The dangerous ‘truth’ of The Kashmir Files

The popular Bollywood film, powered by a visceral demonisation of the Kashmiri Muslim, attempts to construct the truth about Kashmir out of the carcasses of facts.

People seen in front of a movie theater that is screening the film Kashmir files that
People as seen outside a movie theater that is screening " The Kashmir Files " movie , in Kolkata , India , on 17 March 2022 . [Debarchan Chatterjee/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

A man wearing the saffron turban and robes of a Hindu preacher stands against the plush red interior of a cinema. In one hand he carries a shiny steel trident, a traditional weapon of Hindu gods, and in the other a mobile phone. As the music flows over the end titles of the film the bearded swami begins a chilling exhortation. “You have all seen what happened to the Kashmiri Hindus,” he says, gesturing towards the screen. “That is why Hindus must protect themselves against the treachery of Muslims and prepare to take up arms.”

“If a Hindu’s blood does not boil,” he raises his voice, prompting his audience to respond: “That’s not blood – it’s water!”

The video is emblematic of public life in the India of 2022, and it was only one of many that tore across the internet following the release of The Kashmir Files, a controversial Bollywood film that opened in an impressive 600 cinemas across India on March 11.

The film is set in 1990, amid the first stirrings of the anti-India rebellion that has roiled Indian-administered Kashmir for three decades, and persists into the present. It promises to tell the story of the flight from Kashmir of the Pandits, a small Hindu minority among the region’s predominantly Muslim population. Early reviews in the Indian media had found the film deeply Islamophobic, dishonest, and a provocation, and even before the film was released its trailer had invited public interest litigation on the grounds that its “inflammatory scenes are bound to cause communal violence”. In his defence, the filmmaker had insisted that “every frame, every word in my film is truth”.

A few days after The Kashmir Files was released, it received an unusual stamp of approval. “All of you should watch it,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a meeting of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parliamentary group. “The film has shown the truth which has been suppressed for years. The truth prevailed in Kashmir Files,” Modi said. This resounding endorsement of the film’s claim to the truth, as well as the suggestion that this truth had been suppressed in the past, was an early marker of the political capital that was being invested in the film.

As a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work has centred on Kashmir for almost two decades, I have always been confounded by the facts – or the lack of them – of the departure of the community in 1990. My community, I should say, for, I am a Kashmiri Pandit. There is little clarity about even the most elementary things.

What can we say with certainty? We can say that from the middle of 1989 onwards, Kashmir witnessed the targeted killings of several significant figures of its Hindu minority, leading to widespread panic and insecurity. In these same months, many Muslims were also assassinated in Kashmir – political workers, policemen, and government officials. All this was part of the wider political upsurge of this period, presaging events that were to soon upturn the established order of things. We also know that early in 1990 some Kashmiri Pandit families began to flee in fear. Their leaving was probably intended as a temporary move though it was to prove tragically permanent for most.

In the decade that followed, Kashmir continued to be racked by mass protests as well as a full-blown armed uprising that aimed at nothing less than freedom from India. The brutal counterinsurgency that followed was to overwhelm life for all those who lived in Kashmir, and the violence and continuing fear led to steady departures of its Pandit minority, and also of a significant number of Muslims. We know that the final waves of Kashmiri Pandit departures followed two horrific massacres – of 23 civilians at Wandhama in 1998 and of 24 men, women and children at Nadimarg in 2003.

We also know that despite all this, at least 4,000 Kashmiri Pandits never left their homes. They have continued to live in Kashmir, not in secure ghettos, but scattered across the valley. Living in what often feels like a war zone, without extended networks of family and community, their lives are not easy. But nor is life easy for their Muslim neighbours, with whom they live in what has come to be recognised as one of the most militarised zones in the world.

Even as a large number of critics found The Kashmir Files filled with factual inaccuracies, propagandist, and frightening in its relentless targeting of every Muslim represented on screen, the film continued its blitz across the box office in India. Mobilised by the cadres of the right-wing, groups of men showed up at theatres waving the Indian tricolour. Screenings frequently ended amid sloganeering and speeches, with people competing in their provocations, with brazen calls for violence against all Muslims, not just Kashmiri Muslims. These highly visible reactions were amplified through the extensive social media infrastructure of the right wing, what is often derisively called the “WhatsApp University”. Through all of this, it was relentlessly underlined that The Kashmir Files is revealing a truth that had been suppressed in the past.

The assertion that this “truth” was suppressed was odd, given that the BJP and its cohort have aggressively promoted their version of events in Kashmir since at least the mid-1990s. In this version, the expulsion of the Kashmiri Pandits was dated to one day (January 19, 1990), accompanied by an insistence that their exodus was the consequence of widespread killings, the looting and burning of Pandit homes and temples, and a high incidence of sexual violence against Pandit women. The community were victims of a genocide, the argument went, and this was framed as part of the larger threat to Hindu civilisation that only the BJP and its cohort could counter.

Although my own interest was in the facts surrounding the flight of the Kashmiri Pandits, I was also curious about the truth that was being alluded to in the film. For everything around that period has long remained shrouded, not least because it never received any serious attention from journalists and scholars, and certainly not from the government, state or federal – not even when it was led by the BJP.

The simplest questions fail to yield reliable answers. How many Kashmiri Pandits lived in the valley prior to 1990? The figures conjured up by the right-wing fluctuate between 500,000 and 700,000, although considered estimates place it at about 170,000. How many of them left the Kashmir Valley after 1990? A recent response by the region’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner placed the figure at 135,426, although on inflamed television debates the needle again fluctuates between 500,00 and 700,000, and can inexplicably go up to a million. How many Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the conflict? In conversations around The Kashmir Files, the figure has hovered around 4,000, although the most recent figures provided by the region’s police department put it at 89. Earlier official estimates had said 270, while Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a Kashmir-based citizens group, had arrived at a figure of about 700. When did they leave? And that most vexed of all: what were the circumstances that made people leave? None of these can be answered with any degree of certainty.

It is through this fog of claims and obfuscations that The Kashmir Files has emerged, asserting for itself nothing less than the truth of the “Kashmir genocide”. The evidence offered is oral, arrived at out of interviews with “700 first-generation victims” its filmmakers insist, crosschecked with historians “with credentials”, academics and experts on Kashmir, as well as administrators and police officers who were posted there at the time. This is why the disclaimer discretely wedged in the film’s opening credits took me by complete surprise: “This film… does not claim accurateness or factuality of historic events”.

Presented as a work of fiction, The Kashmir Files is freed of the constraints that the facts gathered by its makers may pose. The film is therefore able to give a potent form to something that the right wing has been cooking for more than three decades, a singular version of what they call the truth of Kashmir. It is arrived at here by picking a few dreadful events from across a decade and a half of Kashmir’s recent history, and telescoping them into a gruesome narrative that spans what appears to be a year. This compression of tragic events is then heaped upon a single fictive family, and if that burden of sorrow was not already unbearable, embroidered with further acts of unspeakable cruelty such as when a diabolic “militant commander” forces a woman to swallow uncooked rice soaked in the blood of her just-murdered husband.

This incident references the brutal 1990 slaying of BK Ganjoo, a Pandit killed while hiding in a drum of rice in the attic of his home. The twist with the blood-soaked rice seems a more recent add-on. When asked about the incident some weeks ago, Ganjoo’s brother said he had never heard of it, and that his sister-in-law had never mentioned it either. Such egregious interpolations come along with more insidious ones. At a ration depot, a group of distraught Kashmiri Pandit women are denied access to food grain by their Muslim neighbours. Although this fact remains unverifiable, the extreme dehumanisation evinced in this unverifiable incident sets the tone for a more serious claim: that conditions in Kashmir in 1990 meet the definition of genocide.

This is a film that brutalises its audience with scenes of such extreme violence that it eventually silences the possibility of considering alternative narratives that we know to be true. I could think of few: although terrible tragedies did happen to many individuals, most Kashmiri Pandit families were not betrayed by their Muslim neighbours. While some properties were torched and destroyed, most temples and homes were not ransacked or looted, and many more have run to ruin over years of neglect. And although elements in the media, the bureaucracy, and the police may well have been neglectful of their responsibilities, not everyone – as the film suggests – colluded in the persecution of the Pandits.

Most critically, this myopic narrative succeeds in obscuring the fact that what happened in Kashmir in the 1990s was not centrally a conflict between Muslims and Hindus. It was an uprising against the Indian state. It did not arrive overnight either but had a past, which could be dated at least to 1947 and the vivisection of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, and it came with a history that included other massacres and large-scale movements of population.

In constructing the truth about Kashmir out of the carcasses of facts, in irresponsibly mixing these with inflammatory fictions, The Kashmir Files hints at the larger agenda. This is articulated most clearly in a long monologue delivered towards the end of the film by its central protagonist, Krishna. All of India’s greatness is tied in with Kashmir, the young man suggests, and that is where everything flourished in ancient times – its scholarship, its science and medicine, its theatre, grammar and literature. Kashmir was a special place – our own Silicon Valley he says, in a banal but probably accurate rendition of what he has in mind. The departure of the Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s signals the absolute nadir to which Hindu civilisation has been brought since, presumably by Muslim rule, and that shame must be corrected. The monologue suggests that the film is interested in more than setting right the truth about Kashmir in the 1990s. It is in fact positing a new one, this time constructed around the idea of the homeland, not just for Kashmiri Pandits but for all Hindus.

For over three decades, the BJP and its progenitors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) successfully energised a substantial Hindu vote bank around a promise. Their wilful destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 was meant to obliterate the shame of a mosque built upon the exact birthplace of Lord Ram several centuries before. The campaign to construct a magnificent temple at its site provided the lifeblood to its politics for almost a generation, and swept the BJP to power in India. In the symbolic imagination of the RSS, and of the other progenitors of the BJP, Kashmir has long waited in the wings. With The Kashmir Files, it is being yanked centre-stage, as a symbolic space that the forces of Hindutva can draw upon in the coming decades. That is why the formulations provided by the film have already become sacrosanct, and any challenge to it, anything that suggests a different view of events, no matter how small, must be silenced. If this means denying space to the views of those few Pandits who actually continue to live in Kashmir, or to those Pandits who live in the squalid refugee tenements in Jammu, if it means ignoring their pleas to not further inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims, so be it.

Disapproval of the film is not being taken lightly. The only people criticising the film are those who support “terrorist groups”, the film’s director said recently. Would he like to respond to them? To this Vivek Agnihotri simply replied: “Why should I say anything to terrorists?” Meanwhile, the RSS came out openly in support of The Kashmir Files, calling it a documentation of “historical reality” and that “these are facts that must be presented to generations as facts”. On April 4, as Kashmiri Pandits celebrated Navreh, their new year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat ratcheted up support for the film – and for the Kashmiri Pandits. He asked them to take a pledge that it was not going to be long before there was a return home to Kashmir.

Eventually, The Kashmir Files is not about setting straight a historical record of Kashmir in the 1990s, or creating an environment that might ease the return home of a community in exile. Its narrative is instead powered by a visceral demonisation of the Kashmiri Muslim, one that renders reconciliation ever more difficult. And by connecting the return of the Kashmiri Pandit to the dream of a glorious ancient past, a political project that elides Kashmir’s complicated history of 700 years, it seeds the idea of a return to a Hindu homeland. This is an idea that is redolent with implications of dispossession and settlement. That is what makes its “truth” dangerous.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.