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From CAA to Kashmir Files—Who is Afraid of Faiz?

Kashmir, a name seldom uttered in the Indian media, and never without a real estate contractor’s lustful gaze, is the talk of the country.
From CAA to Kashmir Files—Who is Afraid of Faiz?

Vivek Agnihotri’s magnum opus, The Kashmir Files, has been received alarmingly well by a large section of Indians. The film features the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in the late 1980s amidst communal tension and violence. The director claims that the Pandits were wilfully ignored by a ‘Left-liberal lobby’ that controls the media because the loss of the homes and memories of a Hindu community does not fit the secular narrative. Several prominent individuals have applauded the film for its supposed truth-telling, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who recommended watching it. Of course, Agnihotri reiterated support for Modi, and the film was declared tax-free in various BJP-ruled states.

Multiple fact-checkers, analysts, historians and others whom Agnihotri and his kin comfortably bracket as “left-liberals” have debunked the claims of the director and lovers of this film. Scholars (including from the Kashmiri Pandit community) have written at length about the exodus right from the time it happened. “I grew up in a family where this rage and trauma were visceral,” wrote Nishita Trisal in 2019 after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked. She went on, “This sense of loss and erasure is precisely what Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist forces, have capitalised on since 1989. Instead of treating Kashmir as a political matter, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have turned it primarily into a communal and economic one. They have stoked Kashmiri Pandits’s felt experience of injustice by pitting Pandit and Muslim suffering against each other.”

It doesn’t help those who have admired the film that the Prime Minister’s party, the BJP, had backed the VP Singh government in power during the exodus. Those who view their flight from their homes and memories with concern and compassion don’t do one thing the film does dangerously well—scapegoat the Muslim community and encourage blatant hostility towards them. As the Hindutva brigade sets about avenging the past in Kashmir and elsewhere, the film creates mythology to justify this hate. For instance, it harps on the term “genocide” in its promotions and dialogues. Agnihotri has been sharing artwork on social media that praises the film, which he calls “genocide art”.

It is indisputable The Kashmir Files is not motivated by an earnest desire to portray the Kashmiri Pandit exodus. It has a vindictive plan to help the government derive legitimacy among its supporters. Released in a climate of intense Islamophobia, with hijab-wearing students barred from writing their final exams and mobile apps came up that “auction” well-known independent Muslim women, it does nothing but propaganda. It betrays no respect for facts, engages in false equivalences and fails to draw distinctions between far-left guerrilla, garden variety liberal, and anyone in between who may be three inches to the left of the Prime Minister’s political spectrum.

In this vein, The Kashmir Files appropriates Pakistani Marxist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhengey (We Shall See), an iconic song popular among progressives of all persuasions. No surprise, it does so to project the song and those who sing it in poor light.

Hum Dekhengey—a Song of Resistance

Faiz wrote Hum Dekhenge in 1979 to affirm the hope among Pakistanis that oppression would end and freedom arrive. Faiz describes a future where the oppressed would gain respect and dignity, where tyrannical thrones would be razed. Here are some lines of the poem, translated from the Urdu by Jennifer Dubrow:

That day we have been promised

When mountains of tyranny and oppression

Will float away like cotton

And the earth will tremble and shake

under the feet of the oppressed

The sky will thunder and roar

on the heads of the arbitrators

False idols will be uprooted

from the Ka’ba of God’s earth

And we, the pure-hearted, those banished from

the sanctuary will be seated in places of honour.”

Faiz wrote this poem when the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq had assumed power in Pakistan. That is why its lines speak of uprooting false idols. Most people interpret it as a critique of Islamic fundamentalism taking hold over the country. The poem makes this clear in the concluding line:

Only the name of God shall remain

Who is both present and unseen

Who is both the observer and the perceived

On that day

The cry of “I am God!” will resound

The God that is in you and me

And the earth shall be ruled by those whom God created

The people, who are you and me.”

In the original Urdu, which uses the word Allah (God), this part of the poem contrasts rebellion with subversion. It is an attempt to reclaim god from the monopoly of fundamentalists for the homes of working people. As is typical of the best literature, the poem features Quranic allusions but uses them subversively.

Iqbal Bano, whose rendition of the verse is still the most popular, can be seen and heard singing Hum Dekhengey at the Faiz Mela before a large charged crowd that embellishes her voice with their cries of ‘Long Live Revolution’.

Much Ado Over a Song

Revolutionary slogans recently echoed in the people’s struggle against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, which, along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), effectively seeks to exclude Muslims from Indian citizenship. People did not accept a law that resembled Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, and hundreds of thousands across the country came out on the streets in protest. Famously, Shaheen Bagh in Delhi came to epitomise the energy and essence of those protests. There, across decades and an international border, people sang Hum Dekhengey in protest. Its translations started doing the rounds as, before police brutality and merciless media-led defamation, thousands of Shaheen Bhaghs sprang up around the country.

Research scholar Nehal Ahmed writes in his book ‘Nothing Will Be Forgotten’ “From Pakistan to India [Faiz’s poem] captured the oppressor’s anxieties and the confidence of the oppressed. People might forget the exact events that led to something, but the poem that emerges from that something and that pain remains eternal; it’s alive waiting to be reintegrated into the world through other images.”

The right-wing government’s supporters quickly objected to the song. At the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, some said the lines invoking Allah (‘Only the name of God shall remain’) are a nod to Islamic fundamentalism and, therefore, a threat to other religions. People knew this was a lie and sang Hum Dekhengey in revolutionary optimism.

The song that inspired so many to stand firm was debilitating for the bigoted regime. Its power is demonstrated in how Agnihotri chose it as an object around which to spin a caricature of Indian Left-progressive forces. In the scene accompanying the song, a couple of students perform Hum Dekhengey before a heated crowd of youngsters, as if spewing anti-national vitriol is their driving force. Occasionally, Azaadi (freedom) slogans are raised. The activist-singer Radhika Menon (Pallavi Joshi, who is married to Agnihotri in real life) blinks and stares malignantly, following the dictates of her character. The only role she has is to poison the educated youth against the country.

Ever since The Kashmir Files was released in theatres, cinema halls have turned into veritable battlefields, with Hindutva slogans raised like war-cries by the regime’s sympathisers. School-going children are being taken to view the film—evidently learning bigotry at an early age.

Along with its falsified data and out-of-context information, the lines about Allah from Hum Dekhengey have special significance for the film-makers. They amplify the existing petty misrepresentation of the verses by turning them into the prestige of the plot of a full-fledged hate movie.

The appropriation of the song has other facets. It ridicules the progressive cultural context in which Hum Dekhengey has an iconic status. Two, it attempts to hollow out the meaning of a song that has great significance to voicing dissent. The Kashmir Files version of Hum Dekhengey got close to 30 lakh views on YouTube. So, shorn of its historical significance and political context, the purpose of propaganda is fulfilled to a great extent.

The song is sung by Shahzad Ali, who previously lent his voice to films such as U-Turn and Sultan, and Salman Ali. This, too, is a CIA-type trick that seeks to neutralise the accusation that the film is filled with anti-Muslim vitriol. That is nothing new. Did not the US State Department often find African-American spokespersons to justify its racist policies?

Another myth the film expounds is of the ex-communist, chiefly involving a reactionary public figure playing a former leftist, now “wiser” for being on the Hindutva track.

Song of Hope

Faiz was no fundamentalist. He was arrested and exiled by fundamentalists who appropriated people’s beliefs, whom he criticised in the words that translate to “Only Allah’s name shall remain”. This Allah—God—is fundamentalist only in the interpretations arising from a violent ‘othering’ of Muslims to suit the ruling regime’s political project.

This February, during protests against the hijab ban in Karnataka, a Hindutva mob harassed a young woman student, demanding she chant their war-cry, “Jai Shri Ram”. She responded with “Allah-u-Akbar”. Many welcomed her bravery, while some lamented her choice of an Islamic phrase. With due apologies to Hannah Arendt, if one is attacked as a Muslim, must one not defend oneself as a Muslim? Amidst the spreading majoritarian oppression, there is still a confident resistance. The roar of money through propaganda films is challenged by those who gather in the streets and sing the revolutionary lines, “Only Allah’s name shall remain… the one that is you and me.”

The author is an independent journalist and researcher based in Bangalore. His research interests include political economy, media and literature. The views are personal.

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