Anti-Muslim film ‘The Kashmir Files’ a dangerous step in India’s descent into hate

A new Indian movie on the long-running conflict in Kashmir is eliciting strong emotional reactions from Hindus, releasing pent-up resentment that is putting Muslims in danger.

Based on a distortion of true events that included the harassment, torture and killings of Kashmiri Hindus by Pakistan-funded terrorists in the early 1990s, “The Kashmir Files” serves as a call to arms carrying one message: all Muslims are evil and the long-suffering Hindus of India — not just Kashmir — cannot remain silent any longer.

The film, playing in theatres around the GTA, is a Goebbels-worthy piece of malevolent filmmaking. It was released with the full weight of the Indian government behind it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who enjoys a cult-like status among his voter base, endorsed the movie, saying it spoke the truth.

In India, where the movie came out three weeks ago, it has elicited visceral reactions. Videos circulating on social media show audiences of mostly men shouting profanities at Muslims, calling them traitors, asking Hindus to pick up arms, calling for Muslims to be exterminated.

The film follows the journey of an orphaned Kashmiri Hindu university student under the influence of a professor championing the rights of free Kashmir. The student ends up with the opposite conclusion: that the Indian government’s position is just and right, that Kashmir is intrinsically a part of India. It’s a position that led to New Delhi revoking an article in the constitution that allowed the Muslim-majority state significant autonomy, and annexing the region in 2019.

The protagonist’s understanding comes through his discovery that his family, who he believed died in an accident, were killed by terrorists. Through him, we learn of the fate that befell the Kashmiri Hindus via unsparing scenes of gore and violence. We see kohl-eyed, skullcapped Muslim terrorists marching through the streets with swords chanting “Convert, leave or die.” The protagonist’s father is gunned down in his house, his mother made to eat raw rice mixed with his father’s blood. His mother is eventually sliced in half under a sawmill; his older brother, still a child, killed cold-bloodedly with a bullet to his head.

In the right hands, the story could have been a masterpiece of historical import with nuance and even an opportunity to heal wounds. (An aside, such a film might have at least got the basic storylines right. How is someone who was three or four in 1990 still in university in 2022? Why might a person raised by a fiercely proud Kashmiri grandfather know nothing about Kashmir?)

But mastery does not appear to be the purpose of this film. Manipulation of emotion does. It frames Kashmiri independence as “a jihad against Indian heritage” and whips up sympathy for one side and hatred for the other. The Hindus are wide-eyed and helpless. Every single Muslim is extraordinarily bad. Neither neighbours nor children (who wave Kalashnikovs) nor politicians have anything but betrayal and evil intent at their disposal.

“We will never let Kashmir be a part of India,” the terrorists say. “We will break India into pieces.”

The viewer could be forgiven for coming away thinking that the period shown in the film pulls back the curtain on what Kashmiri independence is really about: one step in the grand Muslim plan of taking over India.

In fact, Kashmiris have been fighting for centuries for independence from various imperial powers, including the Mughals, the Afghans, the Sikhs and the (Hindu) Dogras.

Pakistan is as much a vested-interest party as is India in the region, and its influence has waxed and waned. None of this is visible in the film, which instead ties Kashmir’s struggle to the historical hatred of Muslims by India’s ruling party, the BJP. This, although a Muslim in the south of the country, for instance, has little beyond religion in common with a Muslim in Kashmir, little practical interest in whether or not Kashmir is free.

You can’t tell any of this from the film, which crudely confirms the worst biases of the masses by pulling in nationwide anti-Muslim tropes. For example, “Muslims celebrate Pakistan wins in cricket” is considered a common maxim in the “they are not real Indians” narrative. Ergo, the film begins with a Kashmiri Hindu kid threatened for celebrating a beloved Indian batsman’s win against Pakistan.

Or take interfaith marriages, in reality widely opposed by both Hindus and Muslims. But “love jihad” is the bogeyman favoured by the far-right Hindus who view all interfaith marriages as Muslim men tricking Hindu women to convert them. Various states have introduced bills or passed laws targeting these marriages. In the film, terrorists confirming these fears say, “Kashmir will be turned into Pakistan with the help of Hindu women. Marry the women to convert them.”

The common points of opposition to government positions are espoused by two people: the professor, who also becomes a vehicle to sneer at all academia as out-of-touch elite, and the evil terrorist-in-chief. In case the conflation of criticism with enemy collaborator is not clear, one clip shows a framed photo of the professor laughingly holding hands with the terrorist.

There’s a long history of political propaganda in cinema, the most notorious and well-studied being the films of Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler said the intellectual level of propaganda should meet the lowest mental common denominator of its audience. Hitler, and his chief propagandist, the vitriolic anti-Semite Joseph Goebbels, took to the extreme already well-established tactics for using cinema to prime Germans for hate. Well before the Nazis came Hollywood’s blockbuster “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 that revived the Ku Klux Klan by fanning the flames of virulent anti-Black racism.

It’s true that all reality-based films choose facts to frame a story. It’s also true that many film industries hew to the ideologies of their governments. Hollywood villains are still Russian or German or Middle Eastern or African depending on the geopolitics of the day. But propaganda films take government alignment to a different level.

Apart from Modi’s personal endorsement, his government also exempted the movie from taxes, meaning the audience can buy cheaper tickets. Some states gave employees and police leave to watch. It remains top of mind for the public, endlessly discussed in Indian media.

The movie offers a frightening glimpse into the path of division and hate the Modi government has embarked the country on. It insists the atrocities against Kashmiri Hindus amount to genocide. In reality it’s the movie itself that is priming the country to support genocide, against Muslims.

This is what a descent into darkness looks like.

Shree Paradkar is a Toronto-based columnist covering issues around race and gender for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @ShreeParadkar

Read more about: