It often happens that you judge the world by yardsticks that you don’t apply to your own country. Sometimes that inconsistency is brought home to you. This happened to me yesterday after I watched the first screening of Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), a long documentary film on Kashmir, directed by Sanjay Kak.
The ‘present’ of the film is the period between 2004 and 2006, the time in which it was shot. From this present, it makes forays into its past, which is the period between 2004 and 1989, the year that the violent struggle for self-determination/ secession/azadi began in Kashmir. The film travels backwards by incorporating within itself footage shot by unnamed Kashmiri cameramen. This footage is formally marked out from the rest of the film with the help of subtitles: it also looks grainier and less finished.
For a long, complex film, the film’s editorial position isn’t hard to summarize. The military occupation of Kashmir is sketched in with voice-overs, subtitles, interviews and grim vignettes from Kashmiri life. You learn, for example, that India has seven hundred thousand soldiers in Kashmir, or one soldier for every fifteen civilians. Right through the film, the figure of a hundred thousand Kashmiri dead comes up in conversations and political speeches. Spread evenly through the film like a chorus is footage from a longstanding attempt to systematically verify the number and provenance of the dead. The film doesn’t endorse the figure — the one subtitle that refers to the subject speaks of disputed and wildly fluctuating totals — but nor does it take issue with it. The implication is that the total, by any reckoning, is so large that the moral culpability of the Indian state and its occupying army for the killing is unlikely to be diminished by a correction.
The subject of the film is the response of Kashmiris to the occupation: their defiance, their rage, their suffering, their trauma, their resignation, their irony and, occasionally, their acquiescence. But the acquiescence is rare and temporary: this film has a moral and it is spelt out by the director of the film (who is also its narrator). In the middle of the film he says (and I paraphrase from memory), “The lesson from the most militarized region in the world is that domination doesn’t mean victory.”
Bereaved women, schoolchildren, politicians, old men, poets, alive and dead, ulema and a travelling troupe of players demand freedom and simultaneously count its cost. On the other side, the ‘Indian’ side, tourists, sadhus, ‘renegades’ (turncoat militants) and be-goggled army officers are variously loutish, strident, deluded and murderously violent, all in the cause of claiming Kashmir for India.
Kashmir’s inhabitants in this film, the protagonists of azadi, are the Valley’s Muslims. The film does not apologize for this. It refers to the exodus of Kashmir’s Pandit population and gives us two figures: two hundred were brutally killed by militants and, as a result of these murders, a hundred and sixty thousand left the Valley for refugee camps in Jammu and the plains. No Kashmiri Pandits figure in the frame. The film’s cameras don’t visit their homes or refugee camps. Two telephone conversations with a Pandit poet, his poem about the lost intimacy of winter nights, and shots of abandoned Pandit homes sum up their exile. They are present as a hole in the film, as an absence.
The film’s treatment of this issue caused a stir in the cinema hall as angry Kashmiri Pandits heckled the director (a Kashmiri Pandit himself), disputed the facts of the film and asked with some anguish why a film that bore such scrupulous witness to the suffering of Kashmiri Muslims couldn’t find a single Pandit to talk to. Kak stood his ground; he acknowledged the tragedy of the Pandits, but insisted upon his right as a film-maker to tell his story in the way he thought fit. He was not, he said, making an encyclopedic film on Kashmir, but a personal one.
Similarly, the role of Pakistan in stoking the insurgency isn’t directly addressed by the film; it happens offstage. There are references to foreign militants but they occur in passing. The film insists that the viewer, especially the Indian viewer, should attend to its central truth before reaching for nuance or qualification, and the truth is this: the Indian state occupies Kashmir against the will of its inhabitants and is primarily responsible for the violence and death that follow from the occupation. Not to acknowledge this, the film suggests, is to remain in an indefensible state of denial.
After the screening and the question-and-answer session that followed, the conversation touched upon the film’s formal qualities and defects, but finally settled into a debate about the film’s ‘simplifications’. The film’s critics thought that it had collapsed several political projects into one struggle for azadi. It had, by default, fore-grounded the ‘jihadi’ definition of the struggle for self-determination. Its treatment of the Kashmiri Pandit predicament was criticized as tokenism, naïveté, even self-hatred.
In the middle of all this, a friend observed that in Iraq, a country of twenty five million people, the American army of occupation was a hundred and fifty thousand strong. In Kashmir, a place with a third of Iraq’s population, the military presence was four-and-a-half times as large. It’s the kind of comparison that I’m generally hard-wired to reject, because it seems so facile, so blithely heedless of time, place and context, but with the film still buzzing in my head and arguments about it swirling around me, it seemed plausible. Someone made the point that the film was wrong-headed in simplifying the Indian presence into an occupation because Kashmir had had democratic governments constituted by monitored elections for years. Didn’t those governments count for something' This suddenly sounded quite a lot like American arguments about the democratic legitimacy of the present Iraqi government. Then I heard myself argue that not all the killing in the Valley had been done by security forces: some of it, surely, was the handiwork of jihadis, whose conception of freedom was theocratic tyranny. Even as I made the argument, it seemed to bear a family resemblance to Dick Cheney’s argument that those who argued for American withdrawal were, in fact, endorsing a ‘free’ state based on fundamentalist prescriptions.
A day afterwards, as I try to reconstruct the discussion from memory, the correspondences between the American occupation of Iraq (which I unequivocally condemn) and the Indian ‘presence’ in Kashmir (about which I am more ambivalent) don’t seem as compelling as they did immediately after the film. But the scale of the military presence, the tens of thousands dead, the justificatory arguments in the two cases seem uncomfortably similar. An account of the struggle for azadi that skates over the purge of the Pandits or the role of Pakistan must invite scepticism, but so must an intellectual position that makes an acknowledgement of the suffering of Kashmiri Muslims contingent upon equal time for Pandits. Good documentaries don’t necessarily change your mind; they do, however, prompt you to take your opinions out of mothballs and give them an airing. Jashn-e-Azadi is that sort of a film.