The Kashmir Files lands a sucker punch on the gut of a people prone to historical and moral blackouts

Atrocities committed against a minority community are now etched in the collective memory of a nation, codifying events that had existed only in oral history

Sreemoy Talukdar March 23, 2022 10:56:10 IST
The Kashmir Files lands a sucker punch on the gut of a people prone to historical and moral blackouts

Vivek Agnihotri's 'The Kashmir Files' has been receiving a lot of love at the box office. It has already earned Rs 198 crore since its release.

When my editor urged me to write on The Kashmir Files, I was a little hesitant to put pen to paper before I had watched the film. Getting hold of tickets in sync with my routine was proving an uphill task as the film has been creating a tsunami in box office. I finally managed to do so this Sunday.

I knew what to expect, still, when the movie ended, I had trouble getting up from the chair — tottering from the punch at my gut. To be honest, I didn’t find The Kashmir Files to be a very ‘well-crafted’ film. The script could have been tighter, the narration could have been smoother. The protagonist’s transition from a sceptic to a believer appeared too abrupt. But all this is irrelevant.

It has taken courage and conviction for director Vivek Agnihotri and his crew to make this film. Before The Kashmir Files came along, Indian film industry had chosen to ignore this ‘sensitive’ topic, create false equivalences or doctored history so as not to imperil “secularism”. It is to Agnihotri’s credit that instead of treading gingerly on the issue of minority Hindus becoming a victim of jihadism, murderous separatism and ethnic cleansing, he holds up a mirror.

And in so doing, The Kashmir Files lands a sucker punch on the gut of a people prone to historical and moral blackouts. It is an almighty strike against the conspiracy of silence that sought to suppress and invalidate the horrors on Kashmiri Hindus inflicted by Islamist terrorists. It is a punch up against decades of denial and concealment of a genocide by the Indian state.

Brutalities against Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley remained buried under a debris of political disinformation, creation of alternate realities and administered memories — save a few valiant, articulate, unrelenting voices from the pandit community who could never be bullied into silence.

The film has broken the cowardly silence and demolished the edifice of lies in a majestic display of cinematic power. As raw wounds are revealed, the atrocities committed against a minority community are now etched in the collective memory of a nation, codifying events that had existed only in oral history. The praxis of a tortured, uprooted community is finally finding wider expression.

The Kashmir Files couldn’t have come a day sooner because these lived experiences would have soon become extinct with the passing away of the generation that had undergone the carnage first hand. Their painful memories would become a forgotten chapter in history under the twin pressures of silence and natural process of forgetting.

Is The Kashmir Files too gory? Perhaps. Yet some survivors who escaped the terror say the truth is gorier still. Ultimately, this is a story that needed to be told in all its honest brutality to awake a nation from its somnambulism. Even as it creates a new praxis, the film is expectedly facing a lot of pushback from expected quarters.

There are those who find Islamophobia in the portrayal of truth. Years of political appeasement, rationalisation, justification and even denial of Islamist violence has created a condition where even portrayal of blatant Hinduphobia on screen is termed “Islamophobic”. The Pandits were killed and driven away from their homes for the only ‘crime’ that they were Hindus. If the depiction of this truth becomes “Islamophobic”, then peddlers of such narratives need to introspect on their lost moral compass and their role in defending the indefensible.

Not so surprisingly, some of the political opposition to the film has come from the Congress party and the National Conference, whose then chief minister Farooq Abdullah had renounced his responsibilities and absconded in January 1990, leaving the minority Kashmiri Hindus to be butchered by Pakistan-trained and funded Islamist terrorists of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Prominent voices from the Pandit community have pointed at the timing and sequence of Abdullah’s departure, abandonment of his role as chief and abdication of responsibilities.

The attempt to shift the blame for the gruesome incidents during late 1980s and early 1990s from Islamism-inspired violence to then governor Jagmohan — who in sanitized political narrative is responsible for Kashmiri Pandits’ “exodus” from the Valley — is a lie that has been busted countless times but still manages to persist.

Apart from the fact that “exodus” or “leaving” implies an agency that the defenceless Pandits lacked who had to flee for their lives or face death, there exists many first-person accounts that have contested these claims.

Journalist Aditya Raj Kaul, a survivor, wrote on Jagmohan’s death that it is “a personal loss for Kashmiri Pandits” who “became a victim of lies”.

As author Rahul Pandita writes in Open, conspiracy theories on Jagmohan “do not take into account that a vicious, orchestrated campaign to evict Pandits had begun much before Jagmohan assumed office in January 1990… Many brutal killings had happened and it was clear in many cases that neighbours, friends and colleagues had turned against them.”

Pandita quotes Ghulam Mohammed Sofi, editor of the Srinagar Times, as saying in his piece that “the Pandit flight from the Valley was the sequel to a plan hatched well in advance from outside the state. It had nothing to do with Jagmohan… Police stations all over the Valley were centres of operation for the militants. Jagmohan could not have done anything. Nearly 32,000 Kashmiri Pandit houses have been burnt since 1991. Is there Jagmohan’s hands in this too?”

Left-leaning journalist, the late Nikhil Chakravarty, editor of the leftist magazine Mainstream, in an article dated February 1990 had explained why Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah had invented the “Jagmohan theories”.

These political debates, however, have now been made defunct by the film that has made the tragedy relatable, and connected with its audiences through a visceral documentation of events. The Kashmir Files brought home the universality and centrality of pain. Those who have watched the film, are now co-sufferers of the trauma that befell a persecuted people. The agony and frustration of the Kashmiri Pandits is now theirs, too.

For the perpetrators, those who were complicit, enablers and deniers, the film has appeared as a laser whip from the past. They can smear, denigrate and vilify but ill afford to ignore a movie that has caught the nation’s imagination. The most common criticism has been that it ‘inspires hatred’. Denial of ethnic cleansing isn’t hatred, suppression of the truth isn’t hatred, whitewashing of barbarism isn’t hatred, but depicting it on screen apparently is.

In this inverted moral universe, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh writes, “Kashmir Files incites hate. Truth can lead to justice, rehabilitation, reconciliation & peace. Propaganda twists facts, distorts history to whip up anger & promote violence. Statesmen heal wounds. Pracharaks exploit fear and prejudice to divide & rule.”

Another Congress leader, Shashi Tharoor, acknowledges that “Kashmiri Pandits suffered terribly. We must stand up for their rights”, and then proceeds to add “but demonising Kashmiri Muslims doesn’t help the Pandits either. Hatred divides & kills. Kashmiris need justice. All need to be heard, helped & healed.” I wonder if Tharoor had watched the movie before commenting, because exposing the barbarism of jihadi terrorism is not “demonizing” Kashmiri Muslims, and it has been noted that moderate Muslim voices amid the carnage also lost their lives.

Curiously, while the issue at hand and the focus of the film is the uncovering and telling of the atrocities against Kashmiri Hindus — a minority community who were killed, evicted and made homeless in their own country — Congress leaders, Leftist cabal, self-styled upholders of “secularism” and apologists of Islamism are busy delegitimising the voices of the real victims and conferring victimhood on the community which has a perennial claim on it, no matter the context or the circumstances.

The Congress government in Rajasthan has clamped Section 144 in Kota district in view of the screening of the film, and last week the state’s chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, said that “the debate on this film in the media and on social media spoils the atmosphere of brotherhood and harmony. This should be avoided by the media.”

In 1979, an American TV series aired in (then) West Germany for the first time. Named ‘Holocaust’, the series triggered a tectonic cultural shift in the country, which had, until at least the 1960s, lived in denial and silence over its antisemitic past. Tracing the suffering and travails of a fictional Jewish family, the mini-series forced Germans to confront their past. It normalised the word ‘Holocaust’ which most Germans had remained oblivious of, and through the telling of a personal story, made the grief and shock relatable to all.

On the series’ social impact in 1979 Germany, a BBC report noted, “the series sparked a national debate. Surveys show that 86% of viewers discussed the Holocaust with friends or family after watching the programme. Ten thousand Germans called the broadcaster WDR afterwards, many in tears, to express their shock and shame. In some cases, former soldiers got in touch to confirm the details of Nazi crimes… This was the first time that a major mainstream drama had portrayed the lives of Hitler’s victims.”

Werner Jung, director of the National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne, told German media outlet DW: “it was this film that created something like a culture of remembrance in Germany.”

While left-wingers were accusing the makers of “cynically exploiting Nazi crimes for the sake of TV ratings”, the German right wing were denouncing it as an “incitement.” One wonders if Congress leaders would prefer to revisit their positions since their views on ‘Kashmir Files’ align with the German right wing on ‘Holocaust’.

In May 1985, then West German president Richard von Weizsäcker had delivered a speech to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. According to Washington Post, the 65-year-old Weizsäcker, whose father was the chief career diplomat for the Third Reich, had said, “The young and old generations can and must help each other to understand why it is important to keep memories alive… anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.”

In its obsessive memorialization of the victims, Germany has made ‘remembrance’ a cultural motif. It has even placed brass plaques into the sidewalks of German towns and cities, bearing the names and details of Jewish victims. As a Foreign Affairs article notes, “to date, more than 56,000 Stolpersteine have been placed in urban locations in some 22 countries, the vast majority in Germany itself. By placing them where people would walk over them, the artist intended to remind passersby of the complicity of ordinary Germans in the violence.”

If a country cannot interrogate its past and hold the perpetrators of past atrocities responsible for their crimes, when many of them are still alive, it is complicit in double injustice towards the victims. The charges of ‘incitement’, ‘demonization’, against Kashmir Files are not only spurious but even diabolical because these are ploys to extend the complicity of silence, keep the facts from sunlight.

And the facts are tumbling out. From those who have long been vocal as well as those who had chosen so far to remain silent.

“Our 20,000 houses were burnt. 450 temples were destroyed. Our land, business, and everything were finished. We were waiting for last 32 years for this country to recognise the genocide”, Utpal Kaul, International Coordinator, Global Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora, told a TV channel.

Colonel Vinayak Bhat (Retd), who had served in the Indian Army for over 33 years and is now a satellite imagery analyst, wrote on Twitter of his personal experience. “Personally taken down skinned bodies of #Pandits fm tree in #Kupwara. Terrorists killed them for being “Bharat ke Mukhbir”. Skinned alive,necks cut halal style&genitals cut&stuffed in their mouths! 3 #IA offrs had similar fate 1994. Do they’ve human rights? (sic)

And there has been a tidal wave of personal grief on display, howling expression of emotions and cathartic retelling of past trauma, buried under mountains of self-repression.

For instance, the niece of Kashmiri Pandit BK Ganjoo, who was killed by JKLF terrorist Bitta Karate, spoke recently in California after watching the film. As Aditya Raj Kaul related in a tweet, Ganjoo who was hiding in a rice drum in the attic of the house was killed after terrorists were directed towards the location by a neighbour.

One film has managed to unearth it all. After decades of lies, obfuscation and propaganda, it has managed to cut through the clutter and show the truth. It is not pretty, but it isn’t meant to be. Only through acknowledgement can we hope for a collective culture of atonement. The retelling of these stories, as the film has done, the uncovering of these heinous crimes, is vital for a nation that has once been partitioned along religious lines.

This churn, that we are now being witness to, is essential to confront our ordeals and anguishes. Suppressing of this painful history — where the state colluded with Islamist separatists and threw a people to its fate — won’t heal the wounds, it will create pathologies and cast an amnesiac shadow over our collective memories.

For this reason alone, Agnihotri’s film was a necessary one. By showing the incidents as it were, without aiming to cushion it or indulge in false equivalences, Kashmir Files has provided a reference point, a marker in history which can be referred to during chronicling of these painful events.

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