The Kashmir Files: A tragedy retold
While the film might be therapeutic for Pandits, it does not provide any perspective on critical issues such as Delhi-Srinagar intrigue, rigged polls, State brutalities, and demands for greater autonomy and azaadi
Long before The Kashmir Files, there was Parzania, a film that relives the trauma of a Parsi family that lost their son in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Just before the film was to be released in Ahmedabad, the director, Rahul Dholakia, was summoned by the multiplex theatre association and told that the National Award-winning film could be shown only if “cleared” by the local Bajrang Dal leader, Babu Bajrangi. The notorious Bajrangi is accused of leading murderous mobs in the 2002 violence. With the Gujarat government refusing to intervene, Dholakia had little option but to withdraw the film from the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who now hails Kashmir Files for “truth-telling”, was the Gujarat chief minister at the time.
The immutable truth is that netas and their partisan cheerleaders cutting across party lines are unwilling to face the inconvenient truths of history. Make an honest film on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and be sure that the Congress will raise a red flag. A Bengal Files that highlights political violence is unlikely to be screened in that state. The history of this country’s cinema is strewn with cases of films being censored and banned, the limits of artistic freedom being drawn by existing power equations.
Where The Kashmir Files stands out is that this is a rarest of rare instance where a ruling political party is using State power to actively promote a privately made film. From entertainment tax waivers and booking theatres at subsidised rates to even giving government employees a day off to watch the film, never before in recent times has a political leadership and its affiliates so brazenly used commercial cinema for public mobilisation in a manner where the lines between State propaganda and cinematic narratives are blurred.
Nor should the State’s explicit patronage of The Kashmir Files come as a surprise. After all, the core storyline of the film fits in with a dominant majoritarian political ideology that sees the Muslim, within and across the border, as the principal “enemy”. The horror of the 1989-90 killings and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits pits “barbaric” Islamism versus “peace-loving” Hinduism in a stark and real manner. The fact is that the awful winter of a defining year in Kashmir’s tryst with violence did witness the targeted killings of Kashmiri Hindus by Pakistan-sponsored terror groups. Rekindling those images more than three decades later will only amplify the prevailing Islamophobic hate politics that has already ruptured society.
For many Kashmiri Hindu families, who were uprooted and pushed into refugee camps, a film like this may be an emotionally cathartic experience, a chance to have their agonising story acknowledged and told to a wider audience. But while a film might be therapeutic for the victims, can it bring about genuine change, a sense of justice, and finally, reconciliation? This is where Kashmir’s blood-soaked history cannot be reduced to a one-sided political drama without providing relevant context and perspective. How, for example, does one correct the seeming amnesia over the Kashmiri Pandit exodus without any reference to other important aspects of Kashmir’s frozen turbulence, be it the Delhi-Srinagar intrigue, rigged elections, State brutalities, historical demands for greater autonomy or indeed, azaadi (freedom)?
In the last three decades, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and third front governments have all been in power at the Centre, but failed to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandit families or indeed prosecute most of their killers. What does it say about our criminal justice system that one of the original poster boys of Kashmiri azaadi, Yasin Malik, was only charged as late as 2020 for the murder of four Indian Air Force officers in a 1990 terror attack? Recall that successive governments in Delhi — the BJP and the Congress — saw Malik as a stakeholder in the Kashmir dialogue.
Which is also why it is so much easier to cover up for the failings of the Indian State by promoting a film made by an unapologetic BJP supporter that builds on the familiar demonisation of Muslim as terrorist theme without any nuance, rather than ensuring justice to the victims of terror or untangle the hugely problematic Kashmiri knot. Not just justice for grieving Kashmiri Pandit families, but also for Kashmiri Muslims, hundreds of whom have died facing terror merchants.
Unfortunately, a post-1990 generation — around half of this country’s citizenry is born after that landmark year — would seem to have little time to seek historical accuracy on polarising issues. Fed on a diet of competitive propaganda, prime time noise, post-truth twists and hyper-nationalism, this is a “new” India that gets its “facts” from WhatsApp forwards, social media influencers and 60-second viral videos. A “new” India where controversial films on Nathuram Godse attract far more attention than measured writings on Mahatma Gandhi. Caught between a rising tide of Islamic extremism and a Hindu awakening, it is almost as if an entire generation is being driven by fear and hatred of the other and not compassion and harmony. Would anyone, for example, be allowed to document the stories of worthy attempts made by Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits at peaceful co-existence without being branded as “anti-national”? The truth-telling mirror must show all sides — good, bad and ugly — before it can attempt to heal the festering sores of a fractured past.
Post-script: A few years ago, a super-hit film, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, made a stab at promoting Indo-Pak peace and friendship. One evocative dialogue stays with me: “Nafrat phailana bahut aasan hai, pyar baatna mushkil” (it is easier to incite hatred than spread love). That holds true for politically aligned film-makers as it does for vote bank politicians.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal