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'The Kashmir Files': A one-sided tale of trauma and tragedy

Opinion: How do we differentiate between propaganda and cinematic liberty?

In the world’s largest democracy, Muslims are witnessing rampant Islamophobia daily.

Sometimes it is through hate speech by leaders, controversial policies, or demands to boycott Muslim businesses. New film ‘The Kashmir Files’detailing the Kashmiri-Hindu exodus also appears to stoke hatred against Indian Muslims. It has already crossed over 200 crores at the box office and is the biggest grosser in the ‘post-pandemic’ era.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed the film and said “brings out the truth”. Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled states announced tax breaks on tickets and offered employees paid leaves to watch the film. Mainstream Indian TV news has also propagated the cinema. 

The film depicts the Kashmiri Pandit exodus in 1990, a tragic chapter in the history of a heavily militarised region where almost every family, irrespective of their religion, faced unspeakable horrors. Over 30 years later, the tragedy has now become a viral discourse, this time to capitalise on one community’s struggle to alienate Muslims who are already living in a vicious environment.

Salman* (name changed to protect identity) said the film had a serious impact on his non-Muslim and Kashmiri Muslim students friends in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. “By the end of the movie, some of our right-wing non-Muslim friends started shouting slogans like “Muslims, leave India,”, “Go to Pakistan”, and “Kashmiris, you eat our land and advocate for Pakistan; you are Pakistani by heart”,” said Salman.

He added the Kashmiri students were attacked again after they reached their campus.

“They acted as if it was these students and their families who committed a crime in the past against Kashmiri Pandits,” Salman said. 

What is truth?

When the film’s far-right leaning director, Vivek Agnihotri, said “facts are not facts” in an interview, it seemed like he really did mean it. There's a dialogue in the film by Anupam Kher's character (Pushkar Nath): “Hiding the real truth is a bigger sin than showing false news.”

Let’s keep that in mind.

In the 70s-80s Kashmir groups like Pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami and Pro-Independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and also the Muslim United Front (MUF) had started to form and function. But, the film only shows Kashmiri Muslims as one group, vague in their association. 

The film has been solely made in a binary of the hero and the villain, the good and evil. There isn’t a single Muslim character in the film which is empathetic or a good person. 

Noted historian Ashok Kumar Pandey has said, “Along with Kashmiri Pandits, many Kashmiri Muslims were also killed, but not a single killing has been shown despite so many books and reports available. We should ask why.”

 The first official killing that happened before the exodus began was of a Muslim and National Conference (NC) activist, Yusuf Halwai, in 1989. There were attacks, abductions and killings of anyone the forces perceived as pro-India.

One scene shows ex-judge Nilkanth Ganjoo murdered while Anupam Kher and the others are playing a card game. The film fails to recognise that 80-year-old Maulana Masoodi was also murdered during the same period.

Another scene shows Kashmiri Muslim women barring the Kashmiri Pandit women from availing ration. Khem Lata Wakhlu, in her book 'Kashmir: Behind the White Curtain' wrote that when the JKLF took charge of food distribution and control over ration shops, both the communities started getting proper rations. In April 1990, Justice VM Tarkunde visited Kashmir and, in his report observed that Hindus received rations and other items of day-to-day requirements from Muslims.

While Agnihotri's film states the number of Kashmiri Pandits killed at 4,000, Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) said the number is around 650. RSS publication (in 1991) pinned the number at 600, while the Ministry of Home Affairs said there were 219 killings in total.

When such facts are purposely blown out of proportion, it shows a planned and nefarious intent.

A tool to incite hatred

The hate speech and genocidal calls raised by the audience in the halls are not a one-off incident but very telling of India today. The reaction videos that have surfaced online are testimony that the film alone has not only radicalised the audience but has given more power to the radicalised to spread venom. 

In an interview, Kashmiri Pandit Sanjay Tickoo said that the film aims to polarise and lead to violence in Jammu and Kashmir, adding, “The episodes they have shown happened, but the way they have dramatised is wrong. They are lying that the facts were hidden. We have recorded these facts and have said, and again this has happened.”

Indian Muslims observe how the film adds to the growing Islamophobia in the country. In January, Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch, during a US congressional briefing, said, “We are warning that genocide could very well happen in India.”

Videos of a man suggesting to “Marry Muslim forcefully and bring down their population,” and people chanting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Har Har Modi” inside and outside movie halls in unison are commonly found online. Another man posted a video online and said: “We have seen The Kashmir Files; we should kill and rape Muslim women; if I could, I'd also kill their 6-month old babies.”

Neither the filmmaker nor the cast has condemned the hate speech their film has evoked. The audience isn't stepping out of the halls with better or more knowledge of the actual series of events; they are coming out with resentment and hatred for a community.

Why are a lot of Kashmiri Pandits disagreeing with the film?

Umesh Talashi, a Kashmiri Pandit who lives in Jammu and Kashmir, agrees the incidents shown in the film are true but added that the terrorists were killing people from “both the communities.”

“When a Muslim man got a hint that my father was about to be assassinated, he came running barefoot to my home and asked us to move to some safe place. Many others hid him at their house for days and finally arranged our evacuation from there. It happened with many others. Had every Muslim been terrorist, the trucks ferrying Kashmiri Pandits would have never reached Jammu because the drivers were Kashmiri Muslims,” said Umesh.

He continued, “In my village, there are still few Kashmiri Pandit families who never migrated and lived happily. They are being taken care of well. I am not saying that whatever happened is right; it was brutal. We never deserved it, but labelling every Kashmiri Muslim as a co-conspirator in the exodus doesn’t make sense. Every Kashmiri has suffered.”

Sunil Pandita, who openly criticised the film, alleges he was harassed by “BJP goons” over his remarks over calling the film a “one-sided” story aimed at widening the gap between Muslims and Hindus, exploiting one community for “its vote bank.” 

In his book, ‘Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative,’ Khalid Bashir Ahmed has many testimonies of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims from across professions, recounting the incidents and the politics of that time.

Rashtriya Seva Dal, one of India’s political parties, after a visit to Jammu and Kashmir in April 1990, held that “the Muslims claim and the refugees agree that there were no communal incidents of burning and looting of houses, misbehaviour with women, etc. The refugees say they left their houses because they feared that something of this kind would happen soon.”
Meanwhile, Professor Manohar Nath Tikoo recalled that he left Kashmir because of his wife and daughters due to the psychological fear created. He added that “not a single Muslim forced us to leave” and “they came to bid us farewell with tearful eyes.”

This is not to downplay the heinous crimes committed against the Pandits but to pay heed to the other narratives that have been invisibilised. 

The subject is not propaganda; the film is

Ellena Zellhuber McMillan wrote, “Propaganda is about creating an illusion and manipulating the truth, and in this regard, the film is fundamentally the same.”

The intersection of propaganda and cinema is not new, and some patterns largely remain the same: relying heavily on evoking negative emotions, distorting historical facts in the name of cinematic liberty, pandering to majority politics — all of which ‘The Kashmir Files’ has excelled at.

Why did the film never mention VP Singh’s government at the Centre then?

It's eerily like how the Nazis used cinema to spread animosity through grotesque imageries and divisive portrayals. 

Nazis also exploited the films to serve the Third Reich, the most striking being Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1936; Triumph of the Will), the central theme of Germany’s return to great power and Hitler, who would bring glory to the nation.

In ‘The Kashmir Files,’ PM Modi is referred to as the “leader who is feared as opposed to Vajpayee or Nehru who wanted to be loved.” Not just this, there are speeches about the Hindu civilisation's glorious achievements in every field of knowledge before it was apparently put to the sword by Muslim oppressors, throwing around unfounded claims about Islamic history.

In the 1940s, Nazis released a film ‘Jud Suss,’ which was meant to instil hatred of the Jews. The Joseph Goebbels film focused on stereotypes of Jews as crafty and untrustworthy beings.

Ironically, ‘The Kashmir Files’ has been compared to ‘Schindler’s List’ on Indian social media. ‘The Kashmir Files’ fills you with a vengeance against a minority, prompting you to create a history of blood and killings. Schindler’s List leaves you to think about justice and reconciliation, never letting history repeat itself.

The film has also tried to justify the unconstitutional and unrelated abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. It co-opted the famous Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's song “Hum Dekhenge”, while the same right-wing ecosystem was deeply upset when the song was used during the anti-CAA protests in India. 

The ‘art vs artists’ debate falls flat as every narrative, dialogue, and characterisation reflects the director’s political language and motives. It’s worth reflecting upon the difference between political cinema and politically motivated cinema. 

Perhaps, the makers could have taken some inspiration from movies like ‘I Am,’ ‘Parzania,’ and ‘Firaaq,’ which have also depicted the oppression and violence faced by communities with nuance and sensitivity.

About the author

Aliza Noor is a journalist based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh and has worked with ScoopWhoop Unscripted and The Quint. Tweets | @AlizaNoor1501