Long before Kashmir Files, there was Parzania, a film that relives the trauma of a Parsee family who lost their teenage 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 Gujarat violence. With the Gujarat government refusing to intervene, Dholakia had little option but to withdraw the film. Prime minister Narendra Modi who now hails Kashmir Files for bringing out the ‘truth’ and urges his party MPs to encourage people to watch the film was Gujarat chief minister at the time.
The immutable ‘truth’ is that netas and their partisan cheerleaders cutting across party lines are unwilling to face upto the inconvenient truths of history. Make a film on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and be sure that the Congress party will raise a red flag. A ‘Bengal Files’ film that highlights political violence is unlikely to be screened in that state. A ‘Kerala Files’ on the Kannur political murders will be almost certainly blocked by the Left front government. And a ‘Gujarat Files’ on the 2002 violence will never see the light of day in a BJP-ruled political universe. The history of this country’s cinema is strewn with cases of films being censored and banned, the limits of artistic freedom being settled by existing power equations.
Where the Kashmir Files stands out is that this is a rarest of rare instances where a ruling political party is using untrammeled state power to actively promote a privately made film. From entertainment tax waivers to booking theatres at subsidized rates to even giving government employees a day off to watch the film, never before in recent times has a political leadership and its affiliate groups so brazenly used commercial cinema for public mobilization in a manner where the lines between state propaganda and cinematic narratives are totally blurred.
Nor should the state’s explicit patronage of Kashmir Files come as a surprise. After all, the core storyline of the film neatly 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 manner that is stark and real. The fact is that the awful winter of that defining year in Kashmir’s tryst with violence did witness the targeted killings of Kashmiri Hindus by Pakistan-sponsored terror groups. Rekindling those images for a ‘new’ India can only feed into the prevailing Islamophobic hate politics that has already ruptured society.
For many Kashmiri Hindu families, who were uprooted from their homes and literally pushed into refugee camps, a film like this can be an emotionally cathartic experience, a chance to have their agonizing story told to a wider audience. After all, while focusing on the ‘alienation’ of the Kashmiri Muslim from the national mainstream, there has been surely less attention paid to the persecution of the Kashmiri Hindu even though several eyewitness accounts have been recorded and published. Kashmiri Pandit families, therefore, have a right to feel aggrieved that their plight has never been fully acknowledged by a left-liberal intelligentsia.
But while a film maybe therapeutic for the victims, can it really bring about genuine change, a sense of justice and finally reconciliation? This is where Kashmir’s complicated 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 Delhi-Srinagar political intrigue, rigged elections, state brutalities, historical demands for greater autonomy or indeed, azaadi?
In the last three decades, the Congress, 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, for example, about our criminal justice system that one of the original posterboys of Kashmiri ‘azaadi’, Yasin Malik has only been charged now as late as 2020 for the murder of four Indian Air Force officers in a 1990 terror attack? Recall that successive governments in Delhi – BJP and Congress – saw Malik, who has been in and out of jail, 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 ‘Muslim as terrorist’ theme without any nuance and by peddling dangerous half-truths rather than actually ensure 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 while being trapped in the cross-hairs of terror and retributive violence.
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 polarizing issues. Remember that 1990 was a pre-24×7 news tv era, an India in slow motion that didn’t get trapped in the breathless cycle of daily breaking news. Instead fed on a diet of competitive propaganda, post-truth twists and hyper-nationalism, this is a ‘new’ India that gets its ‘facts’ from WhatsApp forwards, social media influencers and sixty second viral videos. A ‘new’ India where films on Godse attract far more attention than writings on 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 well-intentioned 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.