On the 9th of June last year UNSW Hindu Society hosted a screening of Vivek Agnihotri’s controversial 2022 film The Kashmir Files in the Colombo Theatre, a film concerning the exodus of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir valley following militancy from the region during the 1990s. The film was selected by vote by HinduSoc members to be screened at a society-run event in June of last year.
Its political intention is deeply influenced by Hindutva, a far-right ideology in India whose advocates have called for the genocide of India’s 172-million-strong Muslim population.
Released in theatres early last year, it has been given tax-free status by the Indian government, sharply reducing ticket prices, with some states giving government employees time off to watch the film.
The film has received mixed reviews and has been accused of falsely portraying historical events in an increasingly anti-Muslim climate permeating throughout India under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist Government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
One criticism of the film came from the international jury of the International Film Festival of India’s International Competition, with the chair, Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, calling it “vulgar” and “a propaganda movie”.
Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri novelist and professor, who herself is a Kashmiri Pandit, accused the film of having a propaganda intent. She believes that Modi’s Government is using the film as part of their quest to transform India from a secular democracy to a Hindu ethno-state.
“It has missed numerous opportunities to portray any solidarity between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims,” she said in a CNN interview.
Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has promoted across India, with Modi endorsing the film for “bringing out the truth” of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus.
Since the film’s release, videos have spread across social media of audience reactions to the film. Some spread the slogan of ‘boycott Muslims’; others exhorted Hindus to “shoot the traitors”. In one viral video, a man urges Hindu men to marry Muslim girls to ‘teach them a lesson’ after watching the film.
Kashmir Pandit Exodus
The Kashmir Pandit Exodus describes the time period in which the Kashmir Pandit, or Hindu community fled the Kashmir valley, part of Jammu and Kashmir, currently administered by India and within the wider disputed region of Kashmir which is claimed by both India, Pakistan and China. In 1947, the state was granted special autonomy by the Indian Government before being revoked in 2019 by the Modi Government.
The seeds were sown in the 1980s to 1990s where, following the local elections in 1983 Farooq Abdullah became the chief minister, he was later dismissed by then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and installed Ghulam Mohammed Shah as chief minister. This led to a militant political group called the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) capitalising on the area’s growing political instability.
The turning point came after 1987’s rigged elections and a subsequent increase in militancy within the valley. In the summer of 1989-90, a number of important Kashmiri Pandit leaders were killed: including a retired high court judge Neel Kanth Ganjoo, who had sentenced JKLF leader Maqbool Bhat to death; and journalist lawyer Prem Nath Bhat. Hit lists of Pandits were created and were in circulation across the Kashmir valley, resulting in waves of panic affronting the community. According to historian Ramachandra Guha, by 1989, previous so called secular JKLF was supplanted by a new militant group called the Hizbul Mujhadeen, an Islamist fundamentalist group funded by the Pakistani government which advocated for Kashmir become part of Pakistan.
A newspaper allegedly linked to Hizbul Mujhadeen demanded that the Pandits leave. The Islamist group accused the Pandit community of being spies for the Indian State and scapegoated them for the oppression of Kashmiri Muslims. On January 19 1990, the chief minister had been dismissed and Governor rule had been imposed on Kashmir, according to the testimonies of eminent Kashmiri Pandits, inflammatory speeches had been made from mosques to the streets. On January 20th, the first wave of Kashmiri Pandits began to leave the valley. The second, larger wave left during in March and April after more Pandits had lost their lives.
The exact number of Kashmiri Pandits who were killed or fled varies. According to the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation for Kashmiri Pandits, approximately 399 Pandits were killed. The organisation states that more names could be added later to the list with estimated being approximately 650 dead. It also stated that 75,343 Kashmiri Pandits are estimated to have fled in January 1990, with about 70,000 more following until March.
According to Director Vivek Agnithori, the film’s every single word is truth. Unfortunately, as tragic the Kashmiri Pandit exodus and massacres are, it may have missed the mark. Indeed, it only seems to be fanning the flames of a growing anti-Muslim climate in India.
The film claims that 4000 Kashmiri Pandits were killed and that 500,000 were displaced, a figure is higher than the official estimates listed in the previous section. The film also portrays the Nadimarg massacre of Kashmiri Pandits as taking place in the 1990s by an apathetic Central Government led by the liberal Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress Party. The massacre took place in 2003 under the Hindu Nationalist BJP Government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
During the massacre, the film depicts militants dressed in Army Uniform in broad daylight shooting Kashmiri Pandits into an open grave as their Muslim neighbours watched. One of the main characters, Sharda Pandit, meets a gruesome death where she is stripped and chopped up by a mechanical saw. No government or local sources confirm that this happened: according to residents of Nadimarg the massacres took place at night when residents were indoors. The villagers viewed this as a search operation where the guns the militants were armed with had silencers, such that the the massacre was inaudible. They only learned of the massacre afterwards when they heard cries of distress, where Pandits including children and women were lined near a stream and shot at night.
As for the gruesome death of Sharda Pandit, its depiction appears based off of another incident where a Kashmiri Pandit woman, Girija Takoo, was raped and murdered by militants.
The film also portrays Kashmiri Muslims as collaborators with the killers who murdered the Pandits. It ignores the many Kashmiri Muslims are mourning the death of their Pandit friends and neighbours in Nadimarg today.
The film fails to mention the deaths of Muslim protestors as well as Hindu ones, such as thenight fifty Kashmiri Muslim protestors that were gunned down by security forces in Gawkadal. and other massacres in Kashmir with Muslim casualties such as the Handwara in 1990, Sopore and Bijbehara in 1993.
The film’s main antagonist is Farooq Malik Bitta, a militant who wears Kohl underneath his eyes and seems to combine aspects of of JKLF figureheads Yasin Malik and Farooq Ahmed Dhar, who admitted to killing Kashmiri Pandits on camera. The film does not show Yasin Malik laying down his weapons and entering peace talks with the Indian Government in 2006. He’s also depicted as the leader of the Nadimarg massacre. Police reports show that the massacre was committed by Laskhar-E-Taiba, a Pakistani based terrorist group which claims to fight for an Islamic State in South Asia.
The film paints an inaccurate portrayal of the politics of the time in Kashmir, showing Pro-Freedom flags with Pakistani flags. It does not address the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s secular ideologies, or it’s policy of a secular Kashmir state separate from Pakistan.
The film’s opening asserts that all Kashmiri Hindus are Pandits, and were forced to convert on pain of death. This film ignores that they largely are from the Brahmin caste/community, and are a small proportion of the larger Pandit community.
Sanjay Kak, a documentary maker who is Kashmiri Pandit, argues that film does not bring justice to the persecuted Kashmiri Pandit community, and instead seeks to weaponise their plight against Muslims, as well as liberals, and intellectuals (seen in one of the characters Radhika Menon who is a university professor), in a growing anti-Muslim Climate in India under the Modi government. He points out that, despite the director’s claim that the film is “truth”, the opening credits of the film state, “This film… does not claim accurateness or factuality of historic events”.
Whilst Modi and his Government has highlighted the film as bringing out the suppressed “truth”, a recent BBC Documentary highlights Modi’s role in the Gujarat Riots when he was Chief Minister in Gujarat, is banned by his government, with Indian Students being arrested for broadcasting the documentary on their university campuses.
What is Hindu Nationalism?
Hindu Nationalism, or Hindutva (meaning “Hinduness”), is an ideology dating back to the 20th Century, coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the 1920s, who espoused the ideology that Hindus are a pure and distinct ethnic race, and that minorities should live under the mercy of the majority or be removed. Its other major ideologue Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar, identified Muslims and Christians as major threats to the nation. He also praised the Nazis in Germany and the celebrated the Holocaust, stating that it carried valuable lessons for India.
“…To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of Semitic races – the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by,” he wrote in his book We are Nationhood Defined.
The ideology is led by upper caste Hindus who hope on maintaining the ancient Hindu Caste System which divides the community into four occupational communities, with the “untouchables” ostracised. It’s founders again hailed the caste system to “control possessiveness” and coordinating the various sections of society. Its ideologues seek to do away with India’s Secular Constitution and democracy of India and transform the country into a Hindu Theocracy.
Hindu Nationalist violence took off in the demolition of the Babri Mosque in the town of Ayodhya where riots which killed 2000 people after Nationalists claimed it was built on a Holy Hindu temple. The violence peaked in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where Hindu Nationalists mobs rioted and massacred 1000 people, the vast majority Muslims. At least 20,000 had their homes destroyed and 150,000 Muslims were displaced. The Chief Minister at the time was Narendra Modi who is currently Prime Minister; he and his party currently face allegations that they allowed the riots to happen.
Hindu Nationalism has also been led by a paramilitary organisation called the Rasthriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS which founded in 1925 and was modelled off of the Nazis and Italian Blackshirts. It was banned thrice for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, in 1975, and in 1992 following the Babri Mosque demolition. Its mission statement decries an “erosion of the nation’s integrity in the name of secularism” and the “endless appeasement of Muslims”.
The ideology of Hindutva has reached Australian shores. In 2020, Hindu fundamentalists attacked Sikh students in Harris Park, the local Sikh Community expressing shock at “online hate factories” propogated by extremists. One of the perpetrators, Vishal Jood, a 25 year old student studying management, was arrested by New South Wales Police after he was linked to a spree of anti-Sikh violence. He served 6 months in jail after pleading guilty to three charges including violent assault. After being deported back to India, Jood received a heroes welcome in a celebratory rally, with local media reporting that BJP politicians lobbied for him to brought back home.
In the UK, violence broke out in the city of Leiceister and across the country following a cricket match between India and Pakistan. Eyewitnesses described Hindu men in hoods and masks marching in the streets shouting the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram), a phrase which has been co-opted by Hindu Nationalists and synonymous with anti-Muslim violence in India.
HinduSoc President Ayush Gupta was a candidate in the collapsed Unite ticket in last year’s SRC elections, which is alleged to have been secretly run by UNSW conservatives and members of the Australian Liberal Party.
Tharunka reached out to HinduSoc for comment on this matter but did not receive a response.
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