goers. Indeed, outside the theatre another crowd shouted pro RSS slogans: “atom bomb, atom bomb, RSS atom bomb”. But these slogans were also reciprocated by many others in the audience as well. And this was the exact desired effect of the movie – in this, the RSS and Vivek Agnihotri are one.
On social media, this movie is being compared to Schindler's List. But the message an ordinary person takes away from Schindler's List is “never again” – never again would bigotry of a minority be tolerated to such an extent that it explodes in an orgy of barbaric violence. The message an ordinary Hindu is expected to take from the movie (as attested by many viral videos coming out of theatres) is another kind of “never again” – never again to trust the Muslim, the secularist or the leftist, lest what happened to Kashmiri Hindus is repeated to Hindus in Bengal, Kerala or any other part of India.
This is not a refutation of majoritarian politics and its consequences on minorities, but its justification – a Schindler’s List made with the moral compass of Nazi propagandists.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.