The Kashmir Files – Money, Media, and the Latest Cynical Attempt to Rewrite History

Vivek Agnihotri’s latest movie The Kashmir Files comes out today. Yet, it has already created rave reviews across India well before its release. The movie is being privately screened in Jammu for politicians and army officers stationed there. It’s being heralded as a ‘true story…of the Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus and genocide.’

Other sites are declaring that it will be a national award winner.

A simple Google search from the news regarding this movie has already revealed the narrative that it wishes its audience to see. That of embattled director, bravely standing up to the slander across the internet – determined to get the truth of genocide out to the world that “they” don’t want you to see.

The narrative that is being crafted deliberately hides the controversial legacy of its troubled director, distorts the history of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, and encourages hate speech and acts against Kashmiri Muslims.

With the rise of hate speech against Muslims in India at alarming highs and given the power media has to shape the minds of its viewers, we must examine the origins of the film, the filmmaker, but also the troubling inclusion of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) propaganda within Indian film. We must also provide a truthful account and context of the Pandit exodus.

A director with a very specific agenda

Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri is not all that different from alt-right personas and trolls that pollute the media ecosystem in the West. He has a troubling history posting  Islamophobic and casteist comments. He also has posted sexist tweets and has achieved notoriety by being the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in India.

Actress Tanushree Dutta filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Agnihotri after she was told, “To remove her clothes and dance”, [next to actor Irrfan Khan] while on the set the movie  Chocolate (2005).

Before the pandemic, he spent time in the United States raising money for his film from the Indian Diaspora and attempting to speak at various American universities. His appearance at  Rutgers was subsequently  canceled when the above controversies surfaced—but not before he tried to make himself a martyr for “free speech.”

This is a trend that he is continuing on the eve of the release of The Kashmir Files. “I will not be silenced.” He said in an interview when a  petition was filed  to bar the showing of the movie.

Any criticism of the film will be perceived as an attack upon him. By making it personal, he aims to shield the movie and its exaggeration of history from scrutiny.

Not that the press in India is interested in examining the facts closely.
Mr. Agnihotri has deep connections to the Indian Government. He is a member of the board of India’s Central Board of Film Certification and a cultural representative of the Indian Cinema at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

His movies are designed to promote Hindu nationalism and he does not tolerate speech that contradicts that worldview. During the making of The Kashmir Files, Actor and politician Yograj Singh was fired after he made “ blasphemous comments about Hindus .”

He has connections to the Indian Diaspora and Civil Service abroad and his movie is designed to promote the views of the ruling party. The government has every incentive to ensure that his movie finds a receptive audience throughout India.

A mouthpiece for the BJP

Facts are inconvenient in the post-truth world, where social media delusions are rewarded and catered to. Propaganda sells – and Indian filmmakers are cashing in.  The Kashmir Files is not the first movie to play against Islamophobia to a willing audience.

Sooryavanshi (2021) was billed as a “dangerous love jihad conspiracy” and featured anti-Muslim tropes such as Muslim men trying to kidnap, convert or seduce Hindu girls. Director Karan Johar recently received the prestigious ‘Padma Shri Award’ in an event that was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Singh.

Following Mr. Agnihotri’s cancellation at Rutgers University, he spoke at an event organized by the Kashmiri Hindu Diaspora in NJ. One of those in attendance was India’s Consul General Sandeep Chakravorty. Following the event, he released a nearly hour-long video calling for the “Israeli model” to be imposed upon Kashmir.

Addressing mainly the pro-Indian Kashmiri Pandit audience he said: “I believe the security situation will improve, it will allow the refugees to go back, and in your lifetime, you will be able to go back … and you will be able to find security because we already have a model in the world.” Chakravorty said. “I don’t know why we don’t follow it. It has happened in the Middle East. If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it.”

While the consul general stated his comments were taken out of context. The Indian Government remained silent on the controversy.

The context of Mr. Chakravorty’s comments is clear. He believes in a system that will permanently deprive Kashmiris of their rights and displace Kashmiri Muslims.

This is why the Pandit Exodus has become a cause célèbre in India for the three years since the abrogation of Article 370. It is a cause the government can use to further justify additional atrocities and restrictions upon Kashmiri Muslims in the name of avenging a past wrong.

Rewriting the History of Pandit Exodus

George Orwell wrote. “He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future.”

It is that mindset The Kashmir Files enters as a concerted effort to rewrite the events of the exodus as a genocide. It cannot be argued that lives were lost in the exodus – an exact total is unknown but credible sources estimate there were approximately 400 to 1,200 lives lost. Others estimated that 357 were lost during the first year of the conflict. Yet, while every life that has been lost in the conflict is a tragedy, it cannot be said to rise to the level of genocide.

The Kashmir Files is not a documentary, nor is it investigative journalism. It is a dramatized reenactment that narrowly focuses on the events it wants to showcase. This is why it is important to consider the facts of the exodus, what the situation was on the ground and how the BJP and the Indian Government had their roles to play in this tragedy.

The origins of the Pandit exodus began in 1987 after elections to the assembly of Jammu and Kashmir were rigged. The elections were widely believed to be rigged to prevent the Muslim United Front from gaining control of the assembly. The aftermath of the election brought Farooq Abdullah to power. When elections were held two years later, few chose to participate.  

By 1989, the world was reeling from the collapse of communism in Europe. Revolutionary and self-government movements rose and a rising insurgency grew in Kashmir.

January 19th, 1990 is the date the exodus is commonly accepted for the beginning of the exodus. That day Pandits were awakened to pro-Islam and pro-Pakistan statements in public squares throughout the valley. While there were Islamist elements at work, many Muslims did not support violence against the Pandit neighbors. The administration of Farooq Abdullah effectively collapsed in the face of this uprising.

In the face of mass public uprising and spiraling violence, Jagmohan Malhotra, known for his brutality, was brought back for the second term as governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Jagmohan encouraged the Pandits to migrate to safer places outside for to allow his forces to selectively put down the mainly Muslim uprising against Indian ioccupation. However, there were no altruistic motives in his actions as he would lead a brutal campaign of terror against Muslims without collateral damage and without having to worry about retributions against them.

Jagmohan’s second turn at governor was short – but it was brutal. Just two days into tenure the CRPF oversaw the Gaw Kadal Massacre in which 280 were thought to have been killed. His administration also oversaw the Handwara massacre as well as others.

When the Pandits heeded the governor’s call to evacuate, few thought they would be gone long, maybe only a few months. Some settled in a refugee camp in Jammu with deplorable conditions, others immigrated abroad, and some settled elsewhere in India. Reputable numbers for the displaced range between 100,000 and 150,000.

The violence that erupted in 1990 is widely seen as the catalyst and the start of the violence that continues to this day – violence has claimed the lives of 100,00 Muslims.

Using tragedy to justify new tragedies

Kashmir is one of the most ethnically diverse places on Earth. Before the events of the late 1980s, Kashmiri Pandits, and Muslims lived as part of the same community in peace with one another. The catalyst for the exodus has its roots in corruption and India’s mismanagement of the region.

Jagmohan was a politician who oversaw numerous massacres, he later joined the BJP and was a staunch advocate for the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. Rather than restore order and protect Pandits under his jurisdiction–he sent them out into refugee camps. The Indian government occupation since 2019 has devastated huge swaths of Kashmir and its people.

That is why authoritarians present comforting lies that people can believe. That is why there is a concerted effort to rebrand the exodus as a genocide. That is why The Kashmir Files is getting to be lauded to acclaim before it has even been seen. This film does not care about facts and approaches the purest definition of propaganda as a film can get. Its goal is to make Muslims blood-thirsty murderers and rapists that only the BJP can protect Hindus from. Its goal is to serve as a justification for further violence against Kashmiri Muslims.

That is what is disturbing about a film like The Kashmir Files and why we must speak out against it. We cannot allow it to serve as a new catalyst for fresh violence. Once new violence occurs there will be reprisals which will beget even more violence from the authorities until Kashmir turns from a home into a graveyard.