This piece is not meant only be a review of the film, but an examination of the sociopolitical phenomena and narratives underlying what the film seeks to portray and the reactions to the same, as also what a viewer of the film interested in the Kashmir issue ought to know beyond what the film showcases.
As someone who truly loves Bollywood (one of India’s greatest manifestations of soft power in the international arena) and as its fierce defender, I honestly didn’t like Haider as much as many around me seemed to have liked it, talking purely from a cinematic point of view (we’ll come to sociopolitical narratives later). I haven’t read Hamlet; so, I can’t comment on how well that work of literature has been contextualized in the Kashmiri setting, but while the movie demonstrated excellent acting by all the artists, especially Shahid Kapoor, him making a departure in this film from his usual chocolate boy roles, and hilarious dialogues in parts which show how humour can be employed effectively even in the context of very serious topics, on the whole, in my opinion (though many would disagree), the storyline did not boil down to much and the second half was not very gripping. Also, the excessive caricaturing of the Kashmiri accent was just lame and failed to remain amusing beyond a point, and not as many Kashmiris have such an accent, going by my experience at least.
Some errors in the movie, as pointed out in a piece by a former Indian military officer, are stated hereunder quoting him verbatim-
“For all his craftsmanship, Vishal Bhardwaj makes some silly errors in the movie which I couldn't fail to notice. The yellow table tennis balls, used by a young Haider and his father in a flashback scene, came into use much later. White balls were used during the period of the movie. The soldiers move around with INSAS rifles in the movie set in 1995 when these weapons were introduced only in 1997. The vehicles used by the Indian Army in 1995 were not the ones soldiers use in the movie. The stars on the collar dogs for Brigadiers and above were introduced in 2000s and a Brigadier (portrayed by Ashish Vidyarthi in the film) couldn't have worn them in 1995. Indian Army didn't have a RPG-7 in its inventory and the RL-84 Rocket launchers that it used never set buildings to fire. They just drilled holes through the walls.
Often, houses where militants were holed in were set to fire by the soldiers as a matter of last resort by late evening to prevent escape of militants under the cover of darkness. At times, explosives were used by soldiers in daring moves to blast such houses. Of course, grenades never cause fire in such high intensity but that is a problem of depiction with Hollywood too. Suicide vests, using Chinese grenades, might be a cinematic device used here because suicide bombing and fidayeen attacks started a couple of years after 1995 when HuM, HuA and LeT became dominant players in the terror game in Kashmir.”
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As a citizen of India who has consistently supported the right to freedom of speech and expression, even having co-authored a book on arbitrary bans on films in our country (though lifted after judicial intervention), I stand firmly with Vishal Bharadwaj on the point that a film like Haider indeed has a right to be screened, notwithstanding some social media protests from jingoistic Indian nationalists. From silly controversies surrounding films like Aarakshan, Vishwaroopam, The Da Vinci Code (which had a clear passage in very many Catholic-majority countries) and Madras Café by political elements (who even put in place bans on these films in different states, which were lifted on court orders), to appease certain sections of the society even before the release of the films and despite the films even being given censor board clearance (and all those who assert that the BJP is not into appeasement ought to know that the BJP had joined the chorus of banning Madras Café), and to making film screenings the occasions to vent out frustration against certain actors for statements given by actors totally unrelated to the subject of the film (like how the BJP in Gujarat responded to Fanaa starring Aamir Khan or how the Shiv Sena in Mumbai responded to My Name is Khan, and the ‘secular’ Congress too stopped Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival, and its volunteers attacked the restaurant Aditi Pure Veg in Pune, for making fun of the UPA in their food menu), we have seen enough craziness unbecoming of a democracy (though Indian democracy is still miles ahead of many others in the developing world, such as the sham democracy prevalent in Pakistan). Given this, columnist Manu Joseph suggests that the Indian state has matured, pointing to the smooth release of Haider, but I have a rebuttal to the idea that the Indian state was earlier intolerant of mainstream Bollywood movies showcasing human rights violations in Kashmir* – surprisingly, there was no legal obstacle in the release of the movie Lamhaa (predating some of the instances referred to above), which blatantly takes a pro-independence stand on the Kashmir issue and is much more critical of the Indian Army than Haider, showing senior military officers taking bribes from militants (and another film, Shaurya, though not taking any political stand on Kashmir or arguably taking a pro-India one, did showcase the atrocities of some elements in the Indian Army and the gulf between the army and the Kashmiri populace, even children). I don’t know how and why there wasn’t any commotion even for Lamhaa, even from the Hindu rightists! That said, keeping extremist loonies not creating a hue and cry aside (expressing views on the social media or even peacefully calling for boycotts is a legitimate mode of protest in any democracy, and Hindu rightists or other chauvinistic Indian nationalists doing so can’t be faulted for that, nor can we fault some of them for democratically taking the matter to the judiciary, as much as we may disagree with them, though we can and should criticize the very many of them for resorting to leveling baseless ad hominem allegations against those who disagree with them, the most typical words/phrases used for the same being “pseudo-secular”**, “sickular” and “anti-national”), that films like Lamhaa and Haider*** were made, demonstrates that the Indian society has, to an extent, become more open to narratives different from mainstream Indian nationalist ones, and we, as a nation, can congratulate ourselves over this.
Also, given that this movie was screened without any serious hurdles in spite of a supposedly Hindu rightist party being in power in the central government (which even claims that it seeks to totally abrogate the special status given to J&K under Article 370 of the Indian constitution) is a welcome sign for all those with baseless fears of a breakdown of secularism and democracy. However, to digress a bit, in spite of that supposedly Hindu rightist party being in power in the centre, Kashmiri Hindus were unable to exercise their democratic right to visit the lake of Kosur Nag for a pilgrimage, owing to protests by some Kashmiri Muslims on indeed very baseless grounds (look at paragraphs 16, 17, 18 and 19 of this article), and, in my opinion, objectively speaking, the obstruction to this pilgrimage (though the pilgrimage did take place later) is definitely a much more significant issue than a condemnable but much hyped one-off incident of the force-feeding of a Muslim caterer by one Shiv Sena member, who even did apologize later (and it is possible that he genuinely didn’t know the caterer’s religion or keep in mind it was Ramzan then, though force-feeding would still be unjustified), and I certainly don’t mean to be insensitive to the religious sentiments of Muslims hurt by the Hindu rightist politician’s action, but my point is only this – when there is an instance of Muslim political elements wronging Hindus and that too in a more serious fashion than much highlighted instances of the reverse, why should that be glossed over? And no, my saying this, doesn’t in the least, imply that I support the bizarre line of reasoning that a more highlighted wrongdoing is any less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted one, something many Hindu rightists employ to suggest that the horrendous riots in Gujarat in 2002 can be overlooked or condoned because the equally gruesome anti-Sikh riots in 1984 orchestrated by Congress members or what the Kashmiri Hindus were subjected to in 1989-90 (more on that later in this very piece) haven’t got as much attention! That said, I must say, and I can’t resist saying this, given the implications people may draw from my statement, that Narendra Modi’s electoral victory on a national scale was not a result of his alleged complicity in the riots, but rather, out of a very justifiable anti-Congress sentiment (and the belief that the AAP was certainly not experienced enough to run a national government, other than the disappointment over them having quit office in 49 days in the context of the Delhi government, and a coalition of regional parties being seen as inevitably unstable), as also his demonstrating commitment to India’s religious pluralism, as I’ve discussed in this piece, and it also must be noted that the national vote-share of his party and its allies cutting across all constituencies was actually only 38.5%, which is to suggest that while the majority of the electorate, mostly comprising Hindus, did not vote for him, that majority was not unanimous in coming up with an alternative.
Given that the reaction to Haider in India was discussed, it may be worthwhile to discuss the reaction in Pakistan too. While the film makes a few passing references to Pakistan having occupied a part of the erstwhile J&K and Pakistan being as responsible for the non-implementation of the UN resolution as India, the film is primarily critical of elements in the Indian security forces for their human rights violations, not dealing with POK at all (which is legitimate, for the story is set in the Srinagar of 1995, and it’s not meant to be a holistic documentary-kind of film on the Kashmir issue), but while the film was screened in India, even a film mainly critical of the Indian state was not allowed to be screened in Pakistan, just because of a few remarks that were critical of the Pakistani state (though also the Indian state in the same breath).
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I do believe that it is necessary for us, Indians, to face the truth rather than blindly reject facts just because they are not to our liking, and an ostrich-like posturing has never done anyone any good, and therefore, it is necessary to showcase the wrongdoings of the state machinery, especially security forces, in Kashmir as also India’s northeast, and I have written an article on this point, which also deals with why humanism should trump nationalism under any banner, and I would urge one and all to read that, and I’d also like to share a thought-provoking statement by one Rajiv Khanna I encountered on the social media, which is stated hereunder-
“To all my friends who are asking for boycott of Haider, please get your patriotism right. Patriotism is not just chest-thumping and screaming ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Patriotism is understanding all the travails of this big and beautiful country and trying to find real-time answers.”
In fact, this Facebook post by Wilayat Khan, a Kashmiri Muslim, is even more heartening-
“Common people of India not getting swayed by boycott calls clamoured by Hyper-Nationalists and thronging to watch this movie and the attempt by Basharat Peer & Vishal Bharadwaj gives me hope that edifice of Ideal India is very strong and India is evolving into a strong secular, democratic republic with a grand and noble vision of liberty of expression & thought. My dream of Ideal India has been rejuvenated.”
The recent incident of a shooting of two Kashmiri boys, who were non-combatant civilians posing no harm, by some soldiers has been acknowledged and regretted by both the defence minister Arun Jaitley and the army as an institution, which was a step in the right direction. Let’s hope justice is done soon.
However, on a different note, as a non-Kashmiri Indian, while wholeheartedly acknowledging the suffering of the Kashmiris, I would say that I do earnestly wish that aside from Kashmir, the conflicts in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya (which entail not only the conflicts between large sections of their populace with the Indian state but even within their own societies), the Bodo problem in Assam and even the problems of the non-Bengali indigenous people of Tripura as also the violent Christian extremism of some of them against the Hindus residing in Tripura, find a greater space in the national imagination, including by way of popular culture like mainstream cinema (the only Bollywood movie I know of focusing on the alienation of the northeast is Dil Se, and that too does so very superficially, though the issue has figured in passing in Badmash Company, Chak de India and even Mary Kom), and these people indeed have been far more under-represented in India’s democratic landscape than the Kashmiris have.
That said, the picture of the Kashmir issue that Haider paints is indeed a rather incomplete one. I understand that it is the prerogative of film-makers to select the time period of their story and specifically focus on certain dimensions of an issue by virtue of the story they weave, and therefore, the selection of 1995 and the focus on what the Kashmiri Muslims had to undergo at the hands of the security forces, like brutal torture and the blowing up of one’s house, is legitimate. I am not as much focused on criticizing the film, but I want fellow Indians (including Kashmiris) reading this article to take note of the fact that this is certainly not all that the Kashmir issue is about – an oppressive Indian state subjugating the Kashmiri Muslims desirous of independence. In fact, the film refers to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise for a plebiscite at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, which was later even mandated by a United Nations resolution (also mentioned in the film), and then, we had the dramatic scene of Shahid Kapoor comically addressing a gathering, accusing both India and Pakistan of playing “border, border” with Kashmiris. That this is the narrative most Kashmiri Muslims (though there is still a sizable minority that loves Pakistan, and a section of this minority would even like the whole of Kashmir to merge with Pakistan) believe in is beyond debate, and that ought to be emphasized in a film showcasing the aspirations and pain of the Muslims of the valley, but there are deeper questions that the film doesn’t delve into, which, as I said earlier, it need not, but this article is meant to clarify certain facts so that Indian viewers don’t internalize and unconditionally digest what the film has to showcase.
Indeed, many of the Kashmiri separatists and their supporters cite the United Nations resolution in 1948 calling for a plebiscite without having read the resolution, for if they had, they would know that the plebiscite was to be conducted after Pakistan withdrew its troops from the part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir the Pakistani forces had illegally occupied back then (in the process, raping and murdering women, cutting across religious lines, including some European nuns they found in a convent and a hospital), and such ‘liberals’ echo the hypocrisy of the Pakistani state in asking India to conduct a plebiscite in the part of Kashmir it administers without asking the Pakistani state to do so, or at least withdraw its troops, though that is meant as a prerequisite for the plebiscite, going by the UN resolution they keep citing! In fact, when India was partitioned in 1947, India’s policy with respect to autonomous princely states (states which had been governed by Indian monarchs) in erstwhile British-ruled India like Jammu and Kashmir, was to go by the will of the people, rather than by the will of the ruler, and India did conduct plebiscites in princely states like Hyderabad and Junagadh it annexed, where the Muslim rulers fancied ideas of independence or joining Pakistan, but the mostly Hindu people sought integration with India, and indeed, India had to be and even was consistent by also offering such a plebiscite in the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. In contrast, Pakistan’s stand was always to go purely by the will of the ruler, by virtue of which it had sought to engage Hindu-majority princely states like Hyderabad and Junagadh as also even princely states where both the ruler and the majority of the populace were Hindu, like Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, to join it. It had never basically adopted the principle of a plebiscite, and indeed, as referred to in passing above, speaking of the then sovereign, Muslim-majority oil-rich kingdom of Balochistan, which, unlike the other princely states referred to, was technically not even a part of India under British rule to begin with, the way Nepal and Bhutan weren’t (the few regions of Balochistan that the British had occupied were returned to the monarch before Pakistan and India attained independence), Pakistan coercively annexed the same, making it its province, against the wishes of both the ruler and most of the people (in fact, those who allege the US military occupation of Iraq in 2003 to have been carried out to control oil reserves shouldn’t be so tight-lipped about Balochistan, but then, most non-Muslim left-liberals don’t find it fashionable enough to criticize any Muslim entity, and the Muslim rightists, including those of them with left-liberal pretences, with their pan-Muslim worldview, would rather gloss over facts that don’t suit them, even if those facts involve the suffering of some of their co-religionists!). And those pointing to the pro-Pakistan rebellion in the Poonch region of Jammu and Kashmir back in 1948 are requested to read this article of mine.
Furthermore, going by my experience, I know that some Kashmiri separatists would argue that the United Nations resolution, when proved to not be what they claim it to be, is irrelevant and that international law itself is a conspiracy of the Western powers. So, when they thought the UN resolution suited them, they were all for it, but when they realize it doesn’t suit their agenda, international law should be trashed, and do they visualize the independent country they wish to create not joining the United Nations, and can international law in itself be equated with its weak enforcement mechanisms? They would then assert that the right to self-determination ought to be absolute, which is to say that any part of any country should be allowed to just unilaterally secede at will**** (which overlooks that every part of any country belongs to the countrymen residing elsewhere in the country as much as those residing in that specific part), but their leadership does not want to give this right to Hindu-majority Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh once the sovereign state they envisage comes into being!
To add to that, the pain of the Hindus of the valley, who were made to leave by the militants (hundreds of Kashmiri Hindus were killed by the militants, starting from February 1989), as also the human rights violations carried out against Kashmiris (cutting across religious lines) by the Pakistani soldiers and irregulars in 1947-48 while trying to invade the then sovereign princely state, are important parts of any holistic narrative on Kashmir, but in the film, they are showcased as a part of smug Indian nationalist rhetoric by way of an army officer’s speech in a press conference. Not to deny that very many Indians have a jingoistic attitude towards Kashmir, and misuse the pain of the Hindus displaced from the valley to blame the entire Muslim populace of the valley (including those who were toddlers or not even born when the Hindus were driven out from the valley in 1989-90, and let us also not forget that there were Kashmiri Muslims who helped save the lives of the Kashmiri Hindus in those troubled times) as not being worthy of articulating legitimate human rights grievances, which is downright ridiculous, but that, in no way, undermines the very real tragedy that the Kashmiri Hindus underwent, though to be fair, the film does show the character played by Irfan Khan claim to be all of the oppressed in Kashmir – the Sunni, the Shia and the Hindu.
And yes, just as I mentioned that Indians ought not to be in denial of the atrocities by rogue elements in the Indian security forces, this equally applies to Kashmiri Muslims, very many of whom deny that anyone among them had any role to play in the exodus of the Hindus from the valley, and instead assert, without any sound evidence, that Governor Jagmohan of J&K instructed the Hindus to leave so as to malign the Muslims of the valley! This article by Rahul Pandita, a Kashmiri Hindu writer, debunking this conspiracy theory, is also worth a read in this context, and by the way, has also often raised his voice against human rights violations by some rogue elements among the security personnel in Kashmir. There are, also, several rational and intellectually honest Kashmiri Muslims, including some I know personally, such as pro-India Kashmiri Sunni writer Sualeh Keen, whose brilliantly articulated defence of Rahul Pandita’s book Our Moon Has Blood Clots against the allegations leveled by one Kashmiri separatist Gowhar Fazili is a must-read in the context of busting the ludicrous conspiracy theory and other leftist rationalizations associated with the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus! Even among the separatists, there are indeed those who do not subscribe to this ludicrous conspiracy theory. Basharat Peer, one of the script-writers of Haider and the author of the acclaimed non-fiction novel Curfewed Night belongs to this category, and even a prominent former militant Yasin Malik has acknowledged that militants had targeted the Kashmiri Hindus in those “dark” days of 1989-90 (interestingly, there is as much reason to hold Malik guilty by association of the Kashmiri Hindus’ killings as to hold Modi guilty of the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat in 2002, but there is a deafening silence against Yasin Malik in left-liberal circles). Even speaking of Arunadhati Roy, whom many of the secessionist Kashmiri Muslims hail as a heroine, in one of her articles, explicitly mentions the character of the mainstream ‘freedom struggle’ in Kashmir as communal and theocratic, and she has clearly mentioned that what she describes as the freedom struggle in Kashmir “cannot by any means call itself pristine, and will always be stigmatised by, and will some day, have to account for” several wrongs including, she says she hopes, “the brutal killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the early years of the uprising, culminating in the exodus of almost the entire Hindu community from the Kashmir valley”.
In fact, a consequence of the militancy in 1990 was not only the displacement of the Hindu minority but also the shutting down of cinema halls and bars – everything that didn’t fit in the militants’ version of Islam, and the militants imposing their own levies. To get a picture of the Kashmir of 1990, please read this excellent article in India Today dating to that period. While the bars have reopened, the cinema halls are still not back in Kashmir.
An interesting Facebook status in this regard by a pro-India Kashmiri Sunni acquaintance of mine has been stated hereunder-
“Bitter Sweet Irony! The Junooni Azadiwala Writers (Read that as Careerists) who saw Haider in a Multiplex in the Capital city of their ‘Occupying Power’, are asking their lesser fortunate counterparts in the valley to not fall for the message of Peace and Redemption that the movie tries to promote at the End. Because if these youngsters do that, then soon there might be Cinema Halls again running (which as of today are closed due to the blanket ban by Militants) to packed houses in Kashmir, and then this unfortunate counterpart might start having the same shot at the normal pleasures of ordinary life that the Junooni has.”
Also, the international Islamist narrative (Islamism is not to be equated with Islam, and is a totalitarian ideology of imposing supposedly Islamic values, and a sense of hostility to non-Muslims) of non-Muslims subjugating Muslims (or rather what these communal Muslims see as the Muslim “ummah” or a global pan-Muslim fraternity*****) for their faith, which many Kashmiri Muslims identified with and continue to do so, bracketing Kashmir, Palestine and Chechnya within this ambit, deserves a reality check given what Pakistani combatants did in the valley in 1947-48, East Pakistan in 1971 and are still doing in Balochistan, or what Saddam did to the Kurds, or the conflict between Morocco and Western Sahara. Ironically, however, they are totally apathetic to the inevitable anti-Muslim violence that would occur in India (outside Kashmir) at the prospect of Kashmir’s secession (and Kashmiri Muslims living outside Kashmir in other parts of India would also be affected by the same), by Hindu rightists who would blame Muslims in general for another partition of India.
The film also talks a lot about the AFSPA, a legislation that gives immunity to Indian soldiers for being prosecuted for human rights violations. While not in the least seeking to undermine the fact that there indeed have been gross human rights violations by Indian security personnel, it may be pointed out, not as a justification but to place things in context, that globally, in every conflict zone, elements in the security forces do engage in reprehensible activities (the atrocities of the American Army in Abu Gharib are well-known, and in Pakistan, a country that many Kashmiri Muslims still hold very close to their hearts, no one among their security personnel has been convicted for the horrendous genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 or the gross human rights violations in Balochistan), and a protective statutory cover is often given to them, for otherwise, trials for even shooting down real enemy combatants can come in the way of their effective working, not to speak of the number of false allegations that can be leveled. Also, hundreds of rogue soldiers have indeed been convicted, and only recently, we had the verdict in the Machil fake encounter case. In my opinion, the Public Safety Act (PSA) in Kashmir, by virtue of which someone can be detained without trial for as long as two years, is as important an issue as the AFSPA, if not more, but does not figure as much in the discourse, and the hypocrisy of Omar Abdullah, the current chief minister of J&K, in asking for a repeal of the AFSPA but defending the PSA, has been well exposed in this article.
Another dimension of Kashmir that the film does not address, even of the Kashmir of 1995, is how the secessionist militants shot at fellow Kashmiri Muslims with a political opinion different from theirs. Kashmiri militants who wanted Kashmir to join Pakistan shot at Kashmiri militants who wanted Kashmir to be independent, and militants of both hues shot at Kashmiri Muslims in pro-India political parties or others who articulated pro-India views or were even suspected as being pro-India (like the ailing, bed-ridden Maulana Masoodi killed in cold blood). Political opinions apart, very many of the militants acted as extortionists, killing those of their own brethren whose ‘freedom’ they were fighting for, who didn’t pay ransom (a Kashmiri Muslim acquaintance of mine almost lost his father to militancy over a ransom issue), and even forcibly marrying girls. Thus, the rogue elements in the Indian state machinery and their undoubtedly heinous crimes apart, the so-called freedom struggle of Kashmir has much to answer to the Kashmiri conscience. While I didn’t expect Vishal Bharadwaj to delve into this, owing to the pro-Muslim bias in the narratives of left-liberals like him, as discussed above, given that Basharat Peer was involved in the script, I did expect the film to dwell a little on this point, the reason being that Peer has elaborately covered it in his beautifully written book Curfewed Night (in which Peer mentions how his own father, among other people, had been on the militants’ hit-list). As an article in the Times of India points out-
“Data collated by the South Asian Terrorism Portal shows that in 1995, there were 4,479 incidents of terrorist violence in the state, including 2,253 attacks on security forces — over six incidents a day. It resulted in the deaths of 1,161 civilians, 297 security men and 1,338 terrorists.”
“The film doesn't have even a whiff of this aspect of insurgency.”
“Every militant and every sympathizer is shown as a decent, dignified man. Terrorist Roohdaar (Irrfan), who probably comes from across the border, is a poetry-spouting philosopher. His conversation with Haider's father during their incarceration is deep and idealistic. The dialogues are designed to elicit sympathy for them. The gravediggers, who also turn out to be gun-runners, are a genial lot as they shoot with gay abandon and sing 'Arre aao na ke jaan gayi'. There is no denying that in the scriptwriters' mind, they are heroes and martyrs.”
“On the contrary, every reworked character from Hamlet who is associated with the 'Indian' State is devious, even malevolent. Haider's girlfriend's father is a cop who guns down three arrested militants in cold blood and says, ‘Marey hue militant aajkal ek lakh ke hain.’ Haider's girlfriend's brother is a negative character. ‘Ab kabhi maine tujhe iske aas paas bhi dekha na to disappear ho jayega apne baap ki tarah,’ he ruthlessly warns Haider. Khurram, Haider's manipulative uncle and his mother's lover, works as an informer for the army and meets a fate worse than death. Even the two Salmans, who become police spies hoping to get a job, are cold schemers. The renegades — 'reformed' militants — are pathologically cruel.
Nothing justifies custodial torture and killing. And two wrongs never make a right. But what we only see and hear in Haider are the screams of those being tortured by the security forces. The script is not interested in what terrorists do to 'collaborators'.”
“The movie doesn't bother to tell us - not even through a cursory background commentary — why and how secessionist insurgency began in the late 80s. The script rightly looks at Kashmir as a human tragedy and there is no denying that the situation was often worsened by the heavy hand of a brutal state. But the film bypasses anything that questions its own uncomfortable ideological predilections. And there could be a long list of that. The positive role played by the Indian Army in 1948 during the so-called kabayli invasion or even the uprooting of Kashmiri Pandits occupy less than 16 seconds of time in a political film that stretches to 161 minutes.”
(I personally disagree with this excerpt, for as I have mentioned earlier, I believe that it is the prerogative of film-makers to select the time period of their story and specifically focus on certain dimensions of an issue by virtue of the story they weave, and therefore, the selection of 1995 is legitimate, but I as I said earlier, an acknowledgement of these other dimensions of the Kashmir issue, while not necessarily being given more time in the film, ought not to have been showcased in the form of smug Indian nationalist rhetoric, for they are also real human problems, though a humanistic dialogue by the character played by Irfan Khan somewhat makes up on the point of the Kashmiri Pandits.)
“There is a reason why Haider cannot be shown in Kashmir. There is a reason why theatres in Srinagar were shut down: militants considered them ‘un-Islamic’.”
And if human rights violations by elements in the Indian state machinery alone legitimize the Kashmiri ‘freedom struggle’ (which predates the military being stationed in civilian areas and their rogue elements engaging in human rights violations), then why complain of those Indians who point to the killings and displacements of the Kashmiri Hindus to delegitimize it only on that basis? As writer Shivam Vij, who has otherwise been a supporter of the Kashmiris’ ‘freedom struggle’ points out-
“No popular rebellion in the world has been suppressed without human rights excesses. When two sides have guns, it’s a war. Human rights excesses, or any kind of violence for that matter, are only a symptom of war. The real problem is political.”
And already, the validity of the political claim of self-determination in the context of Kashmir has been examined in this article in the light of international law. That said, the excesses, if going beyond collateral damage defined under international humanitarian law, are neither justified nor necessary to crush an uprising.
Moving on, the film does rightly raise the issue of how blind hatred driven by revenge is going to keep Kashmir within shackles, even if it attains political independence. To draw an analogy, too many Pakistanis’ fixation over Hindus being “enemies of Islam” even after Pakistan was created to ‘free’ Muslims from ‘Hindu domination’ has indeed cost Pakistan dear, and an ideology of destruction is always self-destructive (one can indeed see that in the case of Pakistan, where more Muslims die every year at Muslim hands in sectarian or ethno-lingual clashes and indiscriminate bombings by the ultra-theocratic TTP than Muslims in India at Hindu hands), and India has fortunately not kept such a paranoid fixation of hating the British, and in fact, that was absent even during the freedom struggle (though as I discuss in this article, there is still more we, Indians, need to ponder over on this front). That said, it is not hard to see how very many Kashmiri Muslims trashed the film and even labeled it as biased in favour of India only because it gave the message of seeking a closure to conflict without vengeance, of seeking to follow the non-violent path of Gandhi to resolve differences (though interestingly, the transition from militancy to stone-pelting, which has occurred primarily because of the military success of the Indian security forces, is described by many Kashmiri Muslims as a transition to non-violence, even if it means killing an innocent Sikh police officer by way of stone-pelting on Id-ul-Zuha in 2013******, just because he represented the Indian state and wasn’t Muslim), in spite of the film otherwise being very sympathetic to the Kashmiri Muslims stuck in a quagmire of conflict, shown in a more or less one-sided fashion, that showcases the Indian state, represented by the security forces, as oppressive (as also blaming India and Pakistan equally for the UN resolution not being implemented, the blame being pinned on both equally being incorrect in my opinion, as has been explained already in this article), for such Kashmiri Muslims only wish to see a romanticization of their quest for ‘freedom’, though it is true that for many of them, the excesses by some in the Indian security forces alone are enough to justify their secessionist aspirations (more on why this logic is flawed, subsequently in this very article), which is then not just about seeking justice by way of criminal trials but also a manifestation of revenge against the Indian state, without any clear vision of the sovereign state being envisaged. And no, while the idea of revenge is criticized, it is not employed in the movie to delegitimize the so-called freedom struggle in Kashmir, but only to suggest an alternative Gandhian approach, possibly for that very cause of ‘freedom’, something which is pertinent, given that blind rage has even actually led to a Kashmiri Muslim shopkeeper being beaten to death for not joining a ‘freedom’ protest. Some Kashmiri Muslims even objected to the film acknowledging in a positive spirit the role of Indian soldiers in rescuing Kashmiris during the recent floods in text appearing at the end, arguing, without any basis, that that suggested that the human rights violations by some in the army can be condoned in the light of the same, though the entire film (but for the acknowledgement of the flood relief) only portrayed a negative side of the army! In all probability, Bharadwaj added that text only to showcase some kind of balance and to prove that he had some sense of Indian nationalism. But, in any case, what was wrong in acknowledging the very real role of the army in saving people’s lives? Many Kashmiri Muslims themselves acknowledged the same, as you can see here (and here, you can see Kashmiri Muslims bashing people of their own ilk unnecessarily leveling baseless allegations against the army – you’ll have to see the comments right from the start), and even if one were to suggest that this could possibly open a new chapter of understanding between the army and the Kashmiri Muslims, what’s wrong in that, especially given that two soldiers were martyred to the cause of rescuing Kashmiris? As has been established earlier, if there is a bias in the movie, it is against India, not in favour of India.
A critique of the film I read by one Kashmiri separatist, Basharat Ali, criticizes the film for just showcasing how there were very many militants in the valley, how Kashmiri ex-militants joined counter-insurgency operations on behalf of the Indian state, how there are Kashmiri Muslims in the Indian Army (and no, not everyone from the army was a Kashmiri in the movie, as alleged) and how Kashmiri Muslim policemen too have worked against the secessionist movement on behalf of the Indian state (and indeed, there have been Kashmiri Muslim police personnel who have fought the militants very bravely) – these are all facts, which even he cannot deny, but these are uncomfortable facts for him, and he criticizes the movie for showcasing these realities and goes on to accuse the film of portraying a narrative “nowhere close to the reality of Kashmir”, but none of the points he made to critique the film were actually all that valid. One point of criticism for him was even that human rights violations by agents of the Indian state in Kashmir have nothing to do with those people of the valley who are, in the conventional sense of the term, apolitical, but there is evidence to suggest otherwise. In one fake encounter killing of a cowherd by army personnel in Kashmir in 2013, family members of the deceased told the media that one local Kashmiri Muslim, for reasons of personal vendetta, misled the army into believing that their relative was a militant. This is just one of many such possible examples.
But equally importantly, the question of religion in the Kashmiri political discourse is significant, and left-liberals who rightly go hammer and tongs against religious majoritarianism in India as a whole (often resorting to exaggerations, and failing to distinguish between the different shades of saffron*******) are, more often than not, silent on this front when it comes to Kashmir (in this context, Arunadhati Roy, to her credit, would stand out as an exception********). Is the Kashmiri ‘freedom struggle’ predating the military presence based on theocratic ideas that are not in conformity with a modern understanding of human rights (that is broadly speaking, the case, even according to Arunadhati Roy), as is the case with all the Islamic states across the globe (where the letter of the law discriminates against non-Muslims; Muslim-majority secular states like Turkey, Kosovo, Chad and Kazakhstan among several others, are a different case in point), the variation only being in degree? (And for God’s sake, my critique of Islamic states based on undeniable facts doesn’t mean that I am a Muslim-hater, and any doubts anyone has on that front can be dispelled on the ground that I have written this book aimed at addressing and dispelling anti-Muslim prejudices.) What does this freedom being sought fundamentally mean, beyond the basic idea of a sovereign nation-state? Is it a unifier only as a slogan for very many (but certainly not all) Kashmiri Muslims or as a more or less clear vision that they share? How many of the Kashmiri Shi’ites, Ahmedias, Sikhs, Christians and even the Hindus still living in the valley or those who have returned, identify with this idea, and even the namesake Muslims who are atheists and agnostics? (Interestingly, a Kashmiri “Muslim agnostic” I met once, who, unlike most others of his ilk I know, supports the cause of azadi, claimed that the Indian state machinery wanted the flavour of their ‘freedom struggle’ to “turn” theocratic, implying indeed very controversially that it started off as secular, so that the Indian state could easily delegitimize it in global eyes, and even successfully played games to this end, but this assertion, while not being substantiated with any evidence, tends to portray Kashmiri Muslims as people who can’t think for themselves!) That said, it must be acknowledged that while most Kashmiri Muslims may prefer theocracy over secularism for the country they envisage, they are not, by and large, devoid of humanism, and during the recent floods, there were instances of Kashmiri Muslims rescuing Kashmiri Hindus and even Indian security personnel. Equally, the monetary contribution of Kashmiri Hindus to the relief efforts for the mostly Muslim population of the valley and the efforts of some Kashmiri Hindus contributing to relief efforts on the ground should also be acknowledged.
The wrongdoings of the Indian state, whether real or perceived, including the human rights violations of rogue elements in the security forces and even the alleged rigging of elections, while being very legitimate grievances, do not fundamentally explain the basic core of the idea of azadi (otherwise, it is worth pondering over why the Dalits, adivasis and others suffering from the human rights violations of elements in the Salwa Judum or the state police in backward, Naxal-infested areas do not think of disassociating from India, even if they are drawn towards leftist extremism but which is not secessionist), which seeks to promote what is certainly in my opinion a fallacious historical narrative (this narrative doesn’t stop at what we imagine as “history” but continues till events in 2014, with a gross exaggeration of significance of the Hindu right in post-1947 India) of Kashmir politically and culturally divorced from what Tagore called the “idea of India” (a little on this can be found in this article of mine). Anyone who has watched the film, leading to a generation of interest in the Kashmir issue, should delve into these questions too; else, the recycling of rhetoric, irrespective of who it favours, wouldn’t take us very far. Also, though irrelevant to the film, we must remember that in general, no narrative of the Kashmir issue is complete without delving into the wrongdoings of the Pakistani state against the people of what we call POK.*********
But then, on a totally different note, while it is indeed not necessary for a film to go beyond rhetoric, what can we even expect from left-liberals like Vishal Bharadwaj beyond that?********** The self-contradictory character of such rhetoric has been well elucidated by Pakistani-American intellectual Omar Ali, and Bharadwaj exposes that very well, when on one hand, he says that the poverty of the Indian masses should rile every Indian and bring out the sensitivity in him/her, and he couldn’t have been an artist were it not for his leftism (I know the reference is personal, but if you read it in context, he seems to be equating concern for the economically downtrodden with necessarily having leftist views, a very intolerant attitude towards those with alternative points of view, for many centrists and economic right-wingers have different approaches to tackling poverty while being equally concerned, and would he classify Ayn Rand as not being a great writer just because of her economic right-wing views?) and on the other, when he says that he does not care for the taste of the general public but “the intellectuals, the critics and the connoisseurs of cinema” who appreciated his film, and I don’t think these were from among the have-nots or the proletariat! And another contention I’d advance, though on more slippery ground, is that he has stated that he aspires to earn capital worth 1000 million Indian rupees from one of his coming films, amounting to private entrepreneurial aspirations that do not sound very leftist! And yes, my critique of Bharadwaj’s worldview is completely separate from my analysis of the film in and of itself (“on a totally different note”, I said clearly above), lest people accuse me of criticizing others for employing ad hominem allegations but doing the same myself.
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PS (for those who understand sarcasm) – Yes, Mr. Anonymous, I’ll accept your baseless allegation of being an agent, paid or unpaid (left to your fertile imagination) of the CIA, Mossad, RAW, RSS or whoever else you want; I know that it matters little to you if I have also criticized the BJP and the Shiv Sena in this article (though the two can certainly not to be equated in terms of the degree of Hindu “rightism” they represent), elements in the Indian security forces as also jingoistic nationalist rhetoric under any banner!
By Karmanye Thadani
Member, Global Youth India
*Kashmir apart, if we focus only on human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian Army, Dil Se is one such film dating back to the 1990s, showcasing such atrocities in the Assamese context. And indeed, that such things also happened in Hindu-majority Assam (for the sake of lust or greed for promotions and medals) busts the propaganda that India is an “enemy of Islam”, which is based on such human rights violations in Kashmir.
**This is not to suggest that I deny or completely write off the idea of pseudo-secularism, in terms of minority appeasement, whether driven by a genuine ideological bias or even for vested interests, by sections in India’s political class, media, academia, and so far to a much lesser extent, judiciary (I’ve discussed the phenomenon of minority appeasement in this very article, and with a specific focus on that topic in this other article of mine), but to describe any critique of the Hindu right as pseudo-secularism is totally inappropriate, for that would suggest that Hindu rightists are secular! As I argue in this piece, some Hindu rightists are undoubtedly much more moderate than others, but to call them secular would be inappropriate.
***I actually personally liked Lamhaa (in spite of its narrative favouring Kashmiri independence, which I disagree with) and another movie on Kashmir, Tahaan (not to be confused with Yahaan) more than Haider.
****Some may cite the Kosovo advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice to suggest that unilateral secession doesn’t violate international law, but contrary to what many people imagine, nothing in that landmark advisory opinion suggests that unilateral secession can be claimed as a right either, and the advisory opinion doesn't state that Serbia doesn't have a right to claim Kosovo. This subject has been examined in some detail in my co-authored book ‘The Right to Self-Determination of Pakistan’s Baloch: Can Balochistan Go the Kosovo Way?’. On a different note, sporadic human rights violations apart, Kashmir has indeed seen no genocide by the security forces, the likes of which Kosovo or Darfur witnessed.
*****The global pan-Muslim line of thinking is anachronistic, and I have proved my case on this point, even employing Islamic theology as a valid touchstone in this article.
******To be fair, it must be mentioned that Syed Ali Shah Geelani condemned, and on behalf of the Kashmiri separatists, apologized for this incident of the stone-pelting of the Sikh police officer.
*******To understand the different shades of saffron, please have a look at this article.
********While I do wholeheartedly agree with Roy in her elucidation of the Muslim rightist character of the Kashmiris’ ‘freedom struggle’ (at least in the mainstream context), I strongly disagree with her generalized portrayal of India as being an oppressive, Hindu-majoritarian country (not in the context of that article, but otherwise). While in many ways, Muslim extremism in Kashmir and Hindu extremism in the rest of India are two sides of the same coin, in terms of the rhetoric they employ, as I have demonstrated in this short story, it must be noted that Muslim extremism in Kashmir has been strong enough to uproot Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland and recently put a stop to their pilgrimage, and even lead Muslim girls who had formed a rock band to dissolve the same owing to pressure from orthodox clergy. On the other hand, Hindu rightist groups have not been as successful at moral policing, as can be seen from the fact that they haven’t been able to stop the celebration of Valentine’s Day as they would desire, the way the Muslim extremists in Kashmir were able to have the rock band dissolved. And yes, Muslims living in other, Hindu-majority provinces of India do indeed largely enjoy complete religious freedom, the Haj for them, and even Kashmiri Muslims, even having being subsidized by the Indian government for many decades, other than having made a mark in all walks of life, be it cinema, other fine arts, sports, politics, business or serving in the Indian security forces and intelligence agencies. This spirit of religious pluralism in India (in spite of occasional friction) is not, by any means, easily fragile, and the change in faces of those in power primarily have to do with economic aspirations.
*********For more on this topic, please see the following - http://www.jammu-kashmir.com/insights/insight990902.html, http://www.weeklyvoice.com/south-asian-news/pakistani-kashmiris-struggle-under-islamabads-azad-kashmir/, http://www.pressforpeace.org.uk/Gilgit-Baltistan/Baba-Jan and http://www.lfpress.com/2013/06/13/fatah-west-must-wake-up-to-aggressive-sino-pak-partnership.
**********In spite of my critique of left-liberal cinematic portrayals as rhetorical, I must concede that Bharadwaj’s film Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola, though not commercially successful, was a nice film showcasing the problem of crony capitalism, and I say so even though the film evokes Marxist symbols and icons, though I am not a Marxist, and I have acknowledged my liking for this film even earlier in this article. Likewise, another such film I appreciated was Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (also not commercially successful) for its brilliant Marxist deconstruction of the Ramayan and subtly linking the same to contemporary Naxalism (I think my pointing this out should convince many to a fair extent that I am not a Hindu rightist!), and I’ve co-authored a piece discussing what that film seeks to convey.