Home Reflections Cultures of Memory in The Kashmir Files

Cultures of Memory in The Kashmir Files

by Dr. Prakash Shah

This comment offers a reflection on Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s film, The Kashmir Files (TKF), released in early 2022. I watched the film in a special screening in a hotel in central London a few weeks after its release. Being unable to tolerate watching the kind of events which I had anticipated the film would include, I had not intended to see it. On receiving the invitation, however, I decided to accept, bracing myself for scenes of atrocities. I am not a film critic and can’t say I know much about the conflict in Kashmir either. In that sense, I can probably count myself among the majority of the TKF’s watchers. So, the reader must beware that the following response to TKF is marred by the inadequacy of its author on several fronts. Having watched the film, I could not but help thinking about how one can gain a sense of the relevance of the film by keeping in mind the kinds of observations Venkat Rao (2014; 2018; 2021a; 2021b) makes throughout his work about Indian cultural difference. Although I cannot claim more than a passing acquaintance with that work, this comment is an attempt to think through TKF and Venkat Rao’s work together.

Living in the UK one has become used to the frequent invocation of Kashmir as a self-explanatory symbol of Kashmir’s Muslims denied the right of self-determination. Along with Palestine, it is regularly invoked, but without explanation as to why the two territories are deemed comparable. If the usage of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is anything to go by, it seems they are used as proxies for their sense of oppression, whether justified or not. Makarand Paranjape (Paranjape, 2016; Paranjape, 2022, p. 99) has pointed out that the term ‘azadi’ has the sense of manumission, of being freed from slavery. If so, it would be interesting to inquire further why such rhetoric associating the Muslims of Kashmir with being kept in slavery should be thought appropriate by those using it. (The implication of naming the Pakistani-occupied part as Azad Kashmir then points in the direction of manumission through annexation by Pakistan, while one recent study (Menski and Yousuf, 2021) repeatedly points to the confusing manner in which azadi is used in the rhetoric on Kashmir.) The rhetoric of terrorist organisations matches this sort of talk, and one is never sure where the line between popularly held cliches and terrorist propaganda should be drawn.

In 2018, in the UK, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims adopted a working definition of Islamophobia, a term which the OIC has also been making a big play of, and cited the following as one of the examples of what the definition would cover: “Denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour.” (APPG on British Muslims, 2018, pp. 56-57) This is the only reference to Kashmir in the entire report, which defines Islamophobia as “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” (APPG on British Muslims, 2018, pp. 11, 50, 56) The report has been adopted by local authorities in several different parts of the UK giving it a sort of quasi-administrative status within some sectors of government in Britain. One might wonder therefore what the framers of the report would have made of the convictions for terrorist offences in a British court of a group of young Muslim men whose aims included obtaining training and conducting terrorist attacks in Kashmir and potentially in the UK also.[1] Was that all part of the racism and Islamophobia of the English legal system?

The problems that surface upon closer scrutiny of the APPG’s and similar claims have not prevented making the kind of atrocities TKF depicts unsayable. The film shows clearly that terrorism is a means of imposing territorial rights for Muslims only in Kashmir and therefore becomes a way of eliminating diversity from Kashmir, a point the TKF’s director also makes in interviews again and again. Making the unsayable sayable is one of the remarkable things the film achieves. It is not that others have not made claims in other forms of the kind the film shows. The ‘files’ in the title do exist in some publicly accessible forms. There is any number of books published, and comment pieces and interviews available in print and online, that speak about the atrocities the Hindus of Kashmir had to endure. They have had to endure them during the events of 1990, which are the focus of the film, but also prior to them and afterwards. In one of the many discussions on TKF available online Agnihotri says:

Thousands and thousands of books have been written on Kashmir. It’s not; if somebody says, ‘oh we didn’t know’. No, no, no, no. That’s your problem. You didn’t know because you don’t read. Nobody in schools and colleges are asking you to read. I have got a room full of books on Kashmir and Kashmir genocide. Every Kashmiri pandit has written something, you know, well-published books, if not well-published, some articles, something. They have written for 32 years. They kept this alive. But one film! See I’ll tell you. This is very interesting – to understand the power of cinema. Because cinema is the only art which has all the dimensions. You’ve audio, visual plus you have depth, and it is collective viewing. So, some kinds of vibes are also travelling and transferring, so that there is some kind of a consensus whether this is right or wrong. That’s a science of cinema very simply spoken. (Agnihotri, 2022)

This very pregnant observation invites further reflection. TKF appears to have achieved something that these other forms of expression have not. The film has had an impact in India and internationally that others have not been able to, including other films that have been made on Kashmir. It has made acceptable the public expression of grief, outrage and empathy regarding those atrocities it is most immediately concerned with, while opening the door to the many more which have not yet been able to find expression. It seems worth inquiring into why that might be.

My initial response, to which I still hold as I go further into Venkat Rao’s work, is that the distinction Agnihotri makes becomes even more tangible if one refers back to the former’s work. In particular, I am thinking of his distinction between the ways in which different cultures store and marshal their resources of memory. Venkat Rao proposes that the Western culture is one dominated by lithic, scriptural archival storing and recall of memory, whereas the Indian culture, being performative uses the bodily archive in all its different ways, through voice, speech, gesture, song and so on to establish itself as a mnemoculture, with its own guardians of memory. 

Although it is based on a documentation of the events of 1990s, TKF is not a documentary. Director, Vivek Agnihotri, and producer Pallavi Joshi, who plays the university professor Radhika Menon in the film, carried out upwards of seven hundred interviews which form the basis of the film’s storyline. Those who have said that it provides a false account of what happened in Kashmir have a problem though. The film does not make truth claims and, therefore, it isn’t amenable to accusations of falsehood. Without making factual claims, it tells the story of the events as derived from those expectedly pain-laden interviews. Through its characters, the film aptly conveys that those who most directly underwent the atrocities had to endure them in silence and were unable to transmit them as memories to their younger generations, or to share them with others.

To an extent that I find difficult to estimate, going through the violence of the 1990 attacks must have led to the suppression of expression and transmission because of the trauma they induced. Possibly no register of language exists that allows such grievous infliction of violence to be expressed. In their recent book, What does it mean to be ‘Indian’?, Balagangadhara and Rao (2021, pp. 52-54) make a distinction between undergoing some events or happenings, on the one hand, and transforming them into experiences, on the other. Where undergoing something fails to become transformed into experience, it exists as a trauma, and is relived as pain without becoming merely a memory. It can be transformed into experience only when it is structured by naming what is undergone. That structure is provided by one’s culture, which has the resources we can use for socialisation, and different cultures teach us to structure what we undergo in different ways, through such resources as stories, rituals, lore, legends, poetry and so on.

The film shows the effects of trauma in a variety of ways and especially through the character of Pushkar Nath Pandit, played by Anupam Kher. He witnesses atrocities of an unspeakable kind, and his post-traumatic stress doesn’t leave him until he dies, isolated even from his still-living near ones. Atrocities were committed by those previously known to their victims, neighbours and former students, with whom relationships of trust must have existed. One hears of similar events which took place during the most recent Yezidi genocide as Muslim neighbours turned on their non-Muslim victims. While the theme of the inexpressibility of the trauma permeates TKF, even among those who have gone through them in common, the film also weaves in how their long-suppressed stories surface. In the absence of a language to express the unspeakable, it is as though the film therapeutically provides a scaffolding for the surfacing of suppressed traumas. Is it plausible that the film plays the role of what Balagangadhara and Rao describe as the kind of culturally specific resource, such as a mode of storytelling, that enables the structuring of events by transforming them into experience, and into a mere memory of events? It is striking how those who were close to the experience of terror have become so tearful after watching the film. Are they on their way to coming to terms with what they underwent as a result of the film?

TKF also raises questions about how what it says was not sayable earlier. Despite the existence of multiple other sources documenting the atrocities, which TKF also tells of, it beggars belief that public discussion of the events TKF portrays was not thought acceptable in India, let alone elsewhere. Neither have the public institutions including the legal system, the centres of learning like the universities, nor the media or the film industry discussed them openly. Instead, they suppressed the atrocities and the experiences of those who were exposed to them and created a climate to penalise transgression should public discussion be initiated. And it isn’t merely by the invoking of the Islamophobia tag, which has become so popular today, that such a prohibition was imposed. It seems unbelievable that the genocidal events of 1990 had nowhere in India become the subject of public discussion and outrage, of teaching in universities, of demands for justice accompanied by trials for crimes against humanity, or of cognisance by the huge number of human rights institutions and NGOs in India, let alone something like a truth and reconciliation commission.

The lack of reaction along these lines is even harder to comprehend in light of the fact that we are constantly reminded that not only do Hindus constitute the majority of the country, while Muslims are underrepresented in public institutions, but that India is constantly battling the disease of Hindu ‘majoritarianism’. Had Hindu majoritarianism really been in play all along, why haven’t the public institutions acted by dealing with the perpetrators and the victims of atrocities in some appropriate manner? Either Hindus have not lived up to the expectations of the majority they are supposed to be or there is some basic flaw in the terms of description of the Indian society and in the operation of its institutions. Be that as it may, perhaps we could use the insights Venkat Rao provides to dig further into why some of these modes of response could not have been borne as a consequence of Indian cultural specificities. Among the many pointers Venkat Rao gives is this observation:

The mnemocultural verbal – visual performing traditions precede and survive the lithic turn. Unlike in the context of European cultural history, the Indian (perhaps even Asian and African) mnemocultures subordinate the lithic or orthographic turn to acoustic and performative structures even to this day. No wonder that the orthographic heritage can’t be said to have inaugurated any archive fevers and whipped up passions for centralized archives in mnemocultural contexts. Similarly, the iconic turn, a belated emergence in the Indian context, too does not unleash an urge for the growth of museums and galleries. On the contrary, the passion for the plastic/iconic (sculpture and architecture) multiplied unprecedented range of temples for over a millennium – which, though lithic in manifestation, has little to do with archival passions. (Venkat Rao, 2021b, p. 73)

The western orthographic heritage is unable to generate the archive fevers or whipped up passions in India that the performative can. Our legal imaginaries, being western, are also premised on the lithic archival mode of storing and recall, and that may be why they are unsuited to the Indian cultural context. As Agnihotri informs us, massive documentation along such lines has already occurred. One might have supplemented it with some legal trials or a truth and reconciliation commission, but are these the modes of memorialising that would have achieved the therapeutic and cultural movement that TKF does?

The sense of impending violence is present throughout TKF. Violence seems to have played, and continues to play, a multiple set of roles in inculcating the suppressive attitudes that we see today. As Balagangadhara (1994) has theorised, religion spreads by proselytism or by secularisation. While not all of Islam’s spread has been through violence, in India, a part of it has been. However, Islam’s spread through violence and destruction remains unacknowledged. As with the spread of Christianity, the spread of Islam has been primarily told through a public relations story, which suppresses its spread through violence and compels the projection of the religion’s peaceful advance. This was not always so, however. During the Islamic conquests of India, including in Kashmir, Muslim documentarists recorded with adulation the infliction of violence and humiliation upon the conquered non-Muslims and their culture (Goel, 1982). However, these accounts are hardly acknowledged in public discussion and in the teaching of the universities, which are habituated to the suppression of such evidence or taking them as cues to produce ad hoc explanations for it.

In the same month as the so-called ‘tukde tukde’ protests of February 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a teach-in was held on the university’s campus (on the protests and teach-in, see Paranjape, 2022). In the book produced out of the teach-in lectures, What the nation really needs to know (Azad et al., 2016), a chapter by Harbans Mukhia (2016), a former professor of medieval history and rector at JNU, has this portrayal of the spread of Islam during periods of Islamic domination:

But knowing that massive conversions did take place, why are references to it so scarce? The only reasonable explanation is that had conversions taken place at the hands of one single agency by force or otherwise, or in one short period of time, there is no way it could have escaped getting into record of one sort or another at the hands of one writer or the other. Conversions took place over very long stretches of time and through a number of agencies and for a number of motivations; hence the absence of a dramatic element lets these off the record.

The message sought to be conveyed by Mukhia is that conversion to Islam was unremarkable and can therefore be assumed to have been peaceful and voluntary. One response to this claim could be to merely accept that an ambiguity exists and that it is plausible that forcible conversions most probably did not take place. However, this contradicts the accounts we do have of the kind complied by Goel (1982), even if Mukhia does not refer to them or explain their contents. It would also be inconsistent with the chant, “ralive, tsalive, galive!” (convert, leave or die) recited in TKF accompanied by the threat of violence. However, this violence is unsayable in public contexts, which indicates that the public relations version of Islam has been taken on even by intellectuals.

While the spread of Islam by proselytism, peacefully or by violence, is one issue, another is the curious taking on of Islamic religious attitudes by non-Muslims. Previously, in Balagangadhara’s research programme secularisation was expressed in terms of how tropes within a theological tradition of reasoning, in the context of Christianity, get extended into the topoi of a culture (De Roover, 2015). In a recent interview, Balagangadhara (2022) speaks of an extension to his theory of secularisation of religion with respect to Islam by ‘Islamification’, which is a weaker form of secularisation. Among the signs of Islamification is a decline in the intellectual environment in areas of exposure. Agnihotri picks up on this phenomenon when he says:

If you go in Kashmir valley there is zero diversity. There is no art, no literature, no music. In the name of music, you just have azan. No dance – such a culturally rich – no philosophy. See the biggest problem – my grudge against Islam – is that it destroys philosophy. Wherever they go there’s no philosophy. So, there’s no philosophy in Kashmir. There’s no dialogue in Kashmir.

One of the important ways in which TKF picks up the prolific instances of secularisation is to point to the embedding of such attitudes within Indian universities. The reference to JNU is retained in the international print version of the film but was changed to ANU because of the demands of the censors in India, although there appears to be a shared presumption in India too that the university in question is JNU. Regardless of the actual university, the parallels with actual incidents at several Indian universities are striking. The professor, Radhika Menon, who tries to enlist support for azadi among the students, and her attempts to corral the lead candidate Krishna, played by Darshan Kumar, for the student elections, as well as her links with terrorist groups, all jump out from some or other incidents that have reportedly occurred at prominent Indian universities, including at JNU (Agnihotri, 2018; Paranjape, 2022).

The critical element that TKF tries to get across is that the university does not produce or transmit knowledge. The university not only prevents transmission of the Pandits’ genocide, but it goes on to portray the terrorist campaign to have them convert, leave or die as justified. The university becomes a public arena which suppresses understanding of and coming to terms with the trauma of terrorist violence and instead subverts the ability to fight against terrorism. Rather than being continuous with the cultures of memory in India, it fails to respond to the destruction of those cultures except by becoming part of the destructive mechanism. The university enlists the younger generation in this project, cutting them off from their cultures of memory. In this, the role of Krishna becomes a crucial carrier of the conflict thereby induced upon his generation, not least by the very persuasive Professor Menon. Not only has the memory of the genocide, in which his own parents and brother perish, not been passed to him but the university fails in enabling him to come to an understanding of it, except in terms that justify the terror-induced genocide. Krishna is called upon to endorse the violence inflicted upon his family and those like them and to join those terrorists who are still around to unleash it again.

At this point, we might bear in mind Venkat Rao’s observations that the university in India is a colonial implant, imposed with utter disregard for the tissue texture of the host culture, and oblivious of what inquiries it should pursue, a symptom of intellectual destitution. It is an implant made by British colonialism rather than its Islamic counterpart. Whatever the differences between them, in the final analysis, the violence of both Islamic and British colonialism is seen as justifiable. As Marx (1853) put it when justifying British colonialism in India, “whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe … ‘Were not through the rule of Timur souls devoured without measure?’” Colonialism appears to have transmitted a set of attitudes to the colonised about the inherently desirable nature of the coloniser’s rule and prevented the transmission of the experience of violence or its telling except in the terms of the coloniser (the civilisational inferiority of the colonised and so on). In fact, the infliction of violence is not only unexpressed but appears to have embedded this set of attitudes by preventing access to the experience of the colonised (Balagangadhara, 2012), and this seems to hold for both Islamic and British colonialism. British colonialism became the handmaiden for exacerbating the violence of Islam, culminating in the establishment of Pakistan. Rather than ceasing since independence and partition, the levelling of violence from Pakistan was encouraged by the Anglo-American alliance. Kashmir was part of the British design for Pakistan and the latter’s continued call for its secession (effectively annexation to Pakistan) finds a basis in the role of Britain and the United States (Sarila, 2017). In both the latter countries, calls for self-determination of Kashmiri Muslims are reiterated but, as we saw, their linkage to terrorism is deemed Islamophobic.

TKF provides a sense of these manifestations of violence and their consequences whose memory is suppressed, particularly when we combine it with a reading and re-reading of Venkat Rao’s work on a multitude of facets of the Indian cultural difference. TKF manages to convey the sense of the terror unleased on a culture of memory, enables the indifference of others to these events to be acknowledged and repaired, and begins the journey of healing for those who underwent the terror. Maybe that is why it does something that others, among those who use the film as a medium as well as other lithic modes of memorial forms, have not been able to achieve. This comment has merely suggested some lines of inquiring further how TKF does all that, with the conviction that there is some potential in pursuing these directions of thinking. There is something here about the role of film that TKF may exemplify in terms of how to transform film to play the role of guardian of memory.

[1] See the remarks of the judge during sentencing in R-v-Mohammed Chowdhury & Others, Sentencing Remarks of Mr Justice Wilkie, Woolwich Crown Court, Indictment No: T20117593, 9 February 2012. https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/JCO/Documents/Judgments/mr-j-wilkie-sentencing-remarks-r-v-chowdhury.pdf


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  • Dr. Prakash Shah

    Dr Prakash Shah specializes in cultural diversity and law, religion and law, caste and law, immigration, refugee and nationality law, and comparative law. He has published widely and lectured internationally in these fields. Dr Shah joined Queen Mary, University of London in 2002, where he is now a Reader of Culture and Law.

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