What a Disturbing New Film Reveals About Modi’s India - IAMC

What a Disturbing New Film Reveals About Modi’s India

“The Kashmir Files” depicts the decades-old exodus of Hindus from the Muslim-majority region. For nationalists, it’s perfect propaganda.

Earlier this year, “The Kashmir Files”—a blood-soaked historical drama with a nearly three-hour run time—became the top-grossing Hindi film since the start of the pandemic. The contested region of Kashmir has caused unending conflict between India and Pakistan. In Indian-administered Kashmir, the Army has brutally subjected Muslims to extensive human-rights violations, with tens of thousands killed, thousands of forced disappearances, and an extremely high incidence of rape—which has been used, according to Human Rights Watch, as a “counterinsurgency tactic” to “create a climate of fear.” But this film tells a different story.

Beginning in 1989, amid an uprising of the state’s Muslim majority following a rigged election, more than a hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits, a Hindu community, fled from their homes; as many as several hundred were killed. The film, which very clearly frames these killings as a genocide, is cross-cut between the fleeing and terrorized Pandits and a story line in the present day, during which a young Indian man challenges leftist college professors to tell the truth about what happened to his Pandit family.

“The Kashmir Files” is not subtle. Numerous scenes show angry and bloodthirsty Muslims leering at Hindu women, and inflicting torture and humiliations upon Hindu families. Though Hindus make up four-fifths of India’s population, the film presents Kashmir as a cautionary tale—that a large group of Muslims could at any moment turn against Hindus. To see it as anything other than a glorified exercise in stigmatization and fearmongering would be a mistake. And it was released in India at an especially perilous time. Communal violence directed at India’s Muslim minority has risen steeply in recent years. In 2014, Narendra Modi, who had been banned from the United States for presiding over the massacre of Muslims a dozen years earlier in the state of Gujarat, became Prime Minister of the country.

Since then, and especially since his reëlection three years ago, Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) have either winked at or openly supported vigilante attacks against Muslims. They have also pursued more structural forms of discrimination, such as the so-called Citizenship (Amendment) Act, passed in 2019, which could permanently revoke the citizenship rights of large communities of Muslims. After the film was released, B.J.P. politicians heaped praise on it; some Indian states waived goods-and-services tax on tickets for the movie or gave government workers time off to attend screenings. Modi himself said that the film has “shown the truth” of Kashmir in the early nineties, and the filmmakers were invited to meet with him and other hard-right politicians. Unsurprisingly, audiences have erupted into anti-Muslim chants in theatres across India, and the Indian press has reported on violence against Muslims that the perpetrators admit was inflamed by the film.

While “The Kashmir Files” seeks to portray the genuine hardships faced by Kashmiri Hindus, it is missing vital historical context. In 1947, the British departed India, partitioning the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, and creating Pakistan. This left Kashmir—whose full name is Jammu and Kashmir—as the only Muslim-majority state in India. In the first four decades after Partition, India and Pakistan waged multiple wars over Kashmir. India imprisoned Kashmiri leaders and reduced the state’s autonomy. Then, in 1987, the Indian government rigged an election in Kashmir, insuring that politicians aligned with New Delhi remained in power. During the next thirty-five years, a number of developments have exacerbated tensions: the government stationed hundreds of thousands more troops in the state, and they frequently operated (and still operate) with impunity; Kashmiris launched a full-on push for independence; and Islamist groups, often backed by Pakistan, became more prominent in the battle against the Indian state.

In 2019, the Modi government stripped Kashmir of the special status it was granted after Partition, under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Although Article 370 had already been steadily eroded, the formal revocation, which allowed non-Kashmiris to buy land in the region for the first time in decades, raised fears that Modi’s government had plans for a settler-colonial project for Hindus.

I went to see “The Kashmir Files” in Northern California. (It has already grossed a million dollars in the United States and Canada.) I then spoke by phone twice with its director, Vivek Agnihotri, who has made a number of Indian films, most notably a conspiracy-laden thriller about the death of a former Indian Prime Minister. Recently, on Twitter and in the press, he has attacked much of the coverage of the movie, saying it is based on an anti-Indian and anti-Modi agenda. His rhetoric echoes that of many of Modi’s supporters, who attribute opposition to the Prime Minister’s policies—and concerns about Indian democracy—to a bigoted anti-Hinduism.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. In it, we discuss the violence sparked by the film, the Indian government’s support for it, and how Modi has changed India.

What role did the Indian government play in helping with the film?

The government gave us zero help. When we started the film, we decided we would not go to any politicians or the government. We did it purely on our own effort. We collaborated with the global Kashmiri diaspora. The government had nothing to do with this film. It was purely our effort—me and my wife. We started the film with our money; we ended the film with our money. We started showing the film in November, in the U.S. We screened it in sixteen different cities, and our focus was more on inviting Congress members and senators and policymakers and mayors and all these kinds of people, because we wanted to impress upon the world that such a great tragedy took place in India and nobody even noticed it. We wanted people to recognize it happened, because more than seven hundred thousand Kashmiri Hindus don’t live in their motherland—they live as refugees all over the world. [Historians estimate that around sixty thousand Hindu families left Kashmir in the early nineties.] And it was never a mainstream topic.

America is a champion of human rights and humanity, so it was important to go there—because I was fully aware, and I’m telling it for the first time on record, that if I started screening the film in India, it would instantly become political. And I wanted to focus on humanity. So we travelled, me and my wife, for almost two months in the U.S. There was a congressional reception at the Capitol. We were invited to all these places. I made a lot of speeches. All my speeches were about humanity and oneness.

Who hosted the congressional reception?

Raja Krishnamoorthi [a Democratic congressman from Illinois] came and gave a speech. Mark Warner, who is a co-chair of the India Caucus, and a Democratic senator, was also involved in that. Then thirty-six organizations of different ethnicities came together and said that we will do the logistics, and my production house did the funding. Thirty-six organizations, including Jewish associations, Christian organizations, Muslims from Syria, Muslims from Afghanistan—all these people came together and we showed it to people in jam-packed houses. [A spokesman for Krishnamoorthi said that the congressman hadn’t seen “The Kashmir Files” or praised it, adding that Krishnamoorthi “remains deeply concerned by the recent increase in communal tensions in India, including the anti-Muslim hate speech and violence which have been inspired by the film.” Warner’s spokeswoman said that he hadn’t seen the movie, either, and that he understood the event, which he did not attend, to have been a celebration of the contributions made by the Indian American Kashmiri-Pandit community.]

Then these people started raising funds and they put up a big billboard in Times Square for India’s Republic Day, which is the 26th of January. It created a lot of word of mouth and a euphoria on social media, because all the Indian diaspora in the U.S.—they started writing to their friends, family, parents in India. This film had zero marketing budget, zero—not even one penny was spent on marketing. And then all these people started promoting the film. The studio releasing it [in India] had no faith in the film, so they released it on four hundred screens, which became six hundred screens. And then the next day, on public demand, suddenly it became one thousand, two thousand screens. [Zee Studios, which distributed the film, said that it did invest in marketing for the movie, and that the rollout had been “a pre-decided business strategy” made in agreement with Agnihotri.]

It became part of mainstream discourse. Then obviously the politicians got involved in this because it’s their voters, their constituencies, talking. And then Prime Minister Modi made a comment. [Modi said, in part: “Instead of assessing the film on the basis of facts, a campaign is on to discredit it. The entire ecosystem opposes anyone who dares to show the truth. He tried to depict what he thought was the truth. But there is reluctance to understand or accept the truth.”] And, after the Prime Minister said that, then obviously the opposition jumped into it, and you know how it happened—then it’s like it’s not my film anymore. It’s owned by the people.

And it was eventually declared that people could go see it tax free in a number of states, right?

Yeah. In India, there’s a tradition of making films tax free, those which are found useful to the society. So nothing unusual about it.

When you met with Modi and Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, what did they tell you about the film?

When you meet these kinds of people, they praise you for your effort. [Adityanath, who once formed a vigilante group to target Muslims, has referred to Muslims as a “crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped.”] It was impossible to make a film about the Kashmiri Hindu genocide. The reason was terrorism; everybody was scared. But then we decided to do it. People came to my office and hit my manager. I was heckled. So now the government of India has given me security. And this is exactly why people do not make movies on the Kashmiri Hindu genocide, because it is assumed that, if Hindus are in the majority in India, then they’re powerful everywhere, but this is wrong. When “Schindler’s List” was made, the whole world appreciated it and people said, “Yes, you brought the truth out.” But imagine making “Schindler’s List” when the Nazis were ruling. Imagine making it when Hitler was ruling. Now terrorism is ruling.

Sorry, just to clarify—you’re saying that making “Schindler’s List” when Hitler was ruling is akin to what’s happening now, because terrorists rule in India today?

Oh, of course. I don’t think there is any human being who’s going to appreciate the terrorist activities. Our film is very clearly about what happens when terrorism seeps in and when humanity is absent. And, therefore, the impact of the movie as desired by me as a filmmaker is exactly what is happening. People are crying, they’re hugging each other, they’re saying, “We are sorry.” And the whole entire India is coming together. And that’s why there is so much euphoria.

Do terrorists have that much power in modern-day India?

Of course. Yes. They are killing people every day. In Kashmir, there is a death threat on my name. Fatwa, it is called, f-a-t-w-a, which is an Islamic order to kill somebody. [A fatwa is a legal decree or opinion given by a jurist about a point of Islamic law. Instances in which they call for someone’s death are rare.] And so there’s a fatwa on my name. I cannot go there freely. Obviously, terrorists are having a good day there.

Is that changing? A character in the movie says that India finally has a Prime Minister who is feared rather than loved. Do you think that the Modi government has ushered in a new kind of India?

A lot has changed. Conversation was not acceptable, and for the first time the entire country has woken up to this truth. All the generation born after 1990 has no idea what happened over there.

But has Modi ushered in a new India?

The current government has abrogated Article 370.

In 2019.

Yeah, so he abrogated that. Once he abrogated that, suddenly the hope has come back. There was no hope before that. It means that, today, if anybody else from India wants to settle over there, he can. If the Kashmiri Hindus want to go back, they can. [Since 2019, New Delhi has implemented de-facto martial law and a communications blackout in Kashmir. More recently, an increase in violence against Hindus in the region has caused some returnees to flee again.]

What about the Muslims in Kashmir, where the Indian Army, which occupies Kashmir, is very brutal with the people—subjecting them to violence and rape. What do you think about that?

I think that is ninety-nine per cent a one-sided narrative. Propaganda.

So, fake news?

It’s not fake news. This is a fake narrative. Fake news, I understand. But it’s a fake narrative—it’s a well-organized narrative. And there is not even one case where anybody has been able to prove that the Army has done it. The terrorists dress up as Army people; they will kill people and then take photos and they try to brainwash young and uneducated people. [The Indian Army in Kashmir operates under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which essentially exempts the military from any form of prosecution. In 2015, Amnesty International reported on thousands of civilian deaths at the hands of security forces, adding that “to date, not a single member of the security forces deployed in Jammu and Kashmir over the past 25 years has been tried for alleged human rights violations in a civilian court. An absence of accountability has ensured that security force personnel continue to operate in a manner that facilitates serious human rights violations.”]

You seem to be arguing that the “fake narrative” is pushed not just by the media but that professors and intellectuals have propagated a “fake narrative” of what happened in Kashmir.

Every single person we interviewed brought to our notice that they are a victim of two kinds of terrorism. One is terrorists with arms and the second terrorism is all these genocide deniers who are primarily influencers, intellectuals, people in the media, people in government, and lot of international press. So, the film basically focusses on how this genocide is being denied by the people who had the power to accept it and show compassion and empathy, and fight for their justice. But they denied these people even the acknowledgment. And, therefore, you can talk to any Kashmiri Hindu anywhere in the world, and he will tell you exactly the same thing—that they did not even acknowledge that anything like this happened. And, after this film, every single person is saying, “Yes, indeed, it was a genocide.” Even the deniers are accepting that it was a genocide. Their only complaint now is “Why aren’t we showing the other side of that story?” Because there is no other side to terrorism. It is evil. That’s it.

How much do you feel that your film is representative of this new India ushered in by Modi? I know you’re a supporter of the Prime Minister.

t’s important because the film is based on truth, absolute truth. In fact, as you call me, I’m walking into the British Parliament to give a speech. Before 2014, the Hindus were not feeling empowered. They were feeling weak. And now they are able to voice openly. But my filmmaking has got nothing to do with it.And supporting the Prime Minister doesn’t mean that my films have got anything to do with him. So correlating these two things—my films and the Prime Minister or the political party in power—would be, I think, a wrong comparison. “The Kashmir Files” is a soft, emotional film.

“A soft, emotional film.” Is that what you said?

It’s an emotional film. It’s got a more feature-film format rather than a harsh statement.

There is a scene in which a woman is forced to eat rice soaked in her husband’s blood.

Yeah. And we try to dilute them because the truth is harsher than that.

One thing I hear from supporters of Modi is that Hindus are now more willing to express so-called Hindu values and so on. Do you think that’s become easier?

Of course, of course. Definitely, it’s become easier because B.J.P. is not like Congress, which ignored the Hindu voice. So I think Modi has become a voice of the voiceless. That’s my analysis.

The voiceless eighty per cent of the country—the Hindus?

No, no. One second. Not just Hindus. India’s a complex country. It’s not just Hindus and Muslims. You cannot divide it like that. Actually, minorities in India are Parsis and Jains and Sikhs, and they are also very supportive of Modi. And there are the Dalits, who are called the Scheduled Castes. They did not have a voice earlier. They’ve also found a voice in it.

There has been a lot written about people going to see the film and then engaging in violence against Muslims. Is that something you’re concerned about?

Do you have any confirmed reports of that? Is there any police report, any video where people have become violent? It depends which side of the media you are reading. If you’re reading anti-Modi media, they will say that.

In Khargone, in Madhya Pradesh?

This is very selective. But the thing is, this is the most viewed film ever, which means that the majority has no problems with the film, and the people who are writing these kinds of things are the people who have not seen the film themselves. So this is a very political opinion. The film has no problem. It has healed seven hundred thousand Kashmiri Hindu families. You saw the blood-soaked rice that the woman eats? Her daughter wrote a letter to us, saying that the family was wrecked, and, for the first time in thirty-two years, this film has healed their family. Similarly, in the end, you have seen the woman who was cut on a saw machine. Her family wrote to us saying that this is the first time, after thirty-two years, they’re feeling that somebody is listening to them, and they feel that justice is being done and their family is healing.

One thing I hear you say is that “facts are not facts.” What do you mean by that?

Oh, it was in the context of a person who was interviewing me. It was edited. He edited it to his advantage to take the context out. The complete sentence was “Facts are not facts if they’re coming from people like you.” This was the complete sentence.

You tweeted that, too: “Facts are not facts.”

I always tweet “facts are not facts” if they’re coming from communists or Naxalites.

I want to ask this again. We have seen viral videos on social media with people yelling derogatory things about Muslims in movie theatres where your movie is playing. You’re not at all concerned about that?

How many videos like that were there?

I don’t know the exact number.

Yeah. That’s the problem. Everybody’s talking about it, but nobody knows, so it is based on fake news. There was only one person, one crazy guy who shouted something. O.K., that was one in 1.3 billion people. But there are thousands and thousands of viral videos where Kashmiri Pandit women are hugging me and crying on my shoulders.

That one video—it was a fabricated thing. It was made only to create noise against the film. But, otherwise, there is not one case. There is not even one police complaint. You won’t find even one person in the entire country of 1.3 billion people who has seen or heard somebody say something like that, except for a bunch of media people who have been creating this fake news.

But listen. I want to talk to you human-to-human. You asked me a question that is not based on something which you know for sure. Similarly now, if I fall into the trap and I answer that to defend it, then others will ask. So everybody from foreign media has been asking me this question, but none of them have seen any video. None of them know of any case like that.

I have seen these videos on social media. I can link to them in the article. Would that be helpful if I link to the videos?

Are we done?

Would it be helpful if I linked to the videos in the article?

You can, undoubtedly. But you have to prove that it’s not fabricated, that it’s not the opposition that has sent it, some terror groups that have sent some person to create this bad thing. Because, if it was really genuine, then there would’ve been a police case or something. There is nothing, no records.

Some of these videos have actually been shared approvingly by people within the B.J.P.

I don’t know. I’m not answerable for anyone. I can answer only for my own film. We have made an honest film. Not even one person in the entire universe has been able to point that one line of dialogue, one shot, any one scene in the film is wrong. So my theme is based on truth. If truth hurts people, offends people, I don’t care about it. ♦

This article first appeared in Newyorker