The only time I went to Kashmir was when I was six or seven years old. Maybe younger. So I only have the most impressionistic memories of it - a few sounds, smells, flashes of events. Water being heated outside and the resinous smell of pine cones; a wheel stuck in sludge and all of us tense because of the flight we might miss; a road not seen in a sudden fog and the weariness of having to walk on not knowing where we were or how long it would take to get back. And after all this time, the question that one girl asked: 'Where are you from? Are you from India?'
While introducing his film Jashn-e-Azadi, Sanjay Kak said, "In 2003 I went to Kashmir after 14 years. I was disturbed by what I saw and also by how much I did not know. Kashmir is not invisible but it is totally hidden."
This sense of a place that is elusive is one that strikes you most as the film begins, with shots of the water reflecting denuded trees in winter, a tall pole on which a raven sits, and the illusion of inversion and the world turned on its head. Boats come in and out of focus and nothing is clear. We remember this sequence not only because of the unsettling images but because in all the poetry that punctuates the film, mirrors, reflection and the act of seeing play an important part.
Days away as we are from the 60th year of India's independence, asking questions about what freedom means or whose freedom we are talking about seems almost redundant. We are loud in our glee, although if we were to be questioned closely we would be hard put to it to remember the narrative of our independence.
Watching this film reminds us that not everyone feels a part of this triumphant parade of India's freedom. The Independence Day 'celebrations' of 2005 shown in the film are of a bleakly empty square, with only a few army officers and plenty of flags. If there are people, they have stayed firmly indoors and want no part of the ceremony of raising flags and releasing doves. As the film begins, we are immediately disturbed by how much we cannot see.
But soon enough many things become clear. We know in a very short time that the presence of the army, of violence and of sudden eruptions of conflict is pervasive. Everywhere there are guns, everywhere people are stopped, checked and can be arrested or taken away.
Indeed the whole film is a litany of grief, fear and suspicion: every story is one of disappearance, loss, trauma, nightmares, sudden arrests and torture. In every small town and village, as the film follows the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which is conducting a first-of-its- kind survey of lives lost, stories are told of young men who have given up their livelihood to join the insurgency; who have continued with their lives but have been taken away for questioning and have never appeared; of bodies that have been found in forests, unidentified and unclaimed. One village had more than 400 orphans. A psychiatric clinic had hundreds of people waiting outside - most of them suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The film makes no historical points: very briefly, through titles, it outlines the position of Kashmir before and after India's Independence - touching significantly on the land reforms that followed, where every peasant and every landless person was given lan - and the disenchantment in the late '80s that led to the armed insurgency. No reasons are given for why the insurgency turned militant; instead the film examines the idea of martyrdom as one meaning not only 'sacrifice' but also an 'act of witnessing'.
At every funeral of militant leaders, or of young men, hoards of people chant and demand freedom. These cries for freedom are so insistent through the film that the irony of an election where only 9% of the population in one constituency come to cast their votes is not only stark, but bitter. In contrast, an important sequence shows Yasin Malik, who is collecting signatures, speak eloquently about the right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination. The arguments he makes sound like the ones leaders might have made during the 1940s, when the struggle was against the British.
But hidden at the edges of this narrative is the one of the Kashmiri Pundits who fled the valley from the late 80's onward. In this 2 1/2 hour film, the issue comes up just before the intermission. Kak calls up a Kashmiri pundit, a poet, who has chosen to remain. He wants to hear a poem the poet has written, and in the midst of the recitation, the call is cut off. The intermission begins and by the time it is over, there's a discomfort, a feeling of a narrative interrupted; it can't but be deliberate. When the film resumes, we don't immediately return to the question fo the Kashmiri pundits, but when we do, Kak calls the poet again, who recites the entire poem and says that though his family has left for Delhi, he has chosen to remian, though he remians in strict retirement, seeing nobody and having nothing to do with the world and all its violence.
A few minutes more in the sum total of the engagement with the issue of Kashmiri pundits. If one is inclined to be charitable, this could be interpreted as a narrative of the valley and those who live in it. But it is impossible to talk about choice, or volition with any sincerity, because the reasons why one entire religious community felt it had to leave is never examined. This is important, because though it is not an omission, it has caused every screening to be either interrupted, disrupted or disallowed on the strength of its supposed bias against the Kashmiri pundits.
When Kak was asked about this, he said that he wanted to talk about Kashmir beyond the three issues of Pakistan/India, Islamic militancy and the exodus of the pundits. To the extent that he limits himself to the narratives of those who remain, it is an eloquent narrative. But the film raises the inevitable question about the power that the majority necessarily arrogates to itself.
Everywhere in the film, is the question of majority: the large number of insurgents in the '80s against the larger might of the Indian army; the majority Muslim population versus the minority Hindu population that left; the 700-800 odd (invisible) insurgents against the overpowering presence of the Army now.
But it would be a mistake to range yourself on any one side of these binaries because how you experience majority depends on where you are. This becomes obvious when you consider that historically Kashmir was ruled for centuries by a Hindu minority. And when you consider the presence in the valley in the last few years, of the tourists.
Some of the most shocking images in the films are of the tourists, as they pose with vile plastic flowers, in a Republic Day imitation of an 'ethnic costume'. Kashmiri photographers dress these tourists up and photograph them, take them on sled rides in the snow and listen as the men rave about this 'paradise on earth' that 'these stupid people have ruined'. With every shot - as a person belonging to the majority, smug India, where you have never had to question the term 'Indian' or 'freedom' - you cringe as you watch.
And then, near the end of the film, tourists pose with flowers until some army men arrive. Then, taking advantage of their presence, some young ladies start to pose with guns. One girl wears a camouflage scarf over her head and brandishes a gun. This is a shocking image, more deeply shocking, even, than the men on the sled who throw their hands out in ownership of the valley. This is shocking because this indicates not only a sense of entitlement that the average Indian feels, but the ease with which s/he feels an opposite perspective can be contained or silenced with a legitimised military presence. Insurgency born out of a call for freedom by the Kashmiri is unacceptable, but an Army presence enforcing India's right to Kashmir is.
In these circumstances, the idea of majority needs to be redefined not by the parameters of location, but by entitlement. Tourists see what they want to see and the Kashmiris aid them in their distorted vision for either reasons of economic necessity or because generating a pleasant fiction is safer or makes them less visible. But such an experience of ownership is suspect and deeply discomforting.
The other disturbing issue is of the Army on its PR campaigns: when they distribute radios to villagers, who accept them and the snacks provided afterwards in silence and with their heads down; or the children in an orphange who sing 'Sare Jahaan Se Achcha' while officers smile and pat them on their heads.
Kak highlights the irony of these events by having on the soundtrack the song from the film, Leader, playing over images of flag hoistings and trucks moving in city squares and mountainous road: 'Apni azadi ko hum hargiz mita sakte nahin. Sar kata sakte hain lekin sar jhuka sakte nahin' Whose voice are we hearing? India's? The people of Kashmir? When we ask for peace, why do we remember bloodthirsty songs that celebrate martyrdom?
The use of this song would be heavy-handed irony were it not that it forces these questions on us. We have to ask, as 60 years of India's Independence approaches, how people experience freedom. Who speaks and on whose behalf? What is the cost of that Independence won 60 years ago and who will pay and for how long?
PS: This was the screening I couldn't talk about until after it was over for security reasons. Talima Nasreen had been attacked just the day before and the police would have been glad of any excuse to stop the screening of any film they were told was controversial. This was why I did not announce it on the blog, the reason why it was an invitation only event, and why only about 20 people saw the film.
The irony is not lost on me. We ought to have publicised it widely and used the opportunity to bring up the issue of freedom of expression and censorship. Sometimes the censorship we practise on ourselves is more pernicious because of its self-serving logic (I'd rather that 20 people saw it than that 50 came and couldn't.) Mea culpa.