The Kashmir Files, impossibility of Pandits’ homecoming in near future, and keeping the hope alive for posterity

Hindi cinema has made several films on a wide range of social and political issues but no filmmaker dared to forthrightly narrate the persec...

Hindi cinema has made several films on a wide range of social and political issues but no filmmaker dared to forthrightly narrate the persecution and ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits in 1989-90. Despite being the gravest tragedy in post-Partition India resulting in the forced displacement of about half a million people, the filmmakers have largely shied away from picking this subject head-on. It is perhaps to stay politically correct, much like the intelligentsia and commentariat of India. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri has demonstrated how to shun this shyness through his film, The Kashmir Files.

Moving back and forth in time, the plot revolves around Pushkar Nath Pandit (Anupam Kher), his family, and his four friends — IAS Brahma Dutt (Mithun Chakraborty), Dr Mahesh Kumar (Prakash Belawadi), Jammu and Kashmir Police Chief Hari Narain (Puneet Issar), and journalist Vishnu Ram (Atul Srivastava). Krishna Pandit (Darshan Kumaar), the younger grandson of Pushkar Nath Pandit and a university student, uncovers the truth about his family and what his community went through in 1990 (and afterwards) during a visit to Kashmir to fulfil the last wish of his grandfather — spreading ashes in his home in Srinagar in presence of his four friends.

Thousands of Kashmiri Pandits have died, far away from their homeland, in the last thirty-two years with longing and suffering in their hearts. Anupam Kher’s character has perfectly symbolised such Pandits. Pushkar Nath Pandit’s son getting killed by Islamist terrorists is the exact representation of telecom engineer Bal Krishna Ganjoo’s killing at his home in Srinagar in 1990.

The Pandit community has always focused on education, especially in exile. It is only the education that has saved Pandits in the face of adversity in unfamiliar lands coupled with the apathy of the state. Pushkar Nath Pandit telling his elder grandson, Shiva Pandit, to venerate Goddess Sharada/Saraswati signifies the stress on education.

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Watch: Trailer of Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, starring Anupam Kher, Mithun Chakraborty

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Anupam Kher putting on God Shiva's face is one of the striking frames in the film. Importantly, Kashmiri Pandits are traditionally worshippers of God Shiva — Maha Shivaratri being the biggest festival of the community.

The character of Sharda Pandit, played by Bhasha Sumbli, personifies Pandit women who faced brutalities at the hands of Islamists in Kashmir. Being a Kashmiri Pandit herself, Bhasha has been quite natural in her character. Her expressions and wails in the film portray the pain and horror of the womenfolk.

Sharda’s younger son, Krishna Pandit, gets influenced by professor Radhika Menon (aptly played by Pallavi Joshi) at the university as she contextualizes Kashmir’s so-called Azadi struggle (which is nothing but an Islamist movement). After coming back from Kashmir, Krishna delivers a long monologue at the university campus that describes the essence of Kashmir.

The best part about the film is that the filmmaker has adhered to the actual incidents while taking creative liberties simultaneously. The maker has combined events occurring in different time periods to demonstrate what the Islamists did to Kashmiri Pandits.

Besides the killing of Bal Krishna Ganjoo, three infamous incidents have been explicitly shown in the film to exhibit the 1990 genocide — the brutal murder of Kashmiri poet and writer Sarwanand Koul 'Premi' and his son in 1990, the horrific gang-rape of Girija Tickoo and then cutting her into pieces by the mechanical saw in 1990, and the massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pandits at Nadimarg village in J&K’s Pulwama district in 2003. Notably, there are references to the killings of Neelkanth Ganjoo (Retired Sessions and District Judge) and Tika Lal Taploo (Advocate and Bharatiya Janata Party leader).

Chinmay Mandlekar plays the character of Farooq Malik Bitta, a terrorist commander spearheading jihad in Kashmir and killing Kashmiri Pandits in the process. His character is a combination of two main terrorists of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) – Yasin Malik and Farooq Ahmed Dar (alias Bitta Karate). In the film, the perpetrator (Bitta) was a student of Pushkar Nath Pandit before he became a terrorist. In reality, the tormentors or connivers mostly were friends, acquaintances, or neighbours.

Sixteenth-century Kashmiri poet Habba Khatoon’s Cholhama Roshay Roshay plays in the background (vocals by Noor Mohammad) while Pushkar Nath Pandit and others leave their homeland fearing for their lives. The popular Kashmiri song depicts the emotions of love, loss, and longing that fits with the loss of home and hearth.

The film is raw, loaded with uncomfortable truths, and runs like a documentary. Whenever the issue of Kashmiri Pandits is presented by the commentariat in the public domain, it is instantly balanced with the story of Kashmiri Muslims in the same breath. Then faux brotherhood and communal harmony, under the Kashmiriyat project, are brought forth to present a superficial image of Kashmir while suppressing the reality of systematic obliteration of Pandits. Agnihotri must be commended for not falling into this trap.

In the film, Pushkar Nath Pandit says, ‘Article 370 hatao, Panditon ko puna sthapit karo.’ It gives an impression that invalidating Article 370 of the Constitution of India will automatically enable the return and rehabilitation of Pandits in Kashmir. Given that Article 370 is no longer in place, there is a popular notion among the people that the return and rehabilitation of Pandits has become easier now and some have even returned to the valley as part of the Prime Minister’s employment package.

However, the fact of the matter is that Pandits went to Kashmir under an employment package (formulated by Manmohan Singh government) even when Article 370 was in force. The return and rehabilitation of Pandits is hinged on the security situation in Kashmir. Importantly, making Article 370 ineffective hasn’t resulted in the neutralisation of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. In other words, the homecoming of Pandits is dependent on factors beyond the nullification of Article 370. We must not forget the killings of minorities in Kashmir in October 2021.

The film has prominently shown the slogans used by Islamists to instil fear among the Pandits in 1989-90. However, the role of Pakistan in the secessionist movement of Kashmir is inconspicuous. Furthermore, Krishna Pandit's unawareness about the persecution of Pandits seems exaggerated.

The film has over-emphasised a university (evidently dominated by the Left-wing) and its student election with Krishna Pandit as one of the candidates. When Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ is sung by Professor Menon along with students, it reminds the viewer of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. The attention somewhat shifts from Pandits to a university which makes the film tardy.

One should watch The Kashmir Files as it is a bold attempt by a filmmaker to show what happened to Kashmiri Pandits in 1990. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri has paved the way for future filmmakers to work on this crucial subject, long-suppressed for the silver screen, and look at the Pandit story through varied aspects. The film opens a window to dig deep into scores of horrendous Pandit killings, in the name of Azadi and Islam, and their trials and tribulations in exile.

Will the outpouring of emotions and support from the public result in any policy decision by the Government of India vis-Ă -vis Kashmiri Pandits? Will this film push the wheels of justice for the beleaguered community? Only time will tell but one thing is clear — the suppressed truth about the perpetrators and collaborators of crimes against Kashmiri Pandits is distinctly out in public now.

On his deathbed, Pushkar Nath Pandit says to Krishna, “Impossible takes time but you must keep hope.” It captures the quagmire Pandits face today — impossibility of homecoming in near future given the hostile environment and yet keeping the hope alive for posterity. Kashmiri poet Dina Nath ‘Nadim’ offers solace as well as hope: “Mye chham aash pagahich, pagah sholi duniyah.” (I have hope for tomorrow, tomorrow the world will glisten.)

The author is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of a book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled ‘A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits’, published by Bloomsbury India. He tweets @VaradSharma. Views expressed are personal.

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