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The Kashmir Files has now become the biggest Bollywood box office hit of 2022, having grossed over Rs 330 crore. Even CNN has taken notice. The film’s success underlines and highlights two key realities about India that transcend the movie and the reactions it has generated. First, that Independent India has a long and tragic history of communal violence and collective retribution against entire groups of Indians, whether on the grounds of religion, caste or language. And second, India’s political class has shown a collective unwillingness to address the brutal reality of the crimes committed and deliver justice – an unwillingness in which every political party in India stands implicated. This is the reason depictions of large-scale suffering, whether of Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs or Muslims, have rarely made it to the big screen. When they have – as in Shonali Bose’s Amu (on the 1984 massacres), Sanjay Amar’s 19th January (on the Pandit exodus) or Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania and Nandita Das’s Firaq (on the Gujarat killings of 2002) – the establishment has done its best to downplay them.
What is common to each of these incidents of mass violence is retribution against members of a specific community – Sikhs in Delhi, Pandits in Kashmir, Muslims in Gujarat. However, condemning violence in all circumstances can also attract the wrath of social media – as the recent controversy over Sai Pallavi’s comments demonstrates. Though she spoke against all violence, including how “… Kashmiri Pandits were killed …” and “… a person being killed for carrying a cow because he was suspected to be a Muslim … the attackers raised ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans”, a police complaint was filed against her.
The Kashmir Files graphically portrays events that occurred in Kashmir in the early 1990s and the atrocities committed against the Kashmiri Pandit community that resulted in their mass exodus from the Valley during that period. Whatever their faults, filmic representations of such tragic events help ensure that the trauma and suffering of their victims are not forgotten.
January 19 is now being observed as ‘Holocaust Day’ to mark the dark day when the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley reached a crescendo, and when the entire community was forced to leave Kashmir amid calls of “Raliv (convert), Galiv (die), or Chaliv (flee)”.
Many of the gory incidents depicted in The Kashmir Files are based on facts, such as the killing of B.K. Ganjoo in a rice container, the act of force-feeding his wife blood-soaked rice, the dismembering of Girija Tickoo with a mechanical saw, and the execution style murders of 24 Kashmiri Pandits at Nadimarg on March 23, 2003. These scenes are almost unbearable to watch. These are awful truths that must never be forgotten, and in that sense the film achieves its objectives.
And yet, the movie mixes facts with rather unnecessary half-truths and exaggerations that cater and pay obeisance to the current ruling ideology and mindset in India. A Kashmiri Pandit reviewing the movie rightly points out that “… while the film accurately depicts the horrors of the exodus, it also pushes a narrative …” that appears to be politically motivated. The obsessive focus on Article 370 runs contrary to historical facts since this was never a primary concern of Kashmiri Pandits. Likewise, the vilification of ordinary Kashmiri Muslims and the usual suspects like intellectuals, the media, and students – who attend a university called ANU, which is clearly a stand-in for JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) – is cartoonish and simplistic but also dangerous.
New Yorker magazine published an interview with Vivek Agnihotri this week in which he says there are “ … two kinds of terrorism. One is terrorists with arms and the second terrorism is all these genocide deniers who are primarily influencers, intellectuals, people in the media, people in government, and lot of international press.” And woe betide anyone who dares to be critical of the movie, because Agnihotri has been very clear in branding them as “terrorists”. When asked, “What would you say to those people who are being critical towards The Kashmir Files,” his response was, “… why should I say anything to terrorists?”
Will the commercial success of The Kashmir Files spur more filmmakers to be just as fearless in exposing other similar episodes in India’s history? It should, provided there is no interference and opposition from the censor board, or pressure from political parties on either side of the spectrum.
Agnihotri has hinted that the next and final part of his ‘Files’ enterprise will be called “The Delhi Files” about the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. Assuming Agnihotri follows the script he adhered to for The Kashmir Files, he is likely to shine a spotlight on the carnage that took place after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards, and the apparent collusion and efforts by several senior elected officials in orchestrating the violence. What he is unlikely to do, of course, is vilify all of Delhi’s Hindus.
It took over three decades for the wheels of justice to bring about the first high-profile conviction of one of the leaders responsible for the carnage. The judges who convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in December 2018 described the 1984 killings as “crimes against humanity” perpetrated by those who had “political patronage and were aided by an indifferent law enforcement agency”. Agnihotri may find it easy to target the politicians who were involved as they are no longer in power. But the Delhi Police – that “indifferent law enforcement agency” – is still around and has not mended its ways, as we saw in February 2020 when communal violence took place in the capital’s north-eastern districts.
Mirroring Agnihotri’s plans for “The Delhi Files”, Vinod Kapri, a Bollywood director, is working on the “Gujarat Files” about what happened in the state in 2002. Kapri has tweeted and asked for an assurance that the release of the film he makes will not be prevented. A fair question, since Parzania and Firaq could never be screened in Gujarat. In this instance, the challenge will be to not succumb to political pressure from the powers that be and present a brutally honest reckoning of what happened then.
There are many other incidents in India’s history that should be researched and presented to ensure we never forget them and never repeat them. For example, the “Maharashtra Files” could spotlight the violence which followed Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Maharashtrian Brahmin in 1948. Even today, not many people know about the widespread ‘Hindu-on-Hindu’ attacks that took place on and after January 30, 1948. The Associated Press reported that 15 persons were killed on the first day itself, but the Indian media and government deliberately turned a blind eye and actively discouraged any reporting about the violence. It took the efforts of an American academic, the late professor Maureen Patterson, to research the violence and retribution towards Brahmins of Maharashtra in 1948 and shed some light on these incidents. In the 1950s, when she first started to study these disturbances, she was not permitted to see police reports and had to restrict her research to newspapers and non-official materials.
India has seen a consistent pattern of communal violence and official cover-ups, regardless of which side of the political spectrum is ascendant. While the killings in Maharashtra and the Delhi were downplayed and covered up by one side, any expose of the Gujarat incidents will likely be opposed by the other side.
Making matters worse is the mob rule mentality when it comes to the press or movies in India. Thus, it was that the Rajput Karni Sena threatened to vandalise and “set ablaze” cinema halls that dared to show the movie Padmavati even after it was cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. The movie was later officially renamed Padmaavat.
In 2010, a controversy over Indian Premier League (IPL) team selection – triggered by Shahrukh Khan commenting on the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the league – was enough to lead to threats to block the screening of My Name is Khan. And most recently, a group of activists threatened a theater manager in Goa, claiming that there was a deliberate effort to deny people tickets for The Kashmir Files, and for not displaying promotional posters of the movie. Damned if you screen and damned if you don’t!
If The Kashmir Files served a key purpose in reminding India and the world about what really happened to the Kashmiri Pandits in 1990, then it is equally important that filmmakers be given full freedom and encouragement to document the truth, and nothing but the truth, about other similar episodes in Indian history, without undue interference from the government or angry mobs.
Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based columnist and works for a privately held investment firm.