Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

The Kashmir Files: Cinema As Testimony

The Kashmir Files: Cinema As Testimony

The Kashmir Files is an apt example of cinema as testimony. It offers a foundation for a discourse for history and historical wrongdoings and a contextual examination, both microscopic and telescopic, of historical events from all perspectives.

The Kashmir Files
The Kashmir Files

"There are three hundred and fifty thousand survivors of the Holocaust alive today and I implore all the educators to not allow the Holocaust to remain a footnote in history," said Steven Spielberg, accepting an Oscar in 1993 for his Schindler’s List. "These three hundred and fifty thousand experts just want to be useful for the remainder of their lives. Please teach this in school and please listen to the words and the echoes and the ghosts…" he adds.

In the winter of 1988, 'Escape from Sobibor' aired on Doordarshan Kashmir. I was 14-years old and living in Kashmir. Watching the horrifying story of the mass escape of Jews from the Nazi extermination camp at Sobibor was my first encounter with history, especially the extermination of the European Jews during the World War 2. Little had I thought that we would be made to go through similar horror in the coming years—persecution because of our religion and identity, expulsion from our homes in Kashmir, and forced to seek shelter in horrid camps in Jammu and other parts of India.

In December 1993, Panun Kashmir, an organisation of Kashmiri Pandits founded by poet and activist Dr. Agnishekhar, arranged a conference in Delhi’s Sri Fort auditorium with only one purpose—to inform the world about what we were going through. The only famous personality who addressed the audience was Anupam Kher. The press came because he was there. Samdhong Rinpoche, the former PM of Tibetan Govt-in-Exile, came to express his solidarity.

Two months later, in February 1994, representatives from the Kashmiri Pandit community informed UNHCR in Geneva that Islamist militants had driven them away from Kashmir. They begged UNHCR to take note of this persecution and displacement, and to send a fact-finding mission to Kashmir to investigate the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Kashmiri Hindu minorities. This was the community’s first appeal to world conscience. 'Listen to us, look at us…’ they implored. Letter after letter, memorandum after memorandum went unnoticed. We didn’t give up.

History teaches us that such catastrophic events, if not actioned upon swiftly, eventually lead to erosion and gradual disappearance of cultural identity. It happened to Jews, and it is still happening to Kashmiri Pandits. We are still grappling with the erosion of an age-old way of life and trying to assess the impact and the losses we have suffered at various levels. We ask: "What will become of us and our progeny? How will our progeny know what happened to their own ancestors?"

Day after day, year after year, and decade after decade, Kashmiri Pandits pleaded for justice. Some people took note, others expressed sympathy, some didn’t even care to listen. The result: Nothing. There was no fact-finding mission, even though the truth was out there. All that needed to be done was to visit a camp and see the condition of the people there. There were more than 50 such camps all over India. Even now some camps exist in Jammu.

I lived next to such a camp. I went to the camp school and experienced the horror. We were thrown into a long exile and forced to live in subhuman condition in camps.

"Yours is going to be a long struggle," said my father who taught in the camp college in Udhampur in the '90s. "Language will play an important part. Don’t forget to tell your story correctly. Don’t let anyone dilute it or take the truth away. The only thing we now have is truth. Nothing else! It is our only heirloom! But if you choose to be silent, make sure even your silence doesn’t go unheard and that it reaches far and wide…"

For the first time, words like identity, displacement, home, exodus, exile, genocide, camp, refugee, migrant, memory, space, time, and hope assumed the right meaning.

Scenes from 'Escape from Sobibor' ceased to be mere scenes in a film. We found ourselves caught in a similar situation—trying to escape persecution and extermination. Had we not fled Kashmir, we would have been slaughtered the way, in 'The Kashmir Files', Sharda Pandit’s husband is slaughtered when he tries to hide from the terrorists. What we see on celluloid is not just a horrifying image of slaughter and brutality. It is lived horror. And there are witnesses of that horror. Those witnesses are still alive.

Fleeing persecution and killings, we ended up in camps where one after another people started to languish and perish because of deprivation, disease, and the apathy of the authorities and those in power. In the camps, there was nothing. The state and the Centre refused to acknowledge even our condition, let alone do anything about it.

We didn’t realise our own horror at the time because we were busy keeping alive.

In his seminal essay, The Exiled Tongue (2001), Nobel laureate, Imre Kertész, speaks of the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust. But because of the paradoxical impossibilities, he also goes on to add, it is impossible not to write about the Holocaust. This becomes the fulcrum of the moral dilemma the protagonist of his novel, Fiasco, is faced with.

Anupam Kher in The Kashmir Files
Anupam Kher in The Kashmir Files

I have come to knock at the gates of the court of your conscience, begs the teacher, Pushkar Nath Pandit (Anupam Kher), in 'The Kashmir Files', seeing everyone around him faced with a similar dilemma. Until he is pushed into a cauldron of hate, suppression, and violence, unable to even recognise his powerful friends who can’t save him from imminent death. And it isn’t an ordinary death. It is the death of people’s conscience which kills him.

'The Kashmir Files', therefore, is an apt example of cinema as human testimony. It offers a foundation for a discourse for history and historical wrongdoings and a contextual examination—both microscopic and telescopic—of historical events from all perspectives. The representation and experience of Time, Memory and Space become very important in cinema of exile. Tarkovsky’s Mirror, for instance, establishes this experience using cinematic chronotope, thereby exploring the very nature of human condition in times of crisis. 

Actor Anupam Kher in The Kashmir Files
Actor Anupam Kher in The Kashmir Files

In so far as the retelling of some of the most gruesome crimes against Kashmiri Pandits, the film will shock you. Unbelievable horror is what you witness. But the film will also make you human. It will shape the conscience of people dangling between confusing and opposing narratives and a web of lies and deceit.

There is deep humanity in being a silent sufferer, to not give up hope while battling all odds especially when you find yourselves surrounded by people who deny you your own history and won’t care to know it even when you are going through it. And then comes a time when you, as a silent sufferer, find yourself seated in a cinema hall, face-to-face with your brutal past once again, with images from your history coming alive one after another. We see ourselves once again. Helpless, begging for mercy, alone, and about to die.

It is absurd to even imagine such an absurd situation. Beyond the absurdity of that horror is the morality of a people long suppressed by a nation’s apathy and the apathy of their own compatriots. That explains the tears and wails and cries for justice which have remained unseen and unheard and unheeded by everyone for the past three decades.

A generation grew up in the shadow of the horror of their own ancestors.

On his deathbed, Pushkar Nath begs his grandson, Krishna, to take him home in Kashmir but he knows he will not live to see that day. Therefore, he begs him to take his ashes there. And then he dies a lonely death, unable to even dream one last happy dream of homecoming.

'The Kashmir Files' thus becomes the story of one man’s faith in an unfaithful world.

"Broken souls can’t speak," says Brahma Dutt (Mithun Chakraborty), the bureaucrat serving in Kashmir in 1989 through early '90s and who nobody in power including the Chief Minister, the Home Minister, and the Prime Minister listened to despite his repeated warnings about the impending horror that was to be unleashed upon the Pandits. The writing on the wall was loud and clear: Throw Kashmiri Pandits out and Islamicise Kashmir. In case they resist, terrorize them. But Dutt is no Oskar Schindler because he has neither the real power nor the moral courage to risk his position and become the saviour. It takes him 30 years to acknowledge the truth and his own blunders and the blunders of the very state he served.

"Jews didn’t let anyone forget what they were made to go through," he says. "In case of Kashmiri Pandits, no one was willing to even listen." All they wished for and still wish for is eyes and ears to see and hear their plight and accounts of injustices inflicted upon them. Nothing else. Is it too much to wish for in modern India?

"Not exodus, but genocide," Dutt says, correcting his three friends—a journalist, a police officer and a doctor who witnessed everything.

'The Kashmir Files' depicts the real events—the persecution of Pandits, the targeted killings, and massacres on the basis of religious and cultural identity, such as the massacre that took place in Nadimarg in Kashmir on 23rd March 2003 in which 24 Kashmir Pandits were killed by Islamist terrorists. But does it depict the human condition and the impact of forced displacement and long years in exile at cultural, psychological, and emotional levels? Does it explore a deeper understanding of the human condition of the exiles? Inevitably, films run the risk of remaining unconsummated, both politically and aesthetically, for over-simplifying a complex human condition.

Does 'The Kashmir Files' tell the whole truth about Kashmiri Pandits and what happened to them? To an extent it does. What will it take to tell the whole truth? Half a million testimonies, as Spielberg says. For every testimony is unique, replete with human experiences, some unimaginable. There is more truth to the Kashmiri Pandit existence than can be told in just one film like 'The Kashmir Files'. The story is real and still alive. It will take countless films and books to cover everything.

The last scene of the film is an example of one such testimony. Indoctrinated terrorists humiliating Sharda Pandit (Bhasha Sumbli) by ripping the clothes off her body, making her an example for others. But Sharda can’t even scream. Such is her silent cry. She doesn’t even want to scream because she knows no one will come. None of the Muslim neighbours will hear the scream and come for help, much like no one came to their house in Kashmir when her husband was killed by Pandit-hating terrorists. Not even a doctor. That silent, unheard scream will haunt the audiences for the rest of their lives. It is not just Sharda’s scream. It is the scream of thousands of Kashmiri Pandit women whose lives were destroyed.

Several Jews who survived extermination in Nazi camps rejected Schindler’s List because to them the film was a Hollywoodized version of the Nazi genocide of European Jews.

'The Kashmir Files' scores a moralistic victory in the sense that it portrays the truth about the real events—the persecution, the targeted killings of prominent and common people, and massacres, and the subsequent erosion of Kashmiri Pandit culture. It does not take creative liberties or resort to tropes and metaphors.

Who is the culprit is another unanswered and almost unanswerable question the film asks. Pakistan, which sponsored terrorism? Majority of Kashmiri Muslims who connived with local terrorists to get rid of Pandits? The apathetic Indian state that turned a blind eye to what was happening since 1947, and, year after year, did little to prevent the atrocities and to safeguard and protect the indigenous people in their own homeland?

"This is an info war, a war of contested narratives," says journalist Vishnu Ram (Atul Srivastava), justifying his dilemma when asked why he didn’t report the truth in its entirety. "To hide the truth is a greater crime," says Pushkar Nath.

This war of narratives might be going on in college and university classrooms and newsrooms, but inside our homes and deep in our hearts there is no war. There are only wounds, most still raw, waiting to be healed. 

(Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Prize-winning author.) 


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