Off-centre | The Kashmir Files: A story of India that the world needs to see

The Kashmir Files almost made me cry. I say almost because to cry would have been all too easy. Not to cry required effort. It was an act of...

The Kashmir Files almost made me cry. I say almost because to cry would have been all too easy. Not to cry required effort. It was an act of conscious restraint when faced with the enormity of suffering. All communities all over the world have suffered. That is what makes us equal. And human. But some, it would seem, have been marked especially for suffering. They are God’s chosen, in that sense.

The Jewish people suffered one of the worst genocides recorded in human history in the most violent century in human memory, the twentieth. They were sought to be exterminated or deported en masse for no other fault other than the fact that they were Jews. The world knows their tragedy as the Holocaust. With a capital “H”. Their entire tradition is based on remembering. Remembering who they are. The people with a special covenant with God. The chosen ones. Why, then, were they singled out for slaughter? For no fault of theirs. When they were peaceful and peace-loving?

Was it a just God who allowed this to happen to them? Or was God no longer “Almighty” as they believed? Though the creator of heaven and earth and everything in between, God had lost hold of his own creation. He was powerless to protect the weak and the defenceless from their predatory persecutors. For centuries, His people suffered exile and displacement, giving the word Diaspora (with a capital “D”) its original meaning, the dispersing of seeds, in this case of people, across the lands.

The Kashmiri Pandits, the last of the learned descendants of the makers of the Sarasvati civilisation, have suffered a similar fate. Seven times they have been scattered across their ancestral lands of Bharatvarsha. Their descendants still go by the name of “Sarasvat Brahmins” and can be found in distant corners of India, from the North to the South, from the West to the East. Living in the enchanting vale of Kashmir in the Himalayas, they too seemed like Shiva’s own or chosen ones.

Their eviction in 1990 from the Valley in Kashmir was only the latest, if not last. Accompanied by so much bloodshed, amounting to a pogrom if not genocide, the injustice and callousness they faced was shocking. After all, they were not refugees from another country, but rendered homeless and stateless in their own nation. India that is Bharat. What was their fault? Only this that they were Hindus in a state which our enemies, both external and internal, wanted to break from India and turn into an Islamic republic. Hence the cry of “Azadi” — freedom. Freedom from what? From Hindu-majority India.

Betrayed not only by the state authorities, whether at the centre or at the state, but, sometimes by their own neighbours. A tiny minority already, they were attacked, killed, and hounded out by India’s largest minority, the Muslims, in this case of the Valley, under directions from Pakistani-trained local and cross-border terrorists who went by the euphemistic misnomer “freedom fighters” or “militants”. As narrated in the movie, five hundred thousand were displaced; thousands lost their lives; many women were raped or dishonoured; even children were not spared.

This is the story that Vivek Agnihotri and Pallavi Joshi, the “mom and pop” film-making team, have dared to chronicle in The Kashmir Files. I say “mom and pop” advisedly. For in this movie, even their children have acted, played parts or characters which are so difficult even to watch that they must have been even more challenging to enact.

Agnihotri wrote and directed the film, which he asserts is based on facts and testimonies. Over 5,000 hours of live recordings of stories of survivors. Though a feature film, The Kashmir Files retains a documentary feel, like Schindler’s List. Also, like the latter, Agnihotri’s object is not to push propaganda but tell a human story. With real people and real emotions. A story that so badly needs to be told because it flies in the face of the official narratives about Kashmir and India.

Shooting and releasing the movie was a great challenge. Not only was the crew forbidden from filming in Kashmir, they also found themselves facing opposition, obstruction, and, yes, fatwas and death threats. Pallavi came out in support of her husband. At a crucial point she said, “If we don’t make this film, who will?” She was right. No one else would have made it. Even today, when the film is ready for its commercial release, there are attempts to ban it. There is a PIL in court seeking to block its release.

The film is too hot to handle for our political class, even if some of them might support it tacitly. That is because it pulls no punches. There is no varnishing or airbrushing of brutal realities. Names are named, whether it is meddling neighbouring powers, religious, ethnic, or caste communities, dead or living politicians, even individuals and real persons. Religious identities or ideologies are not elided, evaded, or avoided. Disturbing visuals, distressing slogans — it’s all there and in your face in this movie.

Going by Agnihotri’s copybook, these are truths that need to be told, however unpleasant or provocative some may consider them to be. As one of the characters in the movie, himself a journalist, observes, it is not the lies that we tell that are so reprehensible. It is the truths that we hide that destroy us. Vivek Agnihotri has a truth to tell and he has dared to tell it. If we cannot face or stomach it, then the forfeit is on our hearts, heads, and collective conscience.

Part II is to follow.

The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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