In the past few days, we have witnessed much commentary on social media, TV channels, press columns and even a speech by the prime minister, praising the “truth and art” in a recent Hindi blockbuster, Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files.
The film does indeed narrate the purportedly hidden truths about the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus during the insurgency in 1990. It is another matter though that the truths lined up in the film were never hidden but common knowledge for anyone interested in the story of Kashmir since 1990. The only people, it seems, for whom the film is a revelation are those who should have known this truth in far greater detail than the rest of us; the ones who have subjugated the entire philosophy of their life to a single purpose – to hate Muslims.
The other kind of people for whom this film is a revelation are those who have very conveniently hidden themselves from the truth of the exodus, for fear of seeing themselves in the mirror as perpetrators or their sympathisers. Yet there are many, caught in the middle, who count themselves as among the sane, the secular and the rational and who, though genuinely alarmed at the frenzy and hate mongering that the film has unleashed across the cinema screens, have gone to the other extreme of deriding the absence or obfuscation of the truths in a Bollywood film!
But when was Indian popular cinema ever a truth-telling mirror? Indian popular cinema is more than 100 years old. Over the decades, it has evolved a particular way of storytelling that is unique. Masses cutting across national and international boundaries, territories, regions, religions and cultures continue to enjoy the fare dished out from Indian cinema theatres and on web-based platforms.
At the same time, many of us scoff at it for perpetuating a majoritarian, status quoist view, with illogical storylines, irrational song and dance scenes, and incessant melodrama – perhaps unjustifiably so because Indian popular cinema never claimed to be about truth. It is, in essence, a machine for entertainment and for reinventing and regurgitating popular myths.
In on March 15, writer Asim Ali deconstructs The Kashmir Files meticulously to explain that the film presents facts out of context, obfuscates facts, and does not speak of other facts. In doing so, he writes, it “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.”
I have no quarrel with the argument made by Asim Ali. No doubt, the film does all of the above, but in doing so, in speaking of other facts and the contradictions in Agnihotri’s story, Asim ends up drawing attention away from the very genuine fear and grief Pandits experienced as they fled the valley. This too has a historical context which, like Asim Ali, I too insist is important in order to understand what is being presented.
Many actors of many ideological persuasions have historically and habitually challenged the narrative of Kashmiri Pandit exodus in whichever form it was brought to the world. I have yet to come across a newspaper article, book or film about the exodus that was not put down as a “political project” or “propaganda”. In those too, facts were called out, obfuscations pointed at, and omissions highlighted. In print, in public and private discussions, in seminars and in theatres, yes, the exodus was acknowledged. But the victim was blamed too. There are examples galore but I will point out only a well-known few from some of Kashmir’s prolific and acclaimed Hindu writers.
Rahul Pandita’s book Our Moon Has Blood Clots must be looked at both as a personal account of suffering as well as a political project that implicitly and explicitly makes use of that suffering towards a particular end.
Gigoo's book also suffers from this problem and the reason is, ‘I’ the ‘Kashmiri Pandit’ being the subject. He seems to be too conscious of his identity and this prevents him from taking the less travelled routes of Kashmir conflict and Kashmiri Pandit migration. He echoes the things and narratives which we have been hearing for last twenty years now.
“Pandits, do not leave your motherland. It's a conspiracy by our enemy to separate brother from brother”. (pp-67)
“Let the Pandit men leave Kashmir, but let them leave their women behind” (pp-68)
Haven't we seen these two perspectives of Kashmiri Muslims again and again in every book, pamphlet, and propaganda?
The fact from the Kashmiri Hindu perspective is this: The Pakistan-supported insurgency that started in Kashmir in 1989 has harmed all its inhabitants – Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Kashmiri Hindus had to flee from their homes in the winter of 1990 after many of their relatives and acquaintances were killed, raped, maimed, intimidated and threatened. The being circulated by Vivek Agnihotri on Twitter is the one that my father, a journalist, received the same evening he fled Kashmir.
Many of our secular Muslim and Sikh neighbours were similarly threatened and intimidated and had to flee. After facing trials and tribulations as refugees in the hot plains of India, we have now settled and adjusted ourselves into the mainstream of life in different parts of India and all over the world. But we have not forgotten. And can you ever make people stop remembering because their memory comes in the way of other vulnerable people?
The humiliation, hurt and privations we suffered in the early 1990s has continued to fester as unaddressed wounds in our collective psyche. Many Hindu refugees continue to live in resettlement colonies in Jammu. The people left behind in the valley have simply been forgotten. The perpetrators of heinous crimes against us are still roaming free. No justice has been meted to the criminals. As these wounds continue to fester, the majority of the Muslims of Kashmir remain more or less in denial of the terrible tragedy that befell us. Most of them attribute the miseries visited upon us as a consequence of state policies and conspiracies. Their truth has witnesses and we had none. Or even when , they simply were not heard.
Tragically, many people in India (intellectuals, academicians, writers, artists, journalists and political workers) have endorsed and supported Muslim majoritarian views about our exodus, despite innumerable eyewitness accounts, memoirs, books and films that Kashmiri Hindus have made. Given the feeling of abandonment, denial and humiliation that many Kashmiri Hindus still feel about their exile, it is understandable that there is a lot of anger.
But the perpetrators of our tragedy are in Kashmir. The people we ought to take to task for not paying timely heed to our issues are the politicians who have ruled over us since 1990. Whether it is the government at the centre that was at the helm in 1990 (VP Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Farooq Abdullah) or the later Congress and BJP governments and the present Modi regime, they have all collectively paid nothing more than lip service to our plight. Many refugees continue to languish in the transit camps, no perpetrator has been brought to justice, and there are still no visible plans to bring us home.
But in all this, we also need to appreciate the support we have received from ordinary people in all parts of India including supporting us with free rations, salaries in absentia, reservations in educational institutions, help in securing jobs, and enabling our progress in all walks of life without facing the fear, persecution and discrimination that many Indians from marginal communities routinely face. Unlike them, we were helped to stand up on our feet and shout out louder.
The Kashmir Files depicts the story of the exile of Kashmiri Hindus as a melodrama, in a typical Indian popular film idiom. In which realistic film would you see a Pandit with blue paint on his face in preparation for Shivratri? Shivratri comes only in February or March but the events shown in the film happened in December 1989/January 1990. And pray, when did Pandits ever paint their faces? It uses and abuses the facts in the same way as many films made in India (Haider, Jashn-e-azadi) and in Hollywood do. It takes artistic liberties with the actual events to fashion a film that is designed to affect us emotionally.
This is what Indian popular films do. In the 100-odd years of Indian film history, many such films have been made and many more are yet to come. To put The Kashmir Files in the same category as Schindler’s List is an even more melodramatic comparison, much in Indian fashion. We certainly cannot call Schindler’s List a benchmark film on an exodus because there never is a “never again” after an exodus. Many of the progeny of the victims of the holocaust are the perpetrators of brutality upon another victim community today. Is this expected of us as well?
There have been many films from the Indian movie heartland about the exodus before (Sheen in 2004, Shikara in 2020). These have all flopped, not because they had anything different to sell but perhaps because they were compromised in their telling and lacked the backing of the state. Like the previous films, The Kashmir Files too is an equally mediocre film and yet, merely two years since Shikara, a lot has changed in India for all of us. For many Kashmiris, The Kashmir Files is a cathartic experience and works as a balm for their pain. I have no quarrel with the film per se if it has the concurrence and support of a majority of Kashmiri Hindus because they certainly know more than us about what they have gone through. Therefore, the concerned citizens who are so worked up about the insidious project of The Kashmir Files must first stop questioning the story and then start to introspect their own role and analyse why it is that this particular film has become a rallying cry for a dark and sinister ideological movement that harms us all.
In my view, the reason is our silence, discomfort and disdain for Hindu pain because it calls into question the Muslim perpetrator. The defence mechanism of our discomfort turns into disbelief and into turning a blind eye. So, if every story that we tell is scoffed at as a lie, exaggeration and propaganda, if the truth of every atrocity we speak of is questioned, if the eyewitness of his own shaming is shamed again at his telling, if the perpetrators are valourised as heroes, and if the guilt of Kashmir’s majority is whitewashed over and over and time and again, it is inevitable that the anger a people feel will turn malevolent. People of Kashmir who have had their stories of brutalities at the hands of the Indian state denied and obfuscated would definitely react similarly.
The sinister hands behind the making of The Kashmir Files and its wide promotion as a weapon against the Muslims has its roots in our own failings as a secular people and in our whataboutery; but Pandits were elites, Pandits were collaborators, Muslims in Kashmir were killed too, Muslims were massacred in Jammu too and Jagmohan facilitated the exodus etc; and about countless other atrocities the Muslims in Kashmir and elsewhere have faced every time we speak of Hindus of Kashmir. If the story of Kashmir (and I mean all of Kashmir) had had a patient and sympathetic ear from the secular Indian public once, it would not have arisen again to haunt this blighted nation. We need to know that Kashmiri Hindus have never raised a hand against a Muslim in revenge. They continue to maintain cordial relations with individual Muslims in Kashmir, despite Modi, despite the exodus, and despite the contentious histories between the two communities.
But this goes for other stories too. Every other painful event of communal frenzy in India has become a footnote in our history but not this. Because now, the sky is turning red.
I have an everyday problem though with the hate for Muslims that has surfaced among so many of my Hindu friends and relatives. I see that many disturbing videos have surfaced on social media which show audiences in film theatres being harangued and incited by political workers (likely affiliated with the RSS or any of its Parivar organisations) with anti-Muslim slogans, hate speech and exhortations to boycott and kill. As a Kashmiri Hindu who has faced the brunt of Muslim belligerence and majoritarianism in Kashmir, I see this as the other reflection of brute majoritarianism against the Muslim citizens of India. I do not believe that any of my fellow Muslim citizens in any part of India is even remotely responsible for what happened to us as Kashmiri Hindus in Kashmir.
Though I seek justice and permanent rehabilitation back in my home in Kashmir, I do not think the government of the day led by Narendra Modi can be allowed to weaponise our pain and suppress or bypass our just demands by turning us against our fellow neighbours elsewhere. I do not want my situation and my anger to be used as a tool for revenge upon another minority. I express my shame and repugnance at the appropriation of my own tragic story to wreak vengeance upon another minority. I want the people of India to know that many Kashmiri Hindus do stand up to the marauders who wish to appropriate our story to fulfil their own nefarious agenda against the minorities of India.
As Kashmiri Hindus, we need to stand up to the hijacking of our plight by people with sinister agendas.
Ajay Raina is an award winning filmmaker, writer and educator. He is the founder of Kashmir Oral History project () and curator of a travelling festival of films related to Kashmir.