Kashmir is not a file: Propaganda and politics in India

The recently released movie ‘The Kashmir Files’ dwells on Kashmiri Pandit suffering alone and is a relentless attempt to vilify and delegitimise Kashmiri Muslim pain, writes Kashmiri novelist and academic Dr Nitasha Kaul.
A poster for The Kashmir Files
A poster for The Kashmir Files
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The very word ‘Kashmir’ is wielded as a weapon in India today. The defenders of Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu nationalism, vocally and often violently emphasise that the essential tragedy of Kashmir is the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, an indigenous Hindu faith minority of the region. Against this backdrop, the recently released movie The Kashmir Files is communal propaganda by an Indian filmmaker that trades upon this suffering. Unsurprisingly, it fits right into mainstream contemporary India.

I speak as a Kashmiri who has lost the peace of her homeland to entrenched and enduring conflict and had the identity of her homeland stripped by Hindutva India in August 2019. I speak as a Kashmiri, as a Kashmiri Pandit woman, as a senior academic who has worked for years on Kashmir, as a poet who has lamented the losses of Kashmir, as a novelist whose book Future Tense published months after the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy and tells precisely the interconnected stories of conflicts and traumas faced by different kinds of Kashmiris – Hindu, Muslim, Shia, Sunni, male, female, from Srinagar, from villages, and more.

This movie emphasises the exceptionalism of Kashmiri Pandit suffering and the ubiquity of Kashmiri Muslim barbarity. It rails against Indian media, even though the media is already incredibly state-centric on Kashmir. It offers a familiar-from-Hindutva view of universities such as JNU being full of misguided leftist/liberals who are anti-national to the core. This movie can show ‘Free Kashmir’ banners and refer to the plebiscite on Kashmir as a condition of accession that was never carried out – in order to debunk these things – but anyone else in real life who dares to seriously discuss these very things publicly in India risks being imprisoned or charged with sedition.

As I stated in my Congressional testimony on Kashmir in 2019, all massacres of all Kashmiris need investigation and the punishment of perpetrators – Nadimarg 2003 for Kashmiri Pandits, and also Gawkadal, Handwara, Chattisinghpora, Sopore, Doda, and more where Kashmiri Muslims or Kashmiri Sikhs were targeted. This movie makes no attempt to place Kashmiri Pandit suffering as part of state violence and state failure that affected other Kashmiri populations.

The most sinister focus in the movie is the extraordinary lengths it goes to in attempting to delegitimise any non-communal Kashmiri Pandit voice of solidarity for Kashmir or with Kashmiri Muslims. The protagonist is a young Kashmiri Pandit student of JNU who is brainwashed by his scheming female professor into believing that all Kashmiris deserve justice and Kashmiri Muslims have suffered too. As the movie unfolds, the viewer is shown that all Kashmiri Muslims are vile, the progressives are misled, the only morally redeemed man is the protagonist’s own grandfather who lost his son and daughter-in-law to Islamic terrorists and has spent his life agitating for the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy. In this realisation, the protagonist is helped by several Indians who knew his family in Srinagar before the exodus; a media man, a bureaucrat, a policeman, a doctor. The young Kashmiri Pandit student gradually overcomes his progressive mental conditioning to realise the great ancient Hindu glory of Kashmir and of Kashmiri Pandits.

Men fuel the movie. The young Kashmiri Pandit man, his grandfather, the five men in a room who dominate much of the narrative, the vile KM men. The women in the movie are represented – as women typically are – as victims of atrocities who suffer the Islamic barbarisms. The exceptions are the wife of the bureaucrat who comes into the room with the five men to offer tea or food or answer a phone call. The other villain of the piece, although unbeknownst to herself since she is brainwashed by progressive ideas, is the female JNU professor. Her character composition reflects a barely disguised animosity towards Indian figures like Professor Nivedita Menon at JNU and writer and activist Arundhati Roy. This character in the film addresses the students at JNU with rousing words and verses of freedom and hope for justice and is curiously depicted in a photograph with terrorist Bitta Karate in the exact same pose that Arundhati Roy was pictured with Yasin Malik, a JKLF leader who was hunted by India as a terrorist and later when he renounced violence and vowed peace, he was refused negotiations by India and repudiated by Pakistan too and is currently in jail in India.

The movie dwells on Kashmiri Pandit suffering alone and makes ample use of Islamophobic tropes – all Muslims in the movie are violent, barbaric or lecherous or devious or vile. Ostensibly framed as a counter-argument and dialogue, the film is a relentless attempt to vilify and delegitimise Kashmiri Muslim suffering or viewpoints by associating and collapsing all of them into the most extreme figure of Bitta Karate, aka Farooq Ahmed Dar, a terrorist who killed Kashmiri Pandits.

You might not know that the name of the Kashmiri man who was tied to a jeep by the army and used as a human shield after having voted in elections in Kashmir was also called Farooq Ahmed Dar. Kashmir was an international political dispute long before I or the film’s maker were even born. Kashmir’s reality is complex.

Kashmiri Pandits were killed in hundreds (as per official figures and as per KPSS or Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti figures) and they have lost home/land, a lacerating blow that reverberates intergenerationally. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims have also been killed or subjected to enforced disappearance, rape or torture. The movie makes comparisons of Kashmiri Pandits with Jews and refers to the Holocaust. What can one say? There should never be a discourse of competing victimhoods or a communal politics over tragic suffering. The continued tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits must not be a tool to legitimise collective punishment of Kashmiri Muslims and extract political profit for Hindutva by using ‘what about Kashmiri Pandits?’ as a retort to every humiliation or killing of Muslims in India. Our wound is not your coin. Kashmiris have suffered across lines of identities and all Kashmiris need justice.

Yet as the attention and official endorsement of this movie has made clear, only certain kinds of cultural productions/texts/novels/films on Kashmir are and can be widely read/seen in contemporary India. Work from Kashmiri Pandits is expected to amplify Kashmiri Pandit pain for Indians and from Kashmiri Muslims to mute their pain for Indians. That which cuts across this classification is dismissed. For reasons of fear, in/formal censorship, stereotypes and perpetuation of communal divides, you will never hear Kashmiri Pandit voices like mine on Indian TV channels where hate and ignorance is daily peddled.

Do not ban this movie, I say, ask instead how we can create a society where the horrors faced by Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims alike can ignite empathy, where it is possible to call for justice for the brutal killings of Girija Tickoo and also Tufail Mattoo. Is it not possible for Indians to be moved by the killing of young Kashmiri Muslim boys whose heads are exploded on football fields? Can someone in India make a movie of this kind about Kashmiri Muslims?

Cui bono? Who profits from communal hate on Kashmir? This movie, as it does brisk business earning crores of rupees every day, has cast Muslims as outsiders going millennia back in the history of India and in the region of Kashmir. The Himalayas have always been zones of contact, intermingling and trade so it takes a special kind of primordial religious fundamentalism to designate all Muslims as outsiders going back thousands of years when the nation-state system is not even a few hundred years old, and India itself is not even a century old yet.

The movie wants to claim Kashmiri Pandits as Hindus not as Kashmiri Pandits. A character even says at one point that these were not Kashmiri Pandits who suffered but Indians. It projects a certain ‘Hindu’ idea of India and Hindu idea of Kashmiri Pandits even to the extent of showing only vegetarian food in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. Yet, as any Kashmiri Pandit will tell you, our Pandit tag notwithstanding, we grew up eating not just Dum Olav or Monj Haak or Nadru or Tchaman or Choek Wangan (vegetarian dishes) but also Neni Rogan Josh and Neni Yakhni (meat preparations). Kashmiri Pandits should not have to dilute their Kashmiri identity to suit Hindutva Indian tastes.

Hindu supremacists in India have weaponised the Kashmiri Pandit exodus. As I had said in the aftermath of the events of August 5, 2019, instead of requesting judicial inquiries into various instances of violence, rapes, massacres and losses of both Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims, or addressing the conflict towards a just peace that would enable Kashmiri Pandits to return to their homes and Kashmiri Muslims to find justice, their interest is in making Kashmir into another ‘Ram Mandir’, a long-standing and politically profitable issue for the BJP that can help them in transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation).

The killings of Kashmiri Pandits were abominable and the trauma of having Kashmiri Pandit women targeted as prize while Kashmiri Pandits were offered the choice of Raliv, Galiv ya Chaliv (Convert, Die or Leave) is a blot on Kashmir’s history. And this tragic anti-minority moment of ‘with us or against us’ in a masculinist nationalist political struggle is a familiar one globally in conflicts where the minorities are rendered into subordinate citizens, their rights are nullified, and women become targets of policing ‘honour’ and defining ‘shame’. This violence and targeting has been faced by Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, perpetrated by military and by militants. The calls for justice and return home of Kashmiri Pandits cannot, and must not, resurrect a Raliv, Galiv ya Chaliv for Muslims in India today whose rights and citizenship are an eyesore for those who view secularism as a pathology, Muslims as outsiders, and want to cleanse and purify India as a Hindu land.

This movie feeds into cycles of hate and revenge. It collapses Kashmir’s history and politics into an Islamophobic morality tale that is palatable and profitable to Hindutva India. It should offend all Indians, Hindus, Muslims, Kashmiri Muslims, men, women and others who have ever cared for humanity across religious lines. Yet, the very fact that the movie, backed by those who control the state, makes such effort to malign solidarity among Kashmiris across Hindu-Muslim divides and traduce solidarity between Indians and Kashmiris is, perhaps, reflective of how such solidarities for justice and peace are urgent and growing.

Dr Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, academic, poet, economist and artist. She is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Her latest novel on Kashmir is titled Future Tense (2020). All her written and spoken work over the years is archived at www.nitashakaul.com

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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