Why you must watch and talk about 'The Kashmir Files' to break the deafening silence
The Kashmir Files is one of few attempts made in the 32 years since the Kashmiri Hindus had to flee for their lives to break the silence and give utterance to their suppressed story
One of the most horrific aspects of this story is not the violence perpetrated on an innocent minority Kashmiri Hindu community but the silence thereafter. It happened in Bengal too.
I watched The Kashmir Files yesterday. What struck me was not the violence (of which there is far less than the average Bollywood gangland potboiler) but the silence. The silence of the rest of India, the so-called thinking, educated, aware India. My India. The Kashmiri Hindus or Pandits (KPs) were naive enough to believe that their plight and pain would strike a responsive chord among us. Instead there was a deafening silence.
Silence not only from the State, especially the bureaucracy which, ironically, had many KPs (mainly descendants of those who had settled in UP and elsewhere long ago) but also “civil society”, the press, academia and, most tragically, even the youth who are usually so impressionable and ready to take up causes. The Kashmir Files story holds up all these hand-wringing mute spectators or ignorant sloganeers to a very harsh and unforgiving light.
As an east Bengali born and bred, the silence of these characters and in some cases even the tormented Kashmiri Hindus themselves really got to me. The film shows that the latter desperately sought a silver lining to the death and despair around them by rationalising what was happening to them or seeking to protect their younger generation from the searing legacy of hate by not telling them what really happened in those dark days of January 1990.
It got to me because silence had stifled the stories of my people too: East Bengalis who saw communal hatred turn their neighbours and therefore had to flee their—my—homeland, not only in 1947 but in successive waves, including in 1971. They fled to West Bengal where they got little sympathy from the people or government. Their hopes were dashed further by the perfidious Nehru-Liaquat Pact. Those Files need to be opened. Silences need to be broken.
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The Kashmir Files is one of few attempts made in the 32 years since the Kashmiri Hindus had to flee for their lives to break that silence, and give utterance to their suppressed story. Ashok Pandit made Sheen in 2004 but the time was evidently not right for his cry to be heard. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara romanticised and toned down Rahul Pandita’s piercing 2013 memoir Our Moon has Blood Clots so we audiences had an excuse to skim just the surface.
But The Kashmir Files makes silence difficult if not impossible for us to be perfunctory, based as it is on documented stories of targeted killings, rapes, intimidation and the betrayal of the Kashmiri Hindu minority in the state. The knowledge that these are not gory incidents flowing from the over-heated imagination of a Bollywood screenplay writer is what makes many people, particularly in my milieu, deeply uncomfortable about this film.
So, many reasons will be proffered by such people, for not watching The Kashmir Files. “Why should I go watch a BJP propaganda film?!” is the most common response. Another one is, “There’s tooooo much violence shown, I can’t take that. I’d rather watch Gangubai Kathiawadi”. And then there’s “All this never happened.” The real reasons are many. No one likes to feel guilty. Or like a complacent fool. Or a useful idiot. Or complicit.
The fact is, back in 1990 many of us were in our 20s or 30s, reasonably well-educated, quite well-read, politically aware and sympathetic to many causes and conflicts of that time. And we (thought we) knew the plight of people who are officially termed “Internally Displaced People”. Who are those…? Afghans. Bosnians. Serbians. Sudanese. Syrians. Never Indians. But somehow even we never considered our Kashmiri Hindus to be among them.
And yet there they were, “displaced” right under our noses, fleeing to places such as Delhi, a city otherwise full of powerful cabals of politicians, moneybags, bureaucrats, academics, laywers, tycoons and yes, university students—fellow Indians—who energetically and mindlessly chanted “Azadi” year after year in support of separatist-terrorists, egged on by activist teachers. But there was no “outpouring of support” for them. Just a shocking silence.
Displaced had been used as a euphemism for Driven Out before: for East Bengalis. They were also betrayed by a negligent West Bengal and Nehru’s incomprehensible pact with Pakistan prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, supposedly to ensure “displaced” minorities on both sides would be rehabilitated in their original homeland. The naivete of this assumption was mindboggling: how could minority Bengali Hindus expect safety in a mandated Muslim homeland?
Yet Nehruvian India continued with that disgraceful dissembling and the government preferred to call the Hindu refugees merely “displaced” and therefore earmarked to go back to where they came from, never mind its unlikeliness. There was a concerted effort to reduce aid to refugees too, starting with “able bodied men”. Later, even the residential enclave in New Delhi allotted to refugee Bengalis was named “East Pakistan Displaced Persons” Colony.
Back in 1947-50, the “displaced” East Bengalis kept quiet, internalised their pain and privations, hoping their plight would be heard in places that matter. They weren’t. A few letters detailing their harrowing experiences were published in the Bengali daily Jugantar and then that stopped. There was no response from the state or centre, no discussion in bhadralok society about why the minority Bengali Hindus had left home despite assurances of ‘safety’.
And when history repeated itself in 1990 in another part of India, the same thing happened. Silence. Post-1990, we bickered instead about sloganeers and activists, nationalists and separatists, left, right, centre, pro-Pak vs Anti-Pak, green, saffron, red… All without wanting to know or sparing a thought for Kashmiri Hindus who had been ethnically cleansed from the valley, not a century ago but in our lifetime, under our watch, amid our smug ignorance and our silence.
“We didn’t know…” is a common refrain I heard after seeing this movie. Behind that statement lies a gamut of emotions. Horror, of course, that such things were perpetrated not in medieval times or in the mutual communal heat of Partition but as a systematic political terror tactic to vivisect India in the last decade of the 20th century. And guilt, especially among those who otherwise count themselves as aware. But not disbelief or denial anymore.
No one has to watch “BJP propaganda”. The Kashmiri Hindus who fled, especially in those 10 days of mayhem in January 1990 — not the descendants of the Kashmiri Hindu elite who left the Valley generations ago to get work in the Mughal, British and Nehruvian era — are there in your town or city, if not your neighbourhood even today. Meet them and hear their stories. Their expressions will tell you if they are lying, deceiving or inciting.
Then go watch Bandit Queen again to remember an earlier Bollywood retelling of a gruesomely violent but true event. After that, watch Vishal Bharadwaj’s fictional Haider again too to remind yourself about the dominant “narrative” on Kashmir. Even watch Gangubai Kathiawadi. Then see The Kashmir Files. There is NO reason, no excuse not to. And talk about it: not only about the violence but the silence. Because the consequences of silence are obvious.
The author is a freelance writer.
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