The Kashmir Files Reflection: Tolerance at the cost of truth destroys both
The Kashmir Files movie has shocked and enraged Indians — not only because such a horrifying ethnic cleansing occurred in our own country just a few decades ago, but also because the systematic brutality was allowed and concealed. Worse still, the reality was distorted by a nefarious nexus of corrupt politicians, inept law enforcers, negligent media and complicit intellectuals. The movie’s lack of any superhuman stunts makes the story all the more human and hard-hitting, thereby driving home the reality, gravity and brutality of events that happened to people just like us. Actually, such horrors have happened to people just like us, not just once but on many occasions across the world — given that extremist violence has been and continues to be a significant threat to humanity.
One criticism of the movie in some circles is that it may lead to stereotyping of all Muslims as fanatics, extremists or even terrorists. While that is a valid concern, how can that concern be actually addressed? By concealing the truth?
With regards to the issue underlying the Kashmir files, let’s consider some of the undeniable facts:
● A massive exodus of Kashmiri Hindus happened,
● The exodus was caused by an ethnic cleansing (irrespective of the exact number of people who were killed),
● The Kashmiri Hindus lived for a long time as refugees in desolate and even desperate conditions.
● In India’s mainstream media, the story of their tragedy and trauma remained untold and worse still was often downplayed, denied or even distorted.
Shouldn’t the telling of their experience be a valid concern, even a vital concern? While more may need to be done to avoid negative stereotyping of Muslims, at least something has been done by Bollywood — in fact, entire movies like My name is Khan have been dedicated to this theme. But what has been done to highlight, or even convey, the agony of the Kashmiri Hindus, who were the victims of the ethnic cleansing.
Sacrificing truth for tolerance’s sake?
Once it’s recognized that the truth was concealed, let’s analyze why this might have been done. There could be broadly three reasons:
● Malevolence: The people involved were evil and wanted to harm others or
● Incompetence: Those people just didn’t have the abilities or skills to do the right thing
● Ignorance: Those people didn’t know what was the right thing to do and they did what they thought was right, even if it wasn’t
Let’s consider which of these explanations apply to the denial of the plight of the Kashmiri Hindus. While a few may be malevolent and some may be incompetent, let’s adopt a spirit of charity and assume that they were largely ignorant: they genuinely thought that concealing the truth was the best way to avoid communal violence in India and even in the world at large.
Of course, the way the leftist intellectuals went about concealing the truth was not at all incompetent. The history was not just concealed but also distorted. The movie itself depicts the magnitude of the distortion: a young man whose own parents were killed in the ethnic cleansing thought that they died in just an accident — and he grew up to believe, or rather was (mis)educated to believe that the murderers of his family were actually freedom fighters, justified in the use of violence. In fact, a major plotline in the movie is his confusion and tension about what actually happened. And what resolved the tension? The truth; the carefully documented factual reports about events — the documentation is the basis of the movie’s name.
Depending on how history is told, victims may end up being remembered as the victimizers or at least as those who brought the victimization on themselves. And victimizers may end up being remembered as people who were wronged and who were justified in doing what they did. For example, during the Holocaust, Hitler’s propaganda machinery made many non-Nazi Germans believe that the Jews deserved whatever was being done to them — and that the Nazis were not just righteous in their actions but also glorious.
Thus, the attempt to conceal the truth, for whatever reason, ends up in the situation of ‘blaming the victim’ — making the victim believe that their actions were the cause of their victimization, not the victimizer’s vile actions. When ‘blaming the victim’ is used to explain away crimes such as an assault on a woman, the mainstream modern worldview finds it reprehensible; how much more reprehensible is it when an entire community is subjected to something similar?
The cause of intolerance
Intolerance, especially in the form of extremist ideology, is the enemy of humanity — it can attack humanity through many channels, be it through secular ideologies such as communism that left the USSR and China with a hundred million corpses or through religious ideologies such as Islamic extremism. Whichever be the channel through which extremism seeks to divide and destroy humanity, the point is that extremism needs to be curbed and countered.
Significantly, the Bhagavad-gita doesn’t categorize people based on religious divisions, certainly not religious designations as we see them today. It categorizes people based on behavioral and psychological characteristics into three modes: sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance). Sattva is characterized by reflection before action, rajas by action before reflection and tamas by inaction or indiscriminately destructive action. These three modes exist in everyone, though their relative percentage varies from person to person. Depending on which mode is prominent in a person, that person is said to be in sattva, rajas or tamas.
Extremist violence is an especially toxic example of tamas. And one major reason for such violence is ignorance — or more specifically, in the language of the Bhagavad-gita, knowledge in the mode of ignorance (18.22). This paradoxical term underscores the situation where a person acquires knowledge in such a way that their increased knowledge simply reinforces their ignorance instead of removing their ignorance. How might this happen? When a person gains knowledge about only one particular point in a complex situation, they think they know what happened, but they only end up neglecting or rejecting other pertinent points — and rejecting it self-righteously or even arrogantly.
Consider a relatively innocuous example of such knowledge in the mode of ignorance. Suppose a child wants a toy, but his parents don’t get it — and the child concludes, “My parents don’t love me.” There could be a dozen other reasons why the parents didn’t get that toy for the child, maybe because the family needed other things urgently at that time. But the more the child sees other things being bought, the more the child’s knowledge ‘grows’ and reinforces his ignorant inference that his parents don’t love him.
A far more dangerous example of such knowledge in the mode of ignorance is seen in the mainstream strategy for dealing with extremism: its focus on Islamophobia instead of on Islamic extremism. Yes, it’s true that some people are stereotyped negatively in some parts of the world because they belong to a particular community. But does that mean the only reason for such stereotyping is that all of society is filled with judgmental people who are prejudiced against that community? And is the solution to such prejudice denying the acts of intolerance by any member of that community? Not at all, the actual solution is preventing acts of intolerance. When the fire is extinguished, the smoke will automatically go away. When the fire of Islamic extremism is dealt with firmly, the smoke of Islamophobia will automatically go away.
Tolerating intolerance spreads intolerance
Here, an argument is often advanced: “But the extremists are a tiny fringe. Why label an entire community negatively?” Agreed; considering that every fourth person in the world today is a Muslim, it’s entirely unreasonable to claim that every Muslim is an extremist — if they were, the world would be a far worse place. Still, there are several places in the world where the extremists are not the fringe; they are the mainstream. And the fringe can become mainstream in no time. As the Kashmir Files movie shows, violent terrorists were abetted by neighbors who turned informers, by priests who turned rationalizers and by housewives who actively aided in consuming, diverting or destroying the ration meant for the Hindu refugees, thereby starving them and compelling them to flee.
Extremism is like a cancer — if untreated, it can rapidly spread from the fringe of society to segments of society that we would normally never associate with extremism: segments such as children who are indoctrinated into becoming suicide bombers. Can the spread of such cancer be fostered by denying the truth — in this case, the truth of horrendous incidents of intolerance justified in the name of Islam? Not at all; it’s like arguing that cancer can be treated by denying its existence — that’s a suicidal strategy. To treat cancer, the exact areas where cancer exists have to be determined and those parts need to be rigorously treated while protecting and promoting the overall health of the rest of the body. Similarly, the key to fostering tolerance is twofold: disempower the intolerant and empower the tolerant. Neither of these is aided by concealing the actions of the intolerant. Such concealment takes away the impetus for the tolerant to stand up against the intolerant. If moderate Muslims don’t know what extremist Muslims have done — if they are taught to believe that allegations of extremism arise not from a grain of truth but from a smog of prejudice — then they will never even feel the need to stand up against extremists. And if extremists are allowed to get away with their violent actions, that will only embolden them further. Over time, such extremists will turn against people of their own faith, if those people disagree with them. Eventually, the moderates will become silenced and even co-opted in the cause of the extremists. Thus, concealing the truth about intolerance actually ends up empowering the intolerant and disempowering the tolerant. The sobering reality is that covering up intolerance by a group doesn’t help anyone — not even members of that very group. Indeed, tolerating intolerance spreads intolerance.
Consider several countries where Islamic extremists have significant political influence, if not absolute power. Such countries are characterized by persecution of not just non-Muslim faiths, but even Muslim denominations that differ from the ruling dispensation. Thus, Sunni Muslims are targeted in Shia Iran. The Ahmadiyya Muslims in pre-independence India chose to support the partition of the country and went to Pakistan. But there they are persecuted by mainstream Muslims — and many of them have sought and found refuge in India.
While much is made about Hindu-Muslim violence in India, the fact is that apart from a a few incidents of widespread riots, overall Muslims are far safer in India than in other parts of the world, including even in Islamic theocratic states. Though India has among the largest Muslim populations in the world, Shia-Sunni violence in India is almost non-existent.
The truth that can foster tolerance
It is the recording and repeating of the truth that is essential for empowering the tolerant and disempowering the intolerant.
How can the tolerant be empowered? By ensuring that they are exposed fully and frankly to the horrors of intolerance. Otherwise, they will not have sufficient impetus to resist and reject intolerance.
How can the intolerant be disempowered? By taking the existence and occurrence of intolerance seriously, not whitewashing or rationalizing it. And a part of taking intolerance seriously is taking into account the self-professed motivations of the intolerant. While their intolerance may have many causes including socio-economic and geopolitical, those causes alone don’t need to lead to extremist violence. The Kashmiri Hindus had sufficient socio-economic and geopolitical reasons to take to violence; they didn’t; instead, they sought education, employment and made a new life for themselves in other parts of the world. A large number of disaffected Kashmiri Muslims, whose plight certainly was not worse than that of the refugee Kashmiri Hindus, chose violence. If we want to get a full picture of why they chose this course of action, we need to consider what they themselves considered as a primary justification for violence. And their justification was religion.
The point is not to condemn a particular religion; the point is to recognize that at this particular point in history, extremism is expressing itself especially virulently through a specific channel, viz, namely Islamic extremism. The world’s failure to recognize Nazi intolerance darkened human history with the Holocaust; do we want that horrendous history to be repeated? It is the moral responsibility of everyone, whatever be their religion, to prevent Islam from being taken over by Islamic extremists. Rather than playing games with the truth in the vain hope that appeasement will pacify the intolerance, we need to see that truth is the precondition for tolerance.
To foster tolerance grounded in truth, we need to deal with both the channel and the source of intolerance. What does dealing with the channel of intolerance mean? It means recognizing where, when and how intolerance appears, and spreading awareness of such intolerance so that resistance to it can be galvanized. What does dealing with the source of intolerance mean? It means recognizing that intolerance arises frequently from an elitist, exclusivist mentality that derides, dehumanizes, demonizes and finally destroys others who don’t share that mentality.
The channel of intolerance can be dealt with by documenting historical truths about the emergence of intolerance. The source of intolerance can be dealt with by assimilating spiritual truths that can help counter an exclusivist mindset.
The two major religions of the world — Christianity and Islam — are characterized, at least in their mainstream versions, by an exclusivist ethos: “Our way is the only way.” This ethos doesn’t mean that everyone following that religion has an exclusivist attitude; some or even many practitioners of that religion may well be broad-minded as individuals. Nonetheless, exclusivism can act as a fertile breeding ground for extremism; once someone has come to believe, “Those who don’t follow my path are doomed”, they may well be manipulated by power-hungry leaders into believing, “Those who don’t follow our path can be destroyed or even should be destroyed.” This degeneration from exclusivism to extremism is a significant cause of most of the violence that the world has seen in the name of religion. In the medieval times, the Crusades were fought between Christianity and Islam. Even today, countries like Lebanon and Nigeria are witnessing inter-religious violence between these two exclusivist religions.
How can such exclusivism be countered? By fostering a more inclusivist ethos. One time-tested source of such inclusivism is Vedic wisdom. This ethos is embodied in the well-known aphorism: ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti “There is but one truth, though it is known by different names.” (Rg Veda 1.164.46) Echoing that theme, the Gita too offers an inclusive worldview which acknowledges the value and validity of different paths for different people (04.11). And a foundational aspect of this worldview is stressing the shared spirituality that defines our identity. The Gita explains that at our core, we all are spiritual beings. This understanding can uproot prejudice and foster an equal vision toward everyone (05.18). This equal vision is not a naive denial of the differences between people and their choices, be they secular or religions — it is a mature acknowledgement that the things that draw us apart are less defining than the things that draw us together. To bring about that unity and harmony, the forces that unite us need to be strengthened and the forces that divide us need to be weakened. In terms of the modes, this means sattva needs to be strengthened in individual human hearts and people in whom sattva is already strong need to be empowered. Sattva is manifest in moderation. If moderates from various paths can come together to have candid discussions and formulate tangible solutions, then that collaboration can be the strongest insurance against intolerance. Who knows, many who are presently intolerant may rise from tamas to sattva and become moderates. If not, they will at least be exposed and empowered, thereby substantially decreasing their capacity to spread their toxic influence to the rest of society. Over time, they will lose both their deadly powers: the power to destroy the targets of their intolerance and the power to corrupt the targets of their radicalization.
The world needs such an inclusive ethos if it is to challenge and counter extremism. The truth-telling that has begun with the Kashmir Files movie needs to extend to the spiritual wisdom that made Kashmir and India at large the arena for a rich and inclusive culture.