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The tragedy of the Pandits

Before we go any further, there are three things I need to put on record.

The first is that I have not seen the film The Kashmir Files. This is not out of choice. It is just that I have hardly been in one place long enough to go to a cinema hall over the last couple of weeks. But I will see it as soon as I can.


The second is that when it comes to issues relating to freedom of expression, I tend to be something of a fundamentalist. That is to say, I always stand up for the fundamental right of free expression not just as it is guaranteed in the Constitution but as it should be in any liberal democracy.


   And the third is that I have felt passionately about the injustice done to Kashmiri Pandits ever since they were forced to flee for their lives during the ethnic cleansing in the Kashmir Valley.


   In 2012, after having written many times about this tragedy and frustrated by the unwillingness of people to recognize that the treatment of the Kashmiri Pandit was an international disgrace, I complained “I have been writing about the plight of the Pandits for over a decade ago now. But try as I might, I cannot understand the attitude of general indifference that meets their situation. Put brutally, the truth is that hardly anybody seems to care:”


   The problem, I wrote, is that the Pandits are “decent, educated people who have always eschewed violence and who, in the face of grave provocation have never resorted to attention-seeking terrorism.” They had put their faith in Indian democracy. And Indian democracy had let them down.


   There were many such interventions by me in articles and in social media. In January 2015, I wrote “Let’s spend some time today, thinking of the people India betrayed: Kashmiri Pandits driven out in ethnic cleansing and then forgotten.” A year later I said: “One of the greatest failures of Indian secularism: Kashmiri Pandits, refugees in their own country, victims of ethnic cleansing. Shame!”


   And so on. My point is that my views on how India has treated the Kashmiri Pandits have not changed very much in 30 years; their fate is one of the greatest scandals in Independent India. And we owe it to them to at least acknowledge their suffering.


   Politicians owe them much more. But they have never got anything from any political party. When they were forced out, VP Singh was Prime Minister with the support of the BJP and the Left. Singh really couldn’t give a damn but more shamefully, LK Advani, who brought the government down over his Rath Yatra, was unwilling to do anything for the Pandits.


   Successive governments did as little. Narasimha Rao had an opportunity to act when the Pandits' exile had just begun. He ignored them. So did AB Vajpayee’s government. And the UPA acted as though the Pandits were not a priority.


   Instead, as time went on, the Pandits become political footballs used to score goals against opposing parties. Politicians would wax eloquent about the tragedy of the Pandits. The BJP would act as though the Congress was in power when the ethnic cleansing began, avoiding all mention of the fact that it was a government kept in power by the BJP that let this happen.


   The Congress offered up the ridiculous suggestion that they all left because Jagmohan asked them to. If this was true, then why didn’t the Congress (in power from 1991) just ask them to go back because Jagmohan was out of the picture after 1991? The idea that people whose families were murdered, and whose women were raped should voluntarily abandon the only home they had known for centuries only because Jagmohan instructed them is so morally offensive that any Congressman who offers this explanation should be ashamed of himself.


   I mention all this to warn you that I am not an unbiased observer in any discussion of The Kashmir Files. I feel strongly both about the Pandits and about the right to free expression.


"Yes, such films can be unduly exploitative. But who decides what is too exploitative and what is a fair portrayal of reality?"

   I do however have a lot of sympathy with those who claim that the film could create communal disharmony and promote hatred towards Muslims. The truth is that it has been released at a time of great religious polarization, when Hindu sentiments are sought to be provoked and Muslims portrayed as enemies of Hindus.


   This is ironic because Muslims in the rest of India have hardly ever identified with Kashmiri Muslims. When the insurgency began in the Kashmir valley in 1989, it left Muslims in the rest of India largely unmoved and unaffected. Even when Muslims had concerns about minority issues, these tended to be things like Babri Masjid. That is still true.


   In the recent UP elections, there was a strong Hindu-Muslim polarization. But while Muslims were agitated about various issues, Article 370 or the state of Muslims in the Valley hardly ever came up.


   So it is odd to see anti-Muslim feeling in the rest of India because of events that occurred in Kashmir three decades ago. Yet, such is the mood of the times that any stick is good enough to beat the Muslim minority with.


   Which brings us to the big issues. One: should the film have been made? And two: is it right to try and stop it from being screened.


   Both issues are not so complicated. If the film is as exploitative as its critics says, then yes, that is a bad thing. But equally, can any film about the ethnic cleansing of Hindus by Muslim extremists ever show the people who drove the Hindus out in a good light?


   It is the sort of question that comes up again and again in movies of this nature. Do you soften the portrayal of Nazis in Second World War movies? Do Holocaust movies create anti-German feeling? Did The Killing Fields portray the Khmer Rouge as bad people? (It did and they were). What do you do when the plot of a Hollywood film involves Arab terrorists? Do you worry about creating anti-Arab feeling?


  Should the TV show, Homeland, have softened its portrayal of Arab and Pakistani extremists, as some people demanded? Should the Taliban be treated with sensitivity for fear of doing a disservice to the Afghan people?


   In nearly every case, the answer is the same. If it happened, then you must show it. You must assume that audiences, no matter how angry they feel right after they watch the movie, will make a distinction between the Nazis/extremists/terrorists who were portrayed in the movie and all Germans, all Arabs, all Pakistanis, etc.


   Yes, such films can be unduly exploitative. But who decides what is too exploitative and what is a fair portrayal of reality (with some allowances made for the demands of fiction)?


   Once you go down the road of judging what is fair and what is not, you tread a very dangerous path. Were Jodha-Akbar and Padmavati fair to Rajputs? Many protesters said they were not. Was the film of Jesus Christ Superstar fair to Christians? It was banned in India on the grounds that it was not. What about The DaVinci Code? Christian organizations wanted a ban on the movie and some states did in fact, restrict its exhibition.


   In its favour, one of the things that The Kashmir Files has achieved is to focus attention on the human tragedy that nobody wants to talk about. A response I hear from people who have seen the movie is: I had no idea that this ever happened.


   We have spent so long airbrushing the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits out of our history that an entire generation has grown up totally unaware of this great historical injustice. And even if the film is as crudely exploitative as its critics claim, one reason why it has had so much impact is because it tells people a story that they have never been told.


   If you spend decades hiding the truth — as we have about the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits — you must live with the fact that when the story does actually emerge a) it will have a massive impact and b) the narrative will be controlled by those who decide to finally tell it.


   So yes, I am appalled by the anti-Muslim hysteria the movie has generated. It is obviously wrong to blame Muslims for the actions of a few thousand extremists in the Valley.


   But no, I don’t think we should even consider banning the film. That would compound the disgrace of our silence about the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits.


   And at some level, I am relieved that India is finally paying attention to the tragedy of the Pandits; nowhere people, turned into refugees in their own land because of the callous indifference of our politicians.




  • Ashvin Gidwnai 26 Mar 2022

    Its a movie like Harry Potter or Batman, whats the fuss about ?

Posted On: 24 Mar 2022 11:34 AM
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