The saga of Kashmir and its people over the last 60 years has been a slowly unfolding tragedy with seemingly no end in sight. One of the modern world's longest standing territorial disputes, rivaled in significance and visibility probably only by the Palestine conflict, Kashmir has been at the centre of the rivalry between India and Pakistan, with China thrown in for good measure. So much has been said and written about the dispute from many different and often conflicting perspectives, that the issue needs no introduction.
Lost amidst the cacophony of claims and counter-claims by the different stakeholders is the voice of the common man in Kashmir. As a people, they have grown weary from a long succession of betrayal, manipulation and apathy, from every conceivable quarter, bet it the Indian state, the Pakistanis or the international community. After three bloody wars between India and Pakistan, and in the backdrop of a persistent counter-insurgency campaign by the Indian state against armed militants, the ordinary Kashmiri is being held hostage by a violence that has seen no respite for decades.
While there have been a slew of documentaries depicting the situation in Kashmir in black and white, the mainstream media hasn't been as forthcoming or open in their coverage of the issue. In the case of Indian film industry, the situation is even worse. Relations between Bollywood and Kashmir go way back, with its vibrant locales providing the perfect backdrop for romantic Hindi films in the '60s and '70s. But the militancy and the upsurge of violence in the late 1980s and '90s changed all that. Since then, all that the Indian moviegoer gets to see about Kashmir are patriotic movies that depict the superstars as heroic officers of the Indian military saving a grateful populace from the clutches of evil terrorists, while mouthing ham-handed and patriotic dialogues.
A movie, 'Harud' (literally 'autumn'), the first directorial venture by seasoned actor Aamir Bashir, portrays the real Kashmir. Shying away from the popular movie clichés surrounding his home state, the director attempts to show us the story of an ordinary Kashmiri family caught between the militancy and the military. This is a situation that is all too familiar to the average Kashmiri, one that the rest of the world seems to be blissfully unaware of.
The most visible symbol of a state for the ordinary citizen in a democracy is probably the elected officials, or bureaucrats, or at the worst, the police. But for generations of Kashmiris in Indian administered regions, it has been the Indian military. Having a constant and overwhelming military presence in one's life is hard enough. This is compounded by the presence of draconian legislation in the form of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, which grants extra-legal powers and virtual immunity from prosecution to armed forces personnel.
The outbreak of violent militancy in the valley increased the role and powers in the hands of the Indian army and paramilitary forces in Kashmir. Harud depicts the plight of the Kashmiris, especially the youth, caught between the army and the militants. The allegations of human rights abuses by the Indian army and paramilitary forces in the valley are legion, ranging from mass murder, rape, encounter killings, systemic use of torture, and forced disappearances.
Statistics released by international human rights agencies reveal a damning picture. Unmarked graves have been found at 38 locations, accounting for over 2,700 unidentified bodies. There have been hundreds of instances of reported rape by security forces, including the shocking Kunan Posh Pora incident in 1991, where at least 53 women from a single village were gang raped by soldiers in one night.
It is hard to imagine life in such a conflict region. Sources estimate the Indian troop presence in the state at close to 600,000. That is equal to a ratio of 1 soldier for every 20 civilians, the highest soldier to civilian ratio in the world. While the level of violence and insurgency has come down from its peak in the 1990s, the troop levels are still kept high. From a peak of 4,500 militancy related fatalities in 2001, death toll due to such violence has been drastically reduced over the years. Yet the Indian government and the army have been resolutely stonewalling any attempts to reduce troop levels and repeal the AFSPA, citing Pakistan's continued support of cross-border terrorism as an excuse.
In the backdrop of all this, Harud comes across as a genuine attempt to show what had been hitherto unseen and unheard, to India and to the world. Refusing to focus on the celebrated scenic beauty of Kashmir that we readily associate with the place, Bashir focuses on the everyday urban life in the region, zooming in on the life of the people. The seething anger is clearly visible; the anger at the disappearance of loved ones; the frustration about being forced to keep things suppressed; the very same things that fueled protests by young people against the Indian state and security forces in recent times.
Terrorism is a great evil that needs to be purged. But what do you do when states resort to terrorism? The actions of governments in the countries that were mired in political turmoil during 'Arab Spring', and what we see happening in Syria now, can be legitimately termed as acts of terror by a state against the people.
While such acts invite condemnation by the international community, it is ironic to note that the slow grinding up of human rights and liberties of the Kashmiri people over the last couple of decades has not evoked the same response. The presence of religious terrorism and many conflicting voices has complicated the issue, one feels. Nobody is denying the evil that can be perpetuated by such extreme ideologies. But does that give one the justification to hold an entire population as prisoners?
The Arabs had to endure decades of authoritarian rule before they decided to take their destiny into their own hands. But here, a people have been caught in the rivalry between two nations, one of them the world's biggest democracy. What hope do these people have of justice and redemption, when caught in the machinations of bigger powers?
Harud may not be that great a movie, when it comes to the finer points of auteur's craft. But it is an unsettling movie, filled with uncomfortable facts and unpalatable truths. For its delicate handling of such a volatile subject, it demands respect. As a platform to raise awareness about the plight of Kashmiris, one hopes that Harud sets a precedent and standard for future endeavors in this field.