Kashmir: The Story of Control

Kashmir’s Torture Trail, a documentary on Kashmir by the acclaimed BAFTA-winning film-maker Jezza Neumann, was recently aired on Channel 4 in the UK. The hard hitting documentary follows a human rights lawyer, probing how protestors were driven off the streets and peace imposed in one of the most heavily militarised places on earth. The documentary highlighted systematic human rights abuses in Kashmir. Uncovering a state-sanctioned torture program that has set India on a collision course with the international community, the film exposes and maps a network of government-run torture centres, through which, as the documentary says, as many as one in three Kashmiris have been hauled.

“We had the highest number of viewer comments in the week after transmission, our website also crashed with the high volume of hits,” says Neumann.  “An MP has put a question to parliament on the Kashmir issue and Amnesty International are now featuring the film on their website and plan on doing screenings throughout India,” the director informs.  The director says the response to the documentary has been pretty big. “The film is being distributed internationally and we hope that other countries will show this film and promote these issues,” he says.

In an exclusive interview with Majid Maqbool for GK Magazine, the multi-BAFTA winning director Jezza Neumann and producer Catie White talk about the challenges of filming undercover in the valley, reasons why Kashmir has remained one of the most under-reported conflicts on earth, and attempts by a section of mainstream Indian media to discredit the documentary. 

What brought you to make a film about the use of torture to crush dissent in Kashmir? Was it something that emerged while you were researching for the documentary in the valley?

We entered Kashmir having seen the agitations in 2010, in which so many were hurt. But no one was explaining to the outside world why it was happening or why the crackdown that followed succeeded. It was an explosion, which was poorly probed by the global media. Once we began reporting, the more we spoke to people the more we un-raveled the story of control in Kashmir, how fear and threats keep the Valley locked down, especially the use of torture. 

Your documentary is a strong indictment of what the state has been doing in Kashmir. It comes out at a time when the mainstream media makes repeated claims of “return of normalcy”, linking return of peace with the arrival of more tourists. (An Indian magazine even did a cover story titled, “Sorry, Kashmir is happy.”) Has this discourse been successful in keeping away the international media from probing deeper into the actions of Indian state in Kashmir?

What is normal about Kashmir? Yes, the militancy as its lowest ebb. Infiltration from Pakistan has dried up – although that can’t be counted on. Violence that is insurgency related is sporadic but basically non-existent. Tourism flourishes, and yet here we have a Valley, the most militarized place on earth, barring the North Korean parallel, where the law is held in abeyance, all those assigned to protect India’s security interests are gifted immunity. While the external threat has diminished, human rights abuses seem to have increased exponentially. There is nothing normal in Kashmir where rape, torture and murder go unpunished. And yet none of this is seen abroad. We glimpsed the 2010 upheavals. Then nothing. How do you report fear? How do you film it? How do you characterize desperation? These were significant challenges. 

Kashmir has remained one of the most under-reported conflicts on earth. Why?

A terrible trade off has happened. The US has agreed to stay silent in return for wooing its new ally in South Asia, especially as Pakistan further destabilizes. Britain says nothing as our relationship with India is still precarious and over sensitized. Trade and the expansion of Indian soft power, the lure of its markets, has silenced everyone. Kashmir is also managed well by India inside and outside the country – where a lobby jumps on everything that is written about it. It is staggering that even when we were filming stone pelting and clashes with the police in the back alleys of Srinagar, or interviewing boys whose nails had been pulled, their legs rollered, tourists went on boat rides on Dal Lake completely unaware that these clashes were taking place.  Shipped between Dal Lake and Gulmarg these tourists never pass through towns such as Baramulla or Sopore where people live in siege conditions. Sopore was an eye opener.

How difficult was it to film undercover in Kashmir? How did people open up about the torture stories?

It was extremely difficult filming. Towns were often cut off by road blocks. Even local cameramen were stopped from filming and one of them working for us was beaten. But ultimately people spoke to us as they felt crushed – they had nothing to lose. They also hoped that by speaking out the world would listen. We were constantly tailed, called, watched and challenged. This meant we contaminated other people we would have liked to interview but who did not dare. We had to film inside exclusively, diving in and out of people’s homes with all our kit so as to attract the least attention we could. Getting Kashmiris to open up took some work too. So many false dawns and promises that are never met. People feel resentful about the West too – rightly so. Getting people to stop still and talk proved harder than we thought it would be – but when we did, a torrent came out.

Given the skepticism about the portrayal of truth by the Indian filmmakers, can Kashmiri people expect better films, documentaries from western filmmakers?

West, East – these are not the underpinning factors in telling the truth. Distance and objectivity is. We are from another place and time and so can afford to take more risks perhaps. Perhaps also we have had the chance to travel more and experience more conflict and oppression close up. This exposure serves to help us cut through the news management of governments. But how many of us were making revealing films about Ireland, let’s say, which was on our doorstep. Too close. Too painful. Too difficult to decipher. Having said that, writing and reporting in Kashmir by Kashmiris is changing. You have a crop of novelists, illustrators, journalists, raconteurs and rap stars who are telling their own stories extremely well. Media is booming in the valley. Harud the film is coming soon. It looks wonderful!

Beyond spreading awareness about the conflict in Kashmir, can such films help bring the perpetrators to justice?

We want to start a conversation. Can economic expansion be the only gauge of the greatness of a nation? Those states that show production. What about India’s moral and human obligations? Hopefully we have highlighted the work of civil society in Kashmir where non political volunteers are trying to persuade residents they have rights and that they can be defended. India might take longer to catch on, and sign up, but I am sure it will happen. What we hope our film does is give a human face to the reports and the rhetoric – to make people watching feel life in Kashmir and understand those trying to document abuses.  Obviously, we want change! Change in laws. Change in attitudes. Police reform. Rehabilitation for survivors. There are people who have been mutilated and never talked about how or why because they are grateful. They did not disappear. This is the warped logic we wanted to puncture. 

What has been the response to the documentary after it was shown on Channel 4 in UK? Will the documentary travel further and be screened in other countries?

We had the highest number of viewer comments in the week after transmission, our website also crashed with the high volume of hits.  An MP has put a question to parliament on the Kashmir issue and Amnesty International are now featuring the film on their website and plan on doing screenings throughout India so I’d say the response has been pretty big.  The film is being distributed internationally and we hope that other countries will show this film and promote these issues.

What were the reactions of Indian media and intelligentsia after the documentary was shown in UK? Some reports in Indian media tried to discredit the documentary, accusing it of spreading propaganda against the Indian state. A report in the leading Indian daily TOI said, “The lacunae in the program, though, was that no neutral party, let alone authorities in J&K or at the Centre were given an opportunity to express their point of view. Strangely, the production team was in the Kashmir valley at the time of last year’s stone-pelting incidents in which over 100 youths were killed. There are questions being asked whether they were tipped off by those who planned the demonstrations.” How do you view such reports about the documentary in the Indian media?

This was very deceitful. We were contacted by Times of India looking for comment. The journalist asked why we had sought out no one from the government to put their side. We gave the journalist this statement:

1. We interviewed people from the UN, HRW and Amnesty, as well as local rights bodies. Are these not neutral? All had spent many years pressing India for reform on issues relating to torture. But the torture bill has stalled and India has not ratified the convention. In turn India has declined since 1993 to allow the UN’s rapporteur into the country. We also then used RTI laws to obtain State Human Rights documents to substantiate every case. The opinions in most cases were those of the SHRC. Is it not neutral? It is a government body. We also obtained data from the J&K government through RTI requests which became part of the commentary. Ultimately, having assembled an enormous legal file we presented our findings to the Indian government. It responded: we do not wish to comment. We were saddened and surprised by this. For your information, the JK Army was asked repeatedly to take part and on every occasion declined.

However, regardless, and of our own volition, we placed throughout the film caveats representing the Indian view, as gleaned from top officials the film crew talked to in Kashmir. We explained in the film India’s security concerns, its continuing belief that uprising in Kashmir were manipulated by Pakistani groups, and that Pakistan has manipulated Kashmiri causes for its own ends, practicing terror too in India frequently.

However, having done this, what we were still left with is a chilling story, that while the insurgency is according to the India army at its lowest ebb ever, human rights abuses, particularly torture, continue to be rampant, with as many as one in six detained Kashmiris reporting grievous cases of torture. Our legal file was bulging with them and it makes for horrendous reading.

Not one word was used and instead the Times of India continued to claim we had given India no right of reply.

How did people receive you when you approached them to share their stories?
We were really lucky that during our time in Kashmir we got to see a lot of the state including snow in Gulmarg and the hills above Anantnag. Even the valleys before the LoC. It truly is beautiful and everywhere we went we were greeted with tea, plates of food, regardless of what people could afford.

In the absence of justice, for example, to the thousands of torture victims in Kashmir, will peace ever return in Kashmir?

This is undoubtedly the festering sore – apart from the whole question of Azadi that no one in government wants to talk about. Set aside freedom, and sovereignty and independence. Let’s not go there. Instead consider here is a place where there is no comeback, no oversight, no monitoring or accountability. It is a morality vacuum where any crime can be committed without the intervention of the criminal justice system – if you are a security force trooper or policeman. But if you are a citizen you can be preventatively arrested for two years. It is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world (apart from Russia) where such an in-balance has occurred. Once it was claimed that these measures were necessary to fight terror. But what now? No justice, no peace. That’s the old rubric. In Kashmir it is undoubtedly true.