Tuesday, 29 March 2022


The Kashmir Files: Upturning the Box Office

Returning Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley with honour and affection

As is the fashion, let me start my inevitable piece on The Kashmir Files by acknowledging that I have not seen the film nor do I intend to. To echo what another writer said, “I don’t watch propaganda.” So this piece is not so much about the film, as much as whats it's about. Apparently, it depicts Kashmiri Muslims in poor light, adding them to the long list of villains who are responsible for the exit of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley that so far included Pakistani terrorists, Pakistan affiliated Kashmiri terrorists and Kashmiri Islamists. Now it includes the common Kashmiri qua Muslim.  

I use the term ‘exit’ for the Kashmiri Pandits moving out of the Valley, as against the preferred description elsewhere as genocide and ethnic cleansing, since there is at least one interpretation of those events out there that has it the Kashmiri Pandits were temporarily relocated outside the Valley for their security. It is said that the then governor, Jagmohan, assisted their exit with provision of transport and encouragement. The expectation perhaps was that they would be able to return to the Valley soon enough when the problem that had exploded there over the turn of the last decade of last century settled down. In this version of events, Jagmohan had been sent to be firm with the Kashmiris, which may have resulted in a backlash against vulnerable Kashmiri Pandits. So he was not averse to seeing their backs in order to get on with being tough with the Kashmiris who had taken to the streets in protest against long standing Indian mishandling of politics in Kashmir.

In my view, this was a very sensible step in the context of the times. The explosion in Kashmir was not a surprise. The indicators were there for some two years. There were bomb blasts and killings had already started, including those of Kashmiri Pandits. The troubles exploded with the State succumbing to the demand of Rubaiya Sayeed’s kidnappers for release of their jailed compatriots. Another date of consequence is the reinstallation of Governor Jagmohan, in the following month. Police action in Srinagar on his arrival in Jammu, followed by the Gow Kadal incident, led to a worsening. The crowds swelled on the back of a communication revolution then unfolding that brought to television screens the fall of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of communism from Eastern Europe. This caught the imagination of the people, some of whom were not particularly keen on how history had turned out in welding Kashmir to India. Consequently, thereafter, the situation was punctuated by mass processions of a deluded people and repression by a beleaguered State.

Using the tumult, terrorists advanced their agenda. Some were independentist and some affiliated to Pakistan. The former, being insurgents, would have been mindful of cutting off information flows to the counter insurgent State. Therefore, their preference for Kashmiri Pandits leaving, to stanch such information flows. The latter preferred a Hindu-less Kashmir, at the behest of their minders in Pakistan. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ubiquitous ‘ISI’ (Inter-Service Intelligence), had capitalized on India’s mishandling of provincial elections in late 80s and subverted those alienated. They provided training and arms and re-infiltrated the disaffected youth back into the Valley. Some of these youth targeted Kashmiri Pandits in killings and intimidation designed to force them to leave.

As the mass movement caught on, many locals too joined in the pressure on the Kashmiri Pandits. The loudspeakers system in mosques, used for the call to prayer, was abused instead to broadcast the imminence of ‘freedom’ and intimidatory messaging directed at Kashmiri Pandits. Selective killings of Kashmiri Pandits were witnessed, not all necessarily related to their religion. Their women folk were threatened and some unspeakable atrocities committed, including torture and rape, in the context of violence that rent the air at the time. This forced Kashmiri Pandits to leave, for the sake of their families and wellbeing. Their security could not be guaranteed in the various mohallahs and bylanese. While many Kashmiris did assist, expressed empathy and even protected them, this was not enough to convince many to stay, though a few did stay on.

The State was considerably challenged. The State government had resigned and Jagmohan busied himself holding the reins. A account of these difficult days is in his book, My Frozen Turbulence. Avoidably, the State police – with Kashmiris in its ranks - came under a cloud for its sympathies. The central police forces looked askance at the uprising, and, brought in post-haste, were not sufficiently situational aware or self-regulating enough to care against inciting further alienation amongst people through their actions taken in fear and anger.

The Army had been alerted and deployed in aid to civil authority, but its numbers were insufficient at the initial stages. In any case, it is never the right force to be employed to control mass protests, which is how the initial phase of the Kashmir troubles turned out. It concentrated on controlling the insurgents, even as there was apprehension of Pakistan capitalizing on the outbreak of insurgency by a swift conventional action to ‘liberate’ Kashmir. An Indo-Pakistan crisis followed, forcing the Army to be alert to developments at the conventional level and in counter insurgency. Its numbers could not readily be boosted as the Army was rather stretched at the time, only just about de-inducting from its peace enforcement operation in Sri Lanka. It also privileged its deployment in Punjab, considering that State more sensitive to Pakistani interference.

Under the circumstance of security forces being considerably stretched, the relocation of the Kashmiri Pandits was sensible. Alternatively, in my view, their presence and vulnerability in the localities could have made them more readily available as insurgent targets, thereby worsening their plight and heightening pressures on security forces. Their more extensive targeting by insurgents, Pakistani proxies and Pakistani terrorists would likely have led to a worse clamping down on Kashmiris, heightening violence levels. Since it was a mass uprising, a violent repression may have led to more deaths, reprisals and a downward spiral making a bad situation worse. International opprobrium would have been swift, complicating India’s hand and advantaging Pakistan.

There was a political outreach of sorts, once the Kashmiris had largely departed. George Fernandes was deputed as pointsman for the government, followed by Rajesh Pilot. Prem Shankar Jha informs that seven interlocutors of Fernandes were successively murdered by Pakistani proxies. Thus, normality could not be returned to the Valley through political engagement. Though Jagmohan was boarded out after a massacre at a burial procession by central police forces, the situation settled into a long drawn insurgency. Enactment of the Armed Force Special Powers Act was the State’s acknowledgement of this. Though, over time, deployed military numbers went up, the Kashmiri Pandits could not return as such numbers were insufficient to assure security at the dispersed habitations. The Pakistanis had considerably upped the insurgency, having toppled the independentists and put in place their affiliates. Over time, Pakistani terrorists and Afghan veterans ensured deterioration of the insurgency into a terrorism-dominant proxy war.

This was designed to put a political solution out of reach. The fallout was in Kashmiri Pandits remaining out of harms’ way outside the Valley. That not enough was done to rehabilitate them elsewhere is another matter. That some through their own volition and civil society help resettled elsewhere is to their credit. The few who stayed on in the Valley faced fear and periodic terror incidents, but were not without support from sympathetic neighbours. That the State used their plight for its purposes of keeping Pakistan on the backfoot in its political wars was only to be expected.

There was also internal political utility of the Kashmiri Pandit circumstance for right wing political forces in India in their bid for political power. Their ‘Hinduism in danger’ narrative from Islamist depredations used the example of displacement from Kashmir as prop. Some Kashmiri Pandit organizations, sensing support from the right wing, allowed their cause to be used for wider political purposes by the right wing. They hoped for a better dispensation once the right wing was in power. A hoped for symbiotic relationship was largely belied, with Kashmiri Pandits mostly left out in the cold by all manner of dispensations both in Srinagar and in Delhi.

The State, though not insincere, was ineffectual in resettling them. It was unable to organize durable and sustainable returns as the insurgency situation did not let up in the Valley to extent enough to lend confidence that Kashmiri Pandits could make their way back in safety and with dignity.

The Pakistanis took care to reinforce hesitance by periodic outrages as the Wandhama and Nadimarg episodes of killings of Kashmiri Pandits. The intelligence game in the Valley was also vitiated by incidence of black operations using proxies, even by the Indian security establishment trying to put the negative spotlight on Pakistanis and to turn international opinion on the proxy war and away from Indian human rights violations. This brought in information war into the picture, thereby complicating alighting on perpetrators of violence, such as in the Nadimarg incident.

In my view, this inability and unwillingness - to the extent the latter exists - amongst Kashmiris to countenance a Kashmiri Pandit return, amounts to ethnic cleansing, not the prior ‘exit’ per se. To the extent Pakistan remains a factor and India is unwilling to come to terms with its presence and demands, the responsibility for the ethnic cleansing is with both States.

Pakistani violence keeps Kashmiri Pandits away and Indian unwillingness to create the conditions for ending of this violence through political engagement with Pakistan is where the ethnic cleansing accountability lies. This does not exonerate the factions in the Valley that are acting on Pakistani behest and seek to profit from absence of Kashmiri Pandits, such as Islamists. These elements have to be accosted by Kashmiris themselves, socially embarrassed and brought round through political action. Kashmiris have heroically faced to violence to tame such elements earlier. They must suitably use the resources of the State to counter such violence and prevail. To their credit, mainstream politicians have voiced this aspect of their limitations, but have received less credit than is their due. 

A combination of State and civil society has to welcome Kashmiri Pandits back. Many have created alternative sustainable solutions for themselves. Even so, some 50000 remain marginalized. Theirs must be a prioritized return, while those better settled elsewhere make a symbolic return and retain their continuing claim on access and resident privileges in Kashmir.

This is the more challenging enterprise, much more difficult than violence and destruction. It requires equal strategizing. There is plentiful theory available in peace studies literature, profitably tried out elsewhere. Such initiatives have not been absent in Kashmir. The 2000s and 2010s did see much civil society action on reconciliation and collaboration on this score between mainland India and Kashmiris. Besides, Kashmiri traditional resources and syncretic culture have wellsprings that don’t really require inspiration from outside. Deploying these is not so much a State-led effort, but societal and non-state. There is no deficit of such resources in mainland India, including incidentally – in my view – suitably approached right wing organizations. There is no dearth of Pakistani liberal opinion that can be tapped and mobilized on the other side.

The potential of such activity was stark in the period of Indo-Pak proximity. Putting it all together once again in a post Article 370 environment is a case of who will bell the cat. Perhaps a non-state Truth and Reconciliation Commission of sorts can sit initially and at some point in the future, an official Truth and Reconciliation Commission can undertake more formal proceedings to put the sorry incidents of 1990 behind the two communities and the nation.

The State cannot but be expected to act along a realist, power oriented direction. That is how States are. Enlightened State support can however be incentivized if the project is taken off the ground in first place. From the developments on the India-Pakistan front, it seems that the two are not averse to turning a new leaf. The Indian State is unlikely to stand in the way. The Statist reaction to the film in question, The Kashmir Files, which also so the prime minister weigh in, suggests that the State needs bailing out. Even so, the opportunity of a focus on the issue that the film has brought about can be used to energise a campaign to return Kashmiri Pandits. Whereas there are sporadic killings designed to keep Kashmir on the brink, the rather low violence indices are not without some promise.

The longer the Kashmiri Pandits stay out and are not ushered back with affection and pride, the more credible the allegation of ethnic cleansing against Kashmiris. The onus is on Kashmiris. They have the potential to rescue not only their kin of different religion, but their coreligionists elsewhere in the country, targeted tacitly but equally by the film’s invective. If the opportunity is seized appropriately, the film can yet prove counter-productive for its makers and their covert supporters in the right wing establishment and State.