Thursday, February 2, 2012

Celebration or mockery of freedom in Kashmir?

It was August 24, 2007. Independence Day was still fresh in the memory.A group of politically aware girls pursuing journalism from the prestigious Kamla Nehru College in New Delhi, in association with a youth forum, Roots In Kashmir, were about to screen a documentary, ...And the World Remained Silent, by filmmaker Ashoke Pandit to question the state’s silence on the ethnic cleansing of exiled Kashmiri Pandits. On the eve of the screening, the organisers called it off. At Roots In Kashmir, the activists, mostly Pandits, were distraught. Again their voice had been silenced.

The organisers, however, quietly invited another filmmaker, Sanjay Kak, to screen his controversial film, Jashn-e-Azadi, which had been denied a public screening certificate by the censor board. It became clear within hours how some powers had changed the schedule. It didn’t need a political analyst to guess who had silenced the voice of the Pandits in exile. Though, as expected, the Delhi police asked Kak not to break the law and the screening was cancelled.

Yet another screening of Kak’s film has now been withdrawn by Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce in Pune after the special branch of the police wrote to it asking it to refrain from showing the film during its three-day seminar, Voices Of Kashmir. 

Activists from the local ABVP unit also objected to the film’s provocative content. The college has organised the event in association with the University Grants Commission, which also received complaints against the director.

Kak, who has raised an alarm in the media over this apparent scuttling of his ‘freedom of expression’, was, however, singing a different tune a few months ago against the first literary festival planned in the Kashmir valley. The organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival had planned a similar exchange — Harud Literature Festival — last September. While news agency AFP described it as “another sign at easing tensions in the revolt-hit Himalayan territory”, London’s The Independent described it as the “cultural rebirth” of Kashmir and “an attempt to aid the area’s cultural renaissance.” The Times of India wrote that the “valley had turned a page” and related the event to the fact that Germany had lifted its travel advisory against visiting Kashmir.

But normalcy wasn’t acceptable to a few fringe groups, who took it upon themselves to confront the free flow of ideas among writers from across the globe who would have assembled in Kashmir. Fundamentalist groups told the media that stones would be thrown at the venue. Kak and a group of cheerleaders became part of this campaign asking the organisers to cancel the event.

Before amnesia sets in, it is important to narrate how dangerous half-truths on Kashmir came into being. It all began on the evening of March 13, 2007, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi where Kak invited the cream of cultural and social activists who were regulars on the Page 3 circuit for the premiere of his much talked about documentary on Kashmir — Jashn-e-Azadi (Celebration of Freedom). On the front seat of the jam-packed auditorium was a frail man in his early forties. He was the centre of attention of the organiser all through the evening.

Yasin Malik had never been a film buff or social crusader. He had never been seen behind the camera either. Often, cameras were directed at him for all the wrong reasons. In 1989 he was part of a large group of Kashmiri Muslims who were brainwashed and sent to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) for training on Kalashnikovs that would later that year and the following decade be used against the minority Kashmiri Pandits, who were seen as Indian agents.

Malik’s Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was banned till 2000 as a terrorist outfit, had the main role in orchestrating the forced exodus of Pandits after their selective killings in the valley increased. And here was the revolutionary of freedom among an elite audience to witness a film revolving around the separatist movement. Kak, main organiser for the evening, had already ensured that Pandits were denied entry into the auditorium. As a result, several young and old Pandit scholars, professionals, journalists and activists stood outside the closed main gate.

Malik, one of the lead characters in the film, says India wants to impose Brahminical imperialism in Kashmir. Does he even know the meaning of the term ‘Brahman’? The most significant mischief played by the film is with the portrayal of statistics. It says 200 Kashmiri Pandits were killed and 1,60,000 exiled. It goes on to support the Kashmiri separatist claim that 1,00,000 Muslims were killed since 1990.

Rashneek Kher of Roots In Kashmir, who was among those asked by Kak to remain outside the auditorium, says in his account published in Greater Kashmir: “When I asked Sanjay Kak the source of these figures, he said he had obtained these from some joint secretary in the MHA, New Delhi. The movie director being a respected man, I had no doubt that he had got them from the Government of India (GoI). When I asked him what’s the source of his figures, 1,00,000 killed in Kashmir since 1990, he strangely had no GoI statistics to support his figures. Who believes GoI anyway? I have received a reply to an RTI saying only 16,455 civilians have been killed in Kashmir since 1990. Now who would believe that? If GoI would have been sacred as Kak wants us to selectively believe, we wouldn’t have the movie in the first place.”

One of the flashes in the film says “Kashmir is the most militarised region”. Maybe it is. What then explains the presence of army and paramilitary forces when, till 1989, it hadn’t even seen an armed policeman? The forced exodus of Pandits also took place in 1990. The film does not mention why the army had to be placed there after 1989. Isn’t it imperative for a filmmaker to show the complete picture and not half-truths?

Jashn-e-Azadi didn’t face protests only at its premiere. In August 2007, Mumbai’s anti-terrorism squad received inputs about a secret screening being planned at Prithvi theatre. The police raided the premises and sealed DVDs of the film. The senior officer who ordered the raid was martyred by bullets of terrorists from Pakistan in the 26/11 attack. Kak faced similar police action in Gujarat, New Delhi, and other places.

“It wasn’t a film on Kashmiri Pandits,” remarked an angry Kak when challenged by an equally angry audience at a screening at Stanford University in the US last year. There can be no disagreement on this. But why then did he use Pandits for a minute or two in the 138-minute documentary? The film gives a falsified account on the Pandits, not just by statistics but by showing images of abandoned houses for a few seconds to rub salt into their wounds.

“A good documentary does not take sides, it simply documents and presents facts as they are, the director is never seen to be endorsing or negating what he shows. When Sanjay Kak explains the meaning and essence of the term shahadat, the swell of adrenalin is clearly audible in his voice, that’s when he moves from being a director to an invisible but strong spokesperson of his concept of what constitutes the celebration of azadi. To prove his point of view he has even borrowed footage that makes it look exactly like the sexed-up PowerPoint presentation that the USA made to the UN as its premise for attacking Iraq. History is replete with neo-converts going that extra mile to prove which side of their bread is buttered, but I believe the director wants to walk all through the Safar-e-Azadi to prove his loyaltyto the only leader of Kashmir, Yasin Malik,” writes Kher.

In 2010, on Independence Day, Mumbai’s Free Press Journal carried a feature on young Kashmiris and what they felt about India. A bright girl, a budding artist from Srinagar, spoke frankly about the concerns of ordinary Kashmiris and praised chief minister Omar Abdullah. Soon, all hell broke loose. Through a Facebook group called BekaarJamaath (Idle Group), and on e-mail and phone, she was threatened and abused by fellow Kashmiris. She was so scared that she went into hiding and sought help from security agencies.

Kak wouldn’t know of such stories. He couldn’t care less. Terrorists who have changed colours to suit their careers are important for his screen space. Kak won’t ask for their conviction under the law for killings against humanity in Kashmir; he would rather showcase them as ‘Gandhian activists’.

Ordinary Kashmiris have always been overshadowed by separatists who are given space by New Delhi-based intellectual mercenaries, making it a mockery of freedom. The spin doctors have made business out of Kashmir just as self-styled activists have worked for an ‘agenda’ unknown to the common man searching for peace in the valley.Is there any spring of hope for this intolerance to end?

Aditya Raj Kaul is India editor of the monthly The Indian published from Australia.

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