Aasha Khosa/New Delhi
The memory of a chorus of slogans coming from Srinagar’s mosques on the cold night of January 19, 1990, still sends a chill down the spine of many Kashmiri Pandits who once lived in the city on the banks of Jhelum. Not that the pro-Azadi processions or gatherings were new to them in that season – peace in Kashmir was shattered with the first grenade blast in the Central Telegraph Office in the summer of 1989 - but because of the nature of slogans.
“Ralliv, Galliv, Ya Chalivv (Convert, die or vanish); Aasi gache Paikistan, Batav rostuy Batnyev saan (We want to be part of Pakistan; without Hindu men, with Hindu women)” were being sung like an anthem.
Rajrani (name changed) in her house in the downtown Habbakadal locality, and her tall and beautiful looking young daughter Mitu (name changed) clung to each other in the darkroom that was locked and being guarded by her son and husband. With slogans getting louder and shriller, she visualized a crowd barging into their house; abducting or molesting Mitu. She had secretly set aside a bottle of kerosene oil and a matchstick box under the pile of mattresses. She knew how to save Mitu from falling in the hands of ‘violent youth behind the slogans.’
The family left Kashmir in the wee hours of the morning; women hidden with luggage in the back of the truck - like the scene from Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s film The Kashmir Files where Sharda Pandit (played brilliantly by debutant Bhasha Sumbli) is escorting her sons and other women out of the Valley after her husband is killed. This is a true story of the gruesome killing of an engineer in Srinagar’s Barbarshah locality. Terrorists couldn’t find the man they had come to kill in his house as he hid in a cylindrical rice container placed in the attic of the house. As attics in Kashmiri houses are two sides open, a neighbour had seen him hide and he signaled the terrorists. They returned and rained bullets into the rice drum. Before leaving they fed the blood-soaked rice to the man’s wife in lieu of sparing the lives of her children.
Anupam Kher and Bhasha Sumbli in the movie Kashmir Files
The scene from the movie should shake the core of a normal human being. No wonder The Kashmir Files has taken the film world by storm as it depicts the texture of religion-based hate and violence. It shows truthfully the conditions that made three lakh Kashmiri Pandits leave their homes, culture, inheritance, etc. overnight to become refugees in their own country.
Trust me – a reporter who was based in Srinagar in the decade of the nineties and covered many massacres and killings and have some stored in the memory – the truth depicted in the film is only a fraction of what happened. The reality of Kashmir under Pakistan-trained and Islamist terrorists, who were once neighbours and friends to the same Hindus, is too gory and stark to be shown on screen.
Besides the incident of a woman being fed rice soaked in her husband’s blood, the film shows four major real incidents – the gruesome killing of poet Sarvanand Premi and his son in south Kashmir, Nadigram massacre of 23 Pandits, and a young woman librarian Sarla Tickoo (real name) who was cut into two with a band sawmill while she was still alive. Keeping aesthetics in mind, all the killings shown in the movie are highly toned-down versions of the real one; Sarla was betrayed by a friend and also subjected to gang rape (not shown in the film). I visited Nadigram on the second day of the news coming out (there were no WhatsApp groups and the internet then) where I was mostly briefed by the Muslim neighbours who cried helplessly and showed support to the survivours. One mentally deranged survivor was being taken care of by the Muslims. The terrorists –Lashkar-e-Toiba were ruling the roost in the countryside those days – had taken the villagers to a koul (dried up brook) downhill and shot them. Some of them were still alive and their cries, hatay maejey..(Oh, my mother), for help rent the air for hours. Nobody could reach them in the cold and dark night.
This backdrop will make people understand why some three lakh Kashmiri pundits, who had left the Valley en masse to escape killings, rapes, loot, and fear 30 years ago, are crying and becoming emotional after watching the film. They are simply overwhelmed at being explained to the world by the filmmaker, for nobody even heeded to their story and only tried to pick holes in it, so far. Most of the community lived in refugee camps, rented houses, without jobs, deprivations, many stood hours in the exhausting heat of Jammu and Delhi for registering their names in government records for doles, the elderly like Pushkar Nath Pandit (played by veteran Anupam Kher) were unfit to put up with hot climate and lost their sanity and life in the early years of their homelessness. The focus, however, remained on children’s education even in this hour of despair and that’s how this community is today financially secure.
The Kashmir Files
Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri has turned God for this minuscule ethnic community that was targeted only for their faith. For the first time, the community is speaking up and venting their pent-up emotions of decades. A cousin says she stopped long ago explaining to others why her family had to leave their three-story house and well-established business in Srinagar to come to live in Delhi NCR in a three-bedroom house. “They didn’t trust me because for them living in a house and owning a car was symbol of affluence. They had no idea that this house was bought after selling all the gold that my mother-in-law and I had.”
After the film, she is happy that the same neighbours are calling her and to say they never knew what she had gone through. “I can feel a heavy load from my mind is off; at least people know my story,” she said.
For the readers, I must make it clear that I am a Kashmiri Pandit and my family didn’t have to go through this trauma. I worked in Kashmir as a journalist and saw how Muslims suffered too at the hands of terrorists. Yet after this movie, everyone in my extended family – paternal and maternal side – is sharing untold stories of pain, humiliation, and threat to lives and honour that made them leave their homes, hearths, friends, businesses, dreams, and playgrounds of their childhood behind.
As they watched the movie The Kashmir Files, they saw their story on screen and being told to the world. My maternal aunt who is looking after her ailing husband would probably remember how she hesitatingly asked me, her niece in Jammu for a piece of cloth that she could use as the kitchen napkin. She lived with her one son and husband in a single room in Jammu after leaving their small yet beautiful house in Rambagh in a huff. Terrorists had pasted a hand-written hit-list on a wall where names of their potential targets were listed. Those of her two sons were also in it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Director Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, Pallavi Joshi
This was her dream house where she cultivated chilies, brinjals, and Kashmiri mint after living for 30 years in the congested downtown locality of Alikadal. Today her sons own many flats and houses across NCR yet she and her husband who is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, feel they are homeless.
The sub-plot of The Kashmir Files is about the politics – the JNU-types, left-liberals and ‘sicularists’ and Letuyen’s gang, etc as some of those had been seen advocating Kashmiri Azadi and loomed large on the Indian scene for years. However, for Kashmiri Pandits, they may be responsible for their plight to some extent, but The Kashmir Files is essentially about them.