‘Kashmir Files’ – A film used to fuel religious intolerance in India

The Indian film Kashmir Files has been mired in controversy since its release on 11 March. The 270-minute-long film, directed by Vivek Agnihotri, an open supporter of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), focuses on the brutal killings of estimates of between 30 and 80 Kashmiri Pandits or Kashmiri Hindus from 1988-1990 and their exodus from Indian Administered Kashmir.

The film revolves around a young student who finally discovers that his parents were killed by Muslim militants and not by accident, as his grandfather had told him. The student is caught between two conflicting narratives, that of his grandfather who is seeking justice for the exodus, and that of his mentor – a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor who tells him no such appeasement is necessary.

The historical events on which the film is based occurred in the 1990s, amidst a rising insurgency in Kashmir, when the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a militant separatist organisation comprising Muslims, targeted the state’s minority Hindus – Kashmiri Pandits – forcing an estimated 75% of the Hindu population to leave the state and seek refuge in other parts of India. Governments in power since then, including the BJP, have done little for their resettlement.

The portrayal of Muslims in the film has caused controversy by conflating the Muslims who carried out the attacks with Muslims who lived in harmony with the Kashmiri Pandits and mourned for them, and Muslims across India who had nothing to do with the attack. Critics have also noted that the character of the JNU professor could be perceived as a dig at the prominent institution which has been the site of several protests against BJP policies since they came to power in 2014.

The film has been lauded by the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and several BJP-ruled states like Goa, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh have waived entertainment taxes on it, thereby lowering the prices of tickets. Police officers in Madhya Pradesh were even given a day off to watch the film.

However, opposition leaders claim that this is a propaganda film aimed at polarising the country even further and causing a deeper divide between Hindus and Muslims in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

Needless to say, the film has created significant agitation across the nation. In several theatres, people were seen standing up at the end of the movie and delivering diatribes against Muslims. Several video clips of these outbursts went viral on social media, and there were reports of retaliatory assaults on Hindus by Muslim youths.

The film is being aggressively and cynically promoted by the Modi government at a time when religious intolerance is widespread and rising across many states in India.

As well as promoting a range of policies and laws that restrict the right to freedom of religion or belief and other fundamental human rights, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have allowed a culture of Hindu nationalism to permeate much of Indian society, with non-state actors emboldened to act with impunity. The Modi government must take responsibility for stoking communal tensions with its promotion of the film and failure to tackle conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities.

By CSW’s India Desk