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Opinion: Kashmir Files weaponizes grief for propaganda

At least a dozen videos of the audience's reaction post the release of Kashmir Files shows how Hindutva leaders call for the worst kind of violence and boycotts against Muslims. | Picture: The Kashmir Files

The gut-wrenching story of Kashmiri Pandits should not be weaponized for stoking anti-Muslim violence.

Alishan Jafri | TwoCircles.net 

After a friend shared Chetan Bhagat’s recent op-ed in the Times of India bashing the outrage against the Kashmir Files, I felt compelled to write a response. Bhagat’s piece is a classic example of how Islamophobia is normalised amongst fence-sitters.

Bhagat starts by mocking the logic of intellectuals who think that “Minorities being lesser in number makes them more vulnerable.” This should be frankly undebatable, especially for minority groups facing systemic discrimination, violence and having negligible representation historically. Even if for the sake of argument we agree with Bhagat, then by this logic Pakistani Hindus and Bangladeshi Hindus or Shias and Ahmaddiyas should not be seen as victims at all since being lesser in number and without any form of protection through the state power is not even worthy of discussion. One may wonder how would an unbiased commentator like Bhagat look at the history of the holocaust or the Rohingya genocide.

Bhagat then goes on to argue that intellectuals don’t acknowledge the plight of Hindus, more so because a ‘Hindu focused’ party has been in power for the past 8 years. Frankly, the party in power is not a ‘Hindu focused’ party. Its focus is only on Muslims—Namaz, Talaq, Abattoirs, NRC, CAA, Shaheen Bagh, Hijab, Biryani, Love Jihad, Land Jihad, Thook Jihad, Dharam Sansads, Mahapanchayats and whatnot. Does the author perceive being explicitly anti-Muslim as pro-Hindu? A large number of Hindus despite being systematically unloved by the party in power seem to understand why Muslims are getting more pampered right now. The ‘anti-Hindu’ intelligentsia on the other hand has tried to bring up the issues of joblessness, inflation, intolerance and growing state repression. 

Bhagat refutes that the film has any biases although he accepts that the film may have taken some creative liberties like in the depiction of gory violence and ‘extra’ emotions. So for now let’s not touch on the factual inaccuracies in the film. Many have already pointed them out. (Short summary: well-knitted half-truths are more dangerous than lies). 

When was the last time you watched a film and felt like murdering your neighbours in revenge? When was the last time a Dalit person was made to rub his nose on the ground for criticising a film or a shrine was desecrated by a person who was reportedly influenced by a film? When did you last see men calling for rape, killing babies because of their religion, shooting and abducting women inside theatres? When was the last time a militant leader was allowed inside a hall with a Trishul to call for the murder of minority groups whom he described as worse than coronavirus? Are these the ‘extra emotions’ that you’re talking about? And if the filmmaker was sincere, he would have condemned the orchestrated hate campaigns and violence around his film. 

Bhagat’s claim that the film has not been promoted by influential people depends on how you see Prime Minister Narendra Modi: an erstwhile tea stall worker or the most powerful and popular influencer in India today. Apart from PM Modi, the film has been endorsed by several state governments and individuals with immense clout. I don’t think that liberals are so relevant today that their validation makes sure whether people will watch a film or not. Moreover, a large section of articulate Muslims don’t necessarily agree with everything that ‘liberals’ say. 

The relationship between liberals and Muslims has drastically transformed and it’s not as hunky-dory as Chetan would like us to imagine. Read some of the ‘liberal’ takes on the Hijab ban or the Namaz row in Gurugram. What the right-wing on the street describes as Land Jihad in Gurugram, a section of liberals call it a civic inconvenience. Most of the liberal take on the Hijab issue support the Hijab ban while conveniently disagreeing with the intent of the right-wing mobs. 

Muslims have expressed categorical disagreements with these opinions.

So is Bhagat’s criticism limited to liberals being repulsed by calls for genocide at Dharam Sansad or their condemnation of episodic lynchings—something that would creep out any decent human being.

Bhagat says that the Pandit exodus made Hindus feel unsafe in their ‘natural’ haven (India). I agree that it did that. Then he says that the government did not intervene. Most Muslims also consider India as their natural home. They too have felt the same quite often during numerous episodic pogroms that dot the history of India. Government response to contain large scale anti-Muslim violence has often been worse. The only difference here is that the latter acts of violence are celebrated and glorified by the most influential persons in Indian society. The most problematic part is the subtle suggestion that only Hindus feared acts of terror. False incarcerations, shady encounters, unending trials and turning entire neighbourhoods into open jails is not appeasement, Chetan. Trust me, no Muslim likes that!

The example of British colonialists being an oppressive minority group again misses the mark. Muslims today do not have any kind of control over state power. Their representation in police, politics and the judiciary is extremely low. They are demonized daily on TV, get threats of mass killings, rapes, die in lynchings without much action against the perpetrators. The impunity of the culprits is unimaginable. They can escape justice with a smile. His comparison sounds reasonable only when seen in the context of caste violence and the Hindu Uppercaste minority that has always controlled state power post-1947. Bhagat writes that people will come after him for this opinion. This is a suggestion that even fair criticism of this shoddy and largely dishonest piece of writing should be seen as intolerance. 

In 1915, Hollywood saw one of its first feature films: Birth of a nation. It introduced the concept of suspense buildup and intercutting in cinema. However, this is not why the film became a rage at that time. It showed the powerless black minority men as murderers and sexual predators to a racist White audience. The film glorified the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) leading to the resurgence of the far-right group. Similarly, the Kashmir Files shows no Muslim with a humane lens. Experts link decades of racist violence in the USA during the 20s and 30s to the film. Griffith made another film called Intolerance to slam the critics. History remembers Birth of a Nation for what it did to American society, how the society received it, and not the film’s success, it’s master editing, storytelling, or Griffith’s refutations.

Kashmir Files is not a success because of any of the factors that Bhagat has mentioned. It’s a success because it weaponizes grief. As a journalist, whose work involves tracking the goriest violence and hate on a daily basis, I think that truth-telling in journalism only comes with the responsibility to inform your audience with objectivity and sensitivity. However, in cinema and fiction, you can have liberty with facts, but that sort of liberty has a greater responsibility since you have to inform your audience how to not react while telling sensitive stories. Facts don’t transform societies; propaganda does. A film based on an extreme human tragedy ideally should lead to reconciliation and reflection. Kashmir Files and the orchestrated anti-Muslim campaigns around it seeks to do the exact opposite.

Lastly, Bhagat acknowledges that Muslims also suffered in India and he mentions that solidarity is a two-way street and so there must be an acknowledgement of the suffering of Hindus. Who would disagree (obviously except those who celebrate massacres) that every victim of violence must receive solidarity and the perpetrators should be condemned? But that can be done without deleting the asymmetry of violence. Filling powerless minority groups with vicarious guilt and shame for the tragic exodus of Kashmiri Pandits while simultaneously erasing and often celebrating the immense violence (like Gujarat 2002) the minorities have historically faced and continue to face every day in some form or the other, is very unfair, to say the least. You must understand that solidarities are not formed amidst calls for retribution and extermination. At least a dozen videos of the audience’s reaction post the release of Kashmir Files shows how Hindutva leaders call for the worst kind of violence and boycotts against Muslims. The Wire’s investigation conclusively proves their connections with the Hindu right-wing and their history of involvement in anti-Muslim hate crimes. This time, some of them might be joking since even our courts see the hate speeches of Hindutva leaders with a charitable view. However, those at the receiving end of this funny hate often remain unamused.

Alishan Jafri is a journalist and writer currently based in New Delhi. He tweets at