In 1985, Ajay Raina moved to Mumbai from Srinagar, where he had been born, raised and educated. Two years later, he was at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, training to be a director. His ambition was to make films in Kashmiri and about Kashmir. He had even obtained the rights to a short story that he hoped to turn into a feature.
In 1989, Raina’s brother and sister-in-law landed up at his college hostel. Over the next several months, the rest of his family followed suit. They were among the tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits fleeing home.
One of the tragic consequences of the movement for Kashmiri self-determination was the targeting of Kashmiri Hindus, a minority group in a Muslim-majority state. Many of them fled never to return home or even being able to visit the Valley for fear of being attacked. A spate of recent killings of the Kashmiri Pandits who remain in the Valley has reiterated their continued vulnerability.
For Ajay Raina, 1989 and 1990 were the defining years. “That was my first encounter with the idea of the exodus,” Rania told Scroll.in. “I didn’t have to leave myself, but my issue was that I couldn’t go back. All those [filmmaking] plans fell away.”
Raina became a committed record keeper of his community’s brutal uprooting. He has examined the crisis faced by Kashmiri Pandits in his first documentary, Tell Them ‘The Tree They Had Planted Has Now Grown’, as well as his latest film, Moute’e Rang. Raina is also a co-founder of Kashmir Oral History Project, which seeks to archive the testimonies of Kashmiris across faiths since 1990.
“The exodus was because Hindus believed Azadi/Pakistan as a fait accompli,” Raina said, referring to the aim of some local militant groups to merge the territory with Pakistan. “The Indian state had collapsed completely in Kashmir in early 1990. We preferred Hindu-majority India as was the case with Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab and Sind in 1947. It was a repetition of 1947 with the Hindus of Kashmir in 1990. Exodus was a pragmatic decision on the part of a large section of the Hindu community.”
In the moving Tell Them ‘The Tree They Had Planted Has Now Grown’, made in 2001, Raina returned to Kashmir for the first time in 11 years. He found abandoned homes of Kashmiri Pandits (including his own), a community living in fear and a state of denial among Kashmiri Muslims in confronting the scale of the forced exile.
Moute’e Rang loops back to Raina’s first film. The Kashmiri-language title means “At the Moment of Death”.
One of the film’s key themes is how the sundering of ties with Kashmir has led to a crisis of religious identity among Kashmiri Pandits. The ones who fled are unable to revisit their traditional places of worship and pilgrimage spots. The ones who have stayed behind find it almost impossible to celebrate festivals openly or hire priests to carry out important rituals.
Where there were once temples, there are now desecrated ruins, Raina finds. Sacred sites are mere heaps of stones, stripped of their symbolic meaning. Others have been converted into mosques.
Raina had been collecting stories for the oral history project in 2012 when he made contact with Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti. Tickoo and a bunch of his friends had been trekking across Kashmir since 2006, visiting temples and holy springs and filming their travels. Raina sought permission to use their videos and shot his own footage over visits to Kashmir between 2012 and 2018. In the film, Tickoo also talks about the massacres of Kashmiri Pandits over the years.
“The film arose out of the need to do justice to Sanjay for telling me his story,” Raina said. “The film also came at a time when lots of horrible things were happening to Muslims in India. I see a lot of stories of victimhood. I feel bad about it, I cannot do anything about it, but then I also hear echoes of my own story. There was the fear that this wasn’t the right time to talk about it, but you can’t hold someone else’s story hostage to whatever is happening.”
Another trigger for Moute’e Rang was Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, a fictionalised account of the treatment of Kashmiri Pandits in 1989 and 1990. Endorsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and championed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the film is one of 2022’s biggest box office successes.
“The truth is there, which Vivek used as propaganda for a certain vicious ideology,” Raina observed. “Combining actual events into propaganda for hate got to me. I thought, let me make an objectively truthful film about what actually happened.”
Unlike The Kashmir Files, Raina’s own films are observational and analytical rather than strident. “I just want to tell a story – this idea of an ideology based on hating the other is very repugnant to me,” he said. “You cannot kill a Muslim in India to avenge something that happened in Kashmir.”
Raina wrote a lengthy essay on The Kashmir Files for the Newslaundry website.
“The only people, it seems, for whom the film is a revelation are those who should have known this truth in far greater detail than the rest of us; the ones who have subjugated the entire philosophy of their life to a single purpose – to hate Muslims,” Raina writes. “The other kind of people for whom this film is a revelation are those who have very conveniently hidden themselves from the truth of the exodus, for fear of seeing themselves in the mirror as perpetrators or their sympathisers.”
In the essay, Raina also critiques the tendency to underplay the scale of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus.
“The people left behind in the Valley have simply been forgotten,” Raina writes. “The perpetrators of heinous crimes against us are still roaming free. No justice has been meted to the criminals. As these wounds continue to fester, the majority of the Muslims of Kashmir remain more or less in denial of the terrible tragedy that befell us.”
For Raina, filmmaking is an act of asserting and reclaiming his identity as a Kashmiri Pandit.
“Kashmir is a wound,” he said. “It’s also part of your humiliation that you cannot go back to your own home. But I don’t like the idea that when people are threatened, the only thing they think about is running away. I want people to think of ways to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. It’s also about the coming generations. If the wounds remain unhealed, there will be revenge.”
Moute’e Rang will be screened at the National Film Archive of India in Pune on August 5, which happens to be Raina’s 59th birthday as well as the third anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370. The provision in the Indian Constitution that conferred special status on the state of Jammu and Kashmir in order to protect its autonomy was revoked in 2019. The revocation has been followed by a new round of violence and the suspension of political rights.
Raina, who teaches filmmaking and cinema appreciation at FLAME University in Pune, said he was ambivalent about Article 370. “The internal effect of 370 on minorities in Jammu and Ladakh was not very promising,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean taking it away was correct. Article 370 was an assurance given by the government of India. I don’t know how democratic it was to remove it and arrest the leadership of Kashmir, how correct it was, legally and morally.”
One possible reading of Moute’e Rang is the damage that majoritarian politics can wreak on a minority community. In the film, a Kashmiri Pandit man says that living in the Valley is being like “a woman being groped in a crowded bus”.
“This give and take between the majority and the minority in a violent form has always been there,” Raina said. “But Kashmir happened before my eyes. When you see an entire population and a culture on the brink of extinction, I think it’s a historical moment. You need to give expression to this.”
Raina’s documentaries have drawn strong responses from both the Left and the Right, he said, with neither side satisfied with his exploration of what he regards as a neglected aspect of the Kashmir conflict.
“I don’t want to belong to the Right, I don’t want them to own my films, though they have tried,” Raina said. “I wanted my films to be watched by people who call themselves progressives. But even they have kept their distance from me. I fall into the trap of being called a Leftist by lots of people in Kashmir, while others feel I may be Right-wing. My work has been denied by the people I have been more comfortable with and whose ideas I share.”
The one film of his that did strike a chord with liberals, he recalled, was 2011’s Apour Ti Yapor. Na Jang Na Aman. Yeti Chu Talukpeth, about villages in Kashmir that lie on either side of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. In 2005, Raina also made Wapsi, which examines the legacy of Partition through visits by Indians and Pakistanis to each other’s countries.
“People who have liked Apour Ti Yapor have never asked to see my earlier films,” Raina said. “I have tested people with this – I have sent them both the films. They react to the film [Apour Ti Yapor] that talks about Azadi in an understanding way, but they have not invited me to screen my earlier film, which, I feel, was a better film. I didn’t feel wrenched making my films about Kashmir. What troubled me more was the reception the films should have had but did not get.”