The Making of the Other: hostility against Muslims in general and Kashmiri Muslims in particular

A Movie Called Shikara And The Death Of Nuance
The poster of the film ‘Shikara: The Untold Story of Kashmiri Pandits’ 

by Muddasir Ramzan 10 May 2020

With the “unlawful abrogation” of Article 370 and the introduction of new domicile law, Kashmir is witnessing the high-handedness of authorities like never before. The region has been under lockdown for months without any communication. And the high-speed internet is still barred there. Many believe that had it not been a Muslim-dominated state, now a UT, there would have been no problems in Kashmir. Attacking Muslims day in and day out has become the new normal in India. The mainstream media, coupled with the particular ideology, is playing a significant role in ingraining this animosity towards Muslims among the ordinary people of India. While using the pretext of transporting and spreading Coronavirus in India, Muslims, particularly those who are associated with the Tableegi Jamaat, are the latest victims of this hate. While Coronavirus is a leveller and doesn’t discriminate, however, it has also been communalised when it reached India. It has opened new opportunities for anti-Muslims to exercise their hate.

In this growing atmosphere of hatred, a movie like Shikara, released on 7 February 2020, can be used to further the hostility against Muslims in general and Kashmiri Muslims in particular. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film “dedicated to over 400,000 Kashmiri Pandit refugees” doesn’t add anything new to the existing populist narrative; instead, it tries to legitimise it.

Representation is a complex profession and, especially when dealing with “difference” (here Muslims), it engages feelings, attitudes, and emotions, and it mobilises anger and hatred in the viewer, at deeper levels. Though the movie is a love story based on the chaotic times of Kashmir, it doesn’t labour over the politicisation of the region; instead, it takes an escape route in the individual story of Shiv Kumar Dhar and his wife, Shanti Sapru. In a movie within the movie, we are transported to the period of the late 1980s, the period which transformed Kashmir. The film opens in a time when the fruits of harmony were savoured in the Valley. Muslims did not consider their Hindu brothers as minorities. Instead, they were revered as educated and intelligent members of society. Despite being in the minority, they have enjoyed an elevated status in the Valley. Shiv and Shanti (the main characters in the movie) fall in love, and they get married in a typical Kashmiri wedding. Everything seems ok for a while. While protesting against the 1987 rigging of elections and reminding India of Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise of a plebiscite, Shiv’s childhood friend Lateef Lone’s leader-father (Khurshid Sahab) is killed by the State forces. Things turn topsy-turvy not only for Lateef – a potential cricketer who dreamed of becoming a cricket star – but also for the Valley. Another leader, wearing a Karakul cap, in an interview says, “We can only win the war here, not election,” – suggesting the rise of armed rebellion in Kashmir. Soon we are shown the changes taking the toll in Kashmir. Students instead of joining the college are shown carrying guns; women are asked to veil their heads; there are attacks on policemen; the burning of houses of Kashmir Hindus; a reference to the beginning of the new war in Kashmir after U.S-Russia’s peace deal; and then the tragedy of the migration of Pandits to the “hell,” and their sad plight and strife in their makeshift tents in Jammu. The movie has very well explained the role of Pakistan in using religion to incite the Muslims of Kashmir. In a TV report, we are shown Benazir Bhutto (the then PM of Pakistan) speaking over “Maqbooza-Kashmir,” she lends support to Kashmiris and mentions that “in the veins of Kashmiris runs the blood of Mujahideen.”

Jagmohan, then the Governor of Kashmir, instead of offering Kashmiri Hindus security within Kashmir, arranged for their safe passage to Jammu region, and Muslims became suspicious and thought of it as a conspiracy of government. Rumours started flying among Muslims that Jagmohan had assured Hindus that Kashmir would be only for them. The displaced Hindus, their migration was first meant for a few months until the situation would be fine, sadly, could not return. Kashmiri Pandits regarded their movement as “exodus” and a well-arranged plan of “Pakistan-backed militants to throw them out from Kashmir.” Many families did not migrate at all, and they are still living in that brotherhood; they call “Kashmiriyat,” with their Muslim neighbours. There are versions of narratives and counter-narratives about the incidents that lead to their migration.

Later in the movie, when the couple, Shiv and Shanti, is invited to Hindu marriage, they feel sad while watching the wedding in a modern Indian style, and they are reminded of their Kashmiri wedding. It’s what the Kashmiri Hindus mostly lost – their culture, their identity. They are living in internal-diasporas. They, mostly older people who lived most of their lives in Kashmir, are carrying the agony and nostalgia of their lost homes, their life in Kashmir, their ancestral heritage, and values which they had to leave behind to “save their lives.” An old man in the movie who repeatedly says, “Take me back to Kashmir” speaks of all those Kashmiris who have a burning desire to return to their homeland.

Like other movies which have romanticised Kashmir, this movie, too, functions at the level of myth – which celebrates the beauty of Kashmir but has ostracised Kashmiri Muslims for their villainy towards their neighbours of other faith. In doing so, the film offers a literal, denotative level of meaning that Islamist Muslims are responsible for everything that is happening in Kashmir (the populist narrative), and undermines the role of India in bringing sufferings to the Kashmiris. And within that, there is the sub-theme of Jihad and difference. Illustrations of Muslims which use racial stereotypes, threaded through the examples like burning Hindu’s houses, overtaking their properties on the pretext that they are guarding it, is bursting with disinformation, insinuations, and dangerous propaganda. The problem is with the generalisation as well: while the movie mentions the role of Kashmiri Muslims who saved or helped their Hindu brothers. Some got killed, it will still highlight the likes of Haji – who took Shiv’s house on the pretext of guarding it, and who tells Shiv it is not suitable for them to come back to Kashmir given the war-like situation there. Haji also mentioned other characters who got killed: Rashid, the milkman, was killed by the army, and Masood – killed by militants.

Cinema is indeed a fiction, but we have to consider its influential role in shaping the opinion of audiences. This capacity to inform and educate should be channelled productively, not to be used to malign and misinform. Instead of setting a binary, here a Muslim-Hindu, cinema could demarcate the boundaries that divide our societies. Sadly, this was a missed opportunity. The ending of the film reflects the new generation’s ignorance about Kashmiri Pandits, which is partially true. While the movie speaks about the problems faced by Kashmiri Hindus, it indirectly asks about their return to Kashmir. Most of the new generation of Kashmiri Hindus, who are born and brought up in the cultures outside Kashmir, would balk at the idea of swapping the security of their lives to live in a worn-torn place.

There have been many debates surrounding the return of this “exiled” community. Kashmiri Pandits have suffered immensely and should now see beyond the play of politics and political systems that construct a reality that serves its agenda. Politics is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Every Kashmiri wishes for a return of the Hindu community to their roots so they may live as they were living before, in peace alongside the majority population. Since most of the Kashmiri Pandits celebrated the abrogation of Article 370, which was primarily meant to safeguard the Kashmiri identity and sovereignty, however, the question remains: how would their return, as the movie shows the return of Shiv to his homeland, safeguard their identity?