Provocative anti-Muslim sloganeering at film theaters across north India this past fortnight forced the police to step in at several places to restore peace. All these incidents occurred during the screening of the recently released controversial Hindi film “Kashmir Files.” The film, which claims to be based on “true events,” portrays the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) from the Kashmir valley as a “genocide.”
The exodus of Pandits, a minority in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley, took place in 1990 as the anti-India militancy in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir gathered momentum.
A one-sided propaganda film, “Kashmir Files” has been hailed and widely promoted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindutva right-wing, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Lauding the film for “bringing out the truth,” Modi claimed that the history of the Pandits was long suppressed by the “entire ecosystem” and the film was now “presenting history in its correct perspective.”
The 170-minute film is the latest tool in the hands of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella grouping of Hindutva organizations, to fuel hatred and Islamophobia.
Critics have pointed to the film’s blatant distortion of historical facts. They have questioned its exaggeration of Pandit fatalities. According to government data 219 Pandits were killed, but the film puts the figure at 4,000.
Close on the heels of the controversial ban on Muslims wearing hijab in schools in the southern state of Karnataka, which I had examined in The Diplomat earlier, Vivek Agnihotri’s “Kashmir Files” with its claims of Pandit genocide appears to be the latest vehicle for spreading hate against Muslims through a mass entertainment medium — in this case, cinema.
This is probably the first time in the country that the government and the ruling party have gone all out to endorse a film like “Kashmir Files” that is clearly propagandist. BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh have declared the film tax free, exempting it from entertainment tax. The Assam government as well as Guwahati University in the state have granted employees a half-day leave to watch “Kashmir Files.”
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who heads the Aam Aadmi Party, mocked the BJP’s endorsement of the film. “The ruling party of the country is nowadays busy putting up posters of a film,” he said in a speech in the Delhi assembly. “Is this why you joined politics?” he asked. Dismissing demands by the BJP to declare the film tax free in Delhi, Kejriwal challenged the filmmaker to upload it on YouTube to make it truly free for the masses. Incidentally, the film has already raked in over $26 million in its first two weeks. Going by the commercial success of the film, it appears that the right wing has managed to deepen the divide in an already polarized society.
Since the film’s release, videos are circulating on WhatsApp and social media of audience reactions at movie theaters – of enraged young men calling for boycott of Muslims, others exhorting Hindus to shoot the “traitors” and kill them. In one viral video, a man urges Hindu men to marry Muslim girls to teach them a lesson. “Marry their woman and produce kids. While we are sitting here watching the movie they are increasing their population,” he rants.
In an investigation of the video clips, The Wire’s journalists found that those partaking in hate speech are known hardcore Hindutva activists. Vinod Sharma and Ashwini Upadhay , who were earlier accused in the Jantar Mantar hate speech case in August last year, are now using the film to incite hatred against Muslims.
The Wire’s investigative report underscores the fact that these communal messages spreading hate, citing the experience of the Kashmiri Pandits, are carefully orchestrated. This hate campaign, as seen earlier at the Dharam Sansad in Haridwar, where open calls for genocide against Muslims were made, is not a spontaneous outburst by members of the audience, as the Hindutva outfits are portraying it out to be. It is part of a well-thought out strategy to stoke and incite violence against minorities.
National Conference leader and former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah lashed out at the BJP, saying, “They [BJP] want to further penetrate people’s hearts with hatred. They are saying that every policeman and soldier… everybody should see this movie so that they hate us [Kashmiri Muslims] to the extreme, as was in [sic] created by Hitler and Goebbels in Germany.”
In these attempts at hate mongering, historical facts and data are of little importance. Nirmal Khanna, the widow of Indian Air Force (IAF) Squadron Leader Ravi Khanna, one of the four IAF officers shot dead in Srinagar on January 25, 1990, by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, has objected to the incorrect portrayal of her husband in the film and brought suit in court. A local court restrained the film makers from showing scenes depicting Ravi Khanna in the film.
Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, a Hindutva sympathizer, whose earlier films include “Tashkent Files” a political propaganda film on the death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, makes no bones about the fact that there is an underlying motivation in his films.
“I am not just a filmmaker. I have an agenda,” he said.
Modi and his Cabinet ministers are not only going all out to plug the film but are blaming the Congress for the Pandit exodus. Opposition parties, meanwhile, have hauled up the BJP in Parliament for not doing anything for the Pandit community.
Members of parliament (MPs) Priyanka Chaturvedi of the Shiv Sena and Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal alleged that the government is not serious about the return and rehabilitation of Pandits to the valley. Congress MP Vivek Tankha wanted to know “how many Kashmiri Pandits returned to Kashmir after abrogation of Article 370.” He accused the BJP of capitalizing on the plight of the Pandits but doing little for their rehabilitation.
In 2019, soon after assuming office for a second term as prime minister, Modi fulfilled the BJP’s long-standing election promise of scrapping J&K’s special status guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
During the eight years and counting Modi has been in power, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s persistent efforts at stoking Hindu-Muslim hatred have assumed various forms – be it through hate speech and hate crimes, accusing Muslims of so-called love jihad and population jihad, and calling for genocide of the community.
Not surprisingly, the hostile climate that the Hindutva groups have insidiously created is now showing its impact on India’s social life.
A Mumbai based dentist, Dr. Parvez Mandviwala, tweeted how his wife who was carrying their infant child was denied a seat in a Mumbai local train because she was wearing a hijab. A shocked Madnviwala later told the online portal SabrangIndia that “films like Kashmir Files and the incessant Islamophobic rhetoric on social media and TV media do play their part. Whatever happened on Tuesday with my wife and baby was an expression of that hate which has been cultivated in the minds of naive people against Muslims.”
A Kashmiri man who was denied accommodation in a hotel, although he had all the necessary documents asked, “Is being Kashmiri a crime?”
Reacting to the film, the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organization that addresses the problems of Pandits, tweeted: “Every Kashmiri Muslim is not terrorist every Kashmiri Pandit is not communal we both respect, love and share our pain which every Kashmiri has gone through last 32 years.”
It went on to add that the film “makes resident Kashmiri Pandits unsafe.”