Why I’m Crashing Screenings of “Kashmir Files” in California

As I bought a bottle of water from the concession stand in a Northern California theater on 19 March 2022, the staffer asked me, “What movie are you seeing?”

“‘Kashmir Files’,” I said. “Oh,” he responded. “It must be good. It’s almost sold out.” Indeed it was. Not good, rather, but sold out. Popularity, however, does not equal quality — nor morality.

The auditorium was packed when I entered. It was an exclusively Indian-American audience, there to watch the recently released (it hit screens in California on 18 March) blockbuster written and directed by Vivek Agnihotri. The audience no doubt knew that the film is divisive (I’d just attended a screening the night before and overheard an audience member talking about how there is “controversy” surrounding it), but the theater staff was apparently aware of nothing save that every seat of every showing was full.

The seats were, however, temporarily vacated when, after the film’s 17-minute opening sequence, I entered as the title screen popped up.

“Stop genocide in India,” I shouted, walking down the aisle. “‘Kashmir Files’ is a lie to whitewash the occupation of Kashmir and justify the RSS-BJP’s impending genocide of Indian Muslims.” As I continued, the audience began shouting back at me. Jumping from their seats, several charged at me and tried to grab me as I continued sloganeering before exiting.

“You piece of shit,” one man snarled at me as I left, while another briefly trailed me through the theater as I beat a hasty retreat for the exit.

“Kashmir Files” purports to tell the story of the 1990 Kashmiri Pandit Exodus. In 1990, as a separatist uprising began in Muslim-majority Kashmir, a Hindu community known as “Pandits” fled the region en masse. Many of them were killed at the time as well as over the next 10 to 15 years.

The specifics of the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits demand attention and have already been faithfully recounted by various historians and journalists in both the past and the present. They certainly suffered. Perhaps a hundred thousand or more (out of a population of 140,000) fled the region. According to figures recently released by Kashmir Police, at least 89 were killed; at the high end, according to figures collected by a Kashmiri Pandit organization, up to 650 were killed between 1990 and 2011.

As a notable aside, it’s questionable whether all of those Pandits who were targeted were killed for their religion or rather for political reasons due to the positions many held as government officials; while their murders, either way, are condemnable, the latter reason casts the affair in a far different light than the purely communal lens through which Agnihotri insists it must be viewed. Moreover, the tragic killings of Pandits by militant separatists should also be contextualized alongside the thousands of Kashmiri Muslims who were also killed by militants as well as the tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims — a great many of them innocent civilians — who were murdered by Indian security forces during their brutal suppression of the separatist movement.

Regardless, the story of the Kashmiri Pandits deserves to be told (as does that of every persecuted community), but instead of telling it honestly, Agnihotri has seized on it as a political tool to spread anti-Muslim propaganda at a time when, 30 years after the fact, Pandits face no persecution whatsoever while Muslims throughout India — according to many, many sources — are at risk of an impending genocide at the hands of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and other affiliated elements.

In Agnihotri’s mythologized telling, at least 4,000 Kashmiri Pandits were murdered. His film explicitly terms it a “genocide” and supportive viewers are widely comparing it to the systematic location, deportation, and elimination of six million Jews by the Nazis. Agnihotri portrays the exodus of the Pandits as an untold — even deliberately covered up — story which he alone had the courage to reveal. Some courage it took, too, considering that Indian Prime Minister Modi and many of his top cabinet members have openly endorsed it while most BJP states are not only allowing it be shown tax-free but giving state employees a paid half-day (and free tickets) to go view it.

The general American public is clueless about the messaging behind “Kashmir Files,” but it’s not lost on audiences in India.

Videos filmed at multiple different Indian cinemas show audiences, as the end credits scroll, rising to raise their own slogans. “India will be a Hindu nation,” shouts one crowd. “No Muslim will be allowed.” Another crowd shouts, “Long live BJP. When Muslims are slaughtered, then they will chant the name of Ram.” Yet another crowd cheers as a man declares: “If every Hindu boy under 25 starts marrying a Muslim girl, then their population will be less than half within three generations. Marry their women, make children with them.”

Such a reaction is to be expected. After all, as Indian journalist Siddharth Bhatia notes, “The film is exploitative in the extreme, made to rouse emotions and build up a particular mood against Indian Muslims.” Countless others have reached the same conclusion.

“At every possible opportunity, the filmmaker underscores the terrorists’ religion,” writes Indian film critic Tanul Thakur. “Another piece of dog-whistling: all Kashmiri Muslims are terrorists (this isn’t even an implication; the film is almost explicit about it, more than once)…. Given the blatant communal climate in the country for the last many years, these implications are unmistakable: that terrorists = Muslims — or, more accurately, Muslims = terrorist.”

“There isn’t a single Muslim character in the film who is empathetic,” says Indian screenwriter Darab Farooqui. “Every single Muslim character is either deceitful or evil…. It’s a propaganda piece that only shows one version of events. Yes, the events are bitter, unpleasant and ugly facts. They are, nevertheless, deceptive, dishonest and incomplete. The Kashmir Files serves a purpose, and the purpose is propaganda.”

Indian journalist Naomi Barton warns that “Agnihotri has built a great canal of hatred,” explaining, “In broad strokes, the Muslims of The Kashmir Files are unequivocally shown as barbaric, or servile to a barbaric cause.” Barton adds, “The lie is that all Muslims must be collectively punished for this, and any violence visited upon them is justly deserved.”

Indeed, the entire point of the film inescapably seems to be to convey the message that the killing of some Hindus in Kashmir by some Kashmiri Muslim separatists 30 years ago justifies, today, mass violence against Muslims throughout the entirety of India.

That’s obvious from the bloodthirsty slogans of audiences in India. It’s also the message that one anonymous YouTuber took away from the film.

In a viral video, a man wearing a saffron mask — the color of the Hindu nationalist movement — urges, “If you are a Hindu and want to avenge (the deaths) of Kashmiri pandits, if you know a Muslim, trouble them.” He demands the killing of Indian Muslims — “everyone from the oldest to the youngest” — and calls for the rape of their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and others. “Trouble them so much that they cry, leave them tormented,” he says. “Create an atmosphere that forces them to leave the country. We won’t let them leave nor will we let them live in the country.”

That’s the intent of the Hindu nationalist movement figure-headed by the RSS-BJP: to not let Muslims live in India or leave India.

Ideologically, in their eyes, Muslims (as well as Christians) are “traitors” to the nation because, as they believe, only Hindus can truly be considered “Indian.” According to the RSS-BJP, these minority communities must therefore be purged from the country. Eliminated. Killed.

This was the goal underlying the fascist oath taken by a genocidal conclave of Hindu nationalists held just a few months ago. “We all take an oath, give our word, and make a resolution that, until our last breath, we will make India a Hindu nation and keep it a Hindu only nation,” they pledged. “We will fight, and die, and, if required, we will kill as well.” Simultaneously, in the city of Haridwar, Uttarakhand, another conclave was urged to take up weapons to wipe out Indian Muslims.

Such events are one of many reasons that organizations like Genocide Watch, a US-based nonprofit, are incessantly warning about the looming risk of a genocide of Indian Muslims.

“India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made Islamophobia a state-manufactured ideology, increasingly putting the Muslim and Dalit [those formerly known as “Untouchables”] communities under state-sponsored attack,” says the group. As founder Dr. Gregory Stanton explains, “We believe there is a real risk of massacres. What is, of course, extremely troubling here is that the Modi government has stood back, said nothing, and will be very happy to just watch it happen. That is exactly what Modi did in Gujarat in 2002. It is what he will do again. So, this massacre — this genocide — will likely not be even carried out by the Indian State. It will likely be carried out by mobs.”

“Kashmir Files” is pouring fuel on the Islamophobic fire as it incites theater-going audiences to form those violent mobs.

As Stanton notes, massacres of Muslims by mobs in India have happened before under Modi. While Agnihotri exaggerates and sensationalizes a tragic event from 30 years to manipulate emotions and fan anti-Muslim hatred, Modi (who endorses “Kashmir Files”) presided over another atrocity of far greater proportions which came to a bloody close 20 years ago this month.

Over a three-day period, from 27 February to 1 March 2002, mobs fielded and led by the RSS-BJP flooded the streets of Gujarat, India (at a time when Modi was Chief Minister of the state) to systematically slaughter approximately 2,000 Muslims. The massacre earned Modi the nickname, “The Butcher of Gujarat,” but it also served to massively popularize him within India’s Hindu nationalist movement. Today, with Modi helming the entire nation — and with an administration marked by a wave of anti-Muslim attacks, lynchings, and smaller-scale pogroms — there are very legitimate fears that the situation may soon turn into one of out-and-out genocide.

Exactly a week before I protested the 19 March 2022 screening of “Kashmir Files,” I was in San Diego, CA to join a panel of five others in which we warned that there is an “impending Indian Muslim genocide.” As I explained there, the genocidal forces of the RSS-BJP owe a great deal of their success to a support base in the United States. Now, with the release of “Kashmir Files,” that American support base is not only being provided with a propaganda tool to expand its xenophobic sentiments to an even broader segment of the Indian-American community but even to non-South Asian elected offials.

“Kashmir Files” has no place in America. It should be dropped from American theaters. While it is already facing problems from the censorship office in New Zealand, the US — for both good and ill — has such broad freedom of expression protections that the film will not be banned by the government here. However, cinemas are privately-owned business which are subject to the pressures of the public. As such, a sustained campaign of opposition demanding that they refuse to screen the film may yield some success.

Protests may also be productive not only towards the goal of pressuring cinemas to drop the film but also towards the goal of raising awareness amongst an otherwise clueless American public that the film is deeply controversial. One hopes that the pluralistic-minded segment of the Indian-American community — which constitutes the vast majority of that population; though, unlike the fascistic RSS-BJP, is not organized along lines of uniformity and conformity, and thus generally less single-minded in its actions — will launch protests of the movie outside of cinemas which choose to screen it. Unless and until they do so, it’s unfortunately doubtful that the controversy that the film currently faces in India will spread to the shores of America.

Meanwhile, I’m crashing screenings “Kashmir Files.”

“It is fascist propaganda sponsored by Modi, the risen Hitler in the East,” I declared at my first protest on 18 March. “Jo Hitler ki chaal chalega, vo Hitler ki maut marega [those who follow Hitler’s path, will end like Hitler.” At my second protest, on 19 March, I called out: “Boycott ‘Kashmir Files.’ Vivek Agnihotri is the Leni Riefenstahl of India.”

Riefenstahl, as Bhatia explains, was “Hitler’s favorite director and a great propagandist of the Third Reich.” He notes: “In Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, the BJP may have found its own Riefenstahl, even if he falls far short of her filmmaking standards.”

While Agnihotri may be no Riefenstahl in terms of skill, his “Kashmir Files” certainly threatens to accomplish the same lethal ends. It must be opposed.

Friedrich is a freelance journalist and analyst of South Asian affairs. Learn more about him at www.PieterFriedrich.com.

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Pieter Friedrich

Pieter Friedrich

Friedrich is a freelance journalist and analyst of South Asian affairs. Learn more about him at www.PieterFriedrich.com.

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