A Hidden History: Toronto’s Kashmiri Pandits’ painful past
THE GREEN LINE
A HIDDEN HISTORY
TORONTO'S KASHMIRI PANDIT COMMUNITY REVISITS ITS PAINFUL PAST IN CONTROVERSIAL NEW MOVIE
Currently a Master of Journalism student at Toronto Metropolitan University. He lives in North York where he prays that the Eglinton Crosstown will eventually be completed.
May 27, 2022
Toronto is home to the most Kashmiri Pandits in Canada. Some in the diaspora say India's latest box office hit portrays their experience of forced migration for the first time ever.
The Kashmir Files depicts the forced migration and killing of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990 exodus, which forced thousands out of their homeland.
Nani Taploo is an elementary school teacher in Richmond Hill. She and her husband organized a free screening of The Kashmir Files for her community at York Cinemas in Richmond Hill on March 12.
Taploo moved to Toronto 27 years ago, in 1995, several years after the exodus.
For her, the film was personal.
"We [would] get some letters posted on our doors that [said], 'You have to leave or we will kill you.'" Taploo says.
Tika Lal Taploo, the uncle of Nani Taploo's husband, was a lawyer and community leader in Srinagar, Kashmir. He was one of the first people killed in the conflict.
"[He]...was [the] kind of person who would help lots of people," Nani Taploo recalls. "Just [a] few steps from his home, he was killed."
Taploo says that the wounds from that time are still present, but acknowledges that The Kashmir Files has had a “balming effect” on her community.
“Now the world knows it, so I don’t feel alone,” she explains.
"Coming to the
Toronto is now home to the majority of Canada's Kashmiri Pandit diaspora. But settling in Canada and growing their community took time.
When Hirdynath Nehru, a resident of the Beaches, arrived in Toronto in 1980, there were only 20 to 30 other Kashmiri Pandit families in the city.
"We started it as a cricket game," says Hirdynath Nehru, now 82, recalling how their community first began to meet every week for shared sport and meals.
Nehru would go on to serve as the president of what would become Kashmiri Overseas Association of Canada (KOAC) for several years. Today, the organization serves approximately 500 families across the country, the majority of whom (over 300) are based in Toronto.
Pooja Ganju, a resident from Halton Hills in her mid-30s, is the president of the KOAC today. Her family is originally from Srinagar, Kashmir, and moved from Boston to Toronto in 2004.
"Our Kashmiri heritage and culture, coupled with the love of the [Kashmiri Pandit] community in Toronto, Canada, led us to believe that we made the right choice coming to the maple country," says Ganju. "I feel very, very blessed to be a part of that whole ecosystem."
Today, the KOAC hosts an annual picnic, a mentorship program, and religious and cultural events for its community members, according to Ganju. During the pandemic, they also raised $45,000 for charities including the Canadian Red Cross and Indian Red Cross.
Ganju says that seeing The Kashmir Files together as a community at the York Cinimas brought to life the "worst nightmares" that Kashmiri Pandit families remember from the "cold, dark night" of January 19, 1990, on which the film is based.
"The scope and the depth of the suffering is beyond words," says Ganju. "Even 32 years later, you know, Kashmiri Pandits shiver remembering the night that forced them into exodus."
Watching the movie together was difficult, but important for sharing their experiences across generations.
"When you hear the stories from your grandparents or from your parents, it's a different way you see things unless you visually see things in front of you," says Ganju. "I took my kids along.... I wanted to make sure that they can see what their grandparents have gone through."
"Now [my children] understand our history much better, they can connect better, and I was so happy that I took them with me."
MID-30S, HALTON HILLS
When the movie ended, Ganju remembers a pause and quietness in the theatre. The experience was so emotionally draining for some that it took them a day or two to recover.
But despite the graphic and heavy content in the movie, Ganju says her 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son watched attentively.
"I'm really proud of them," she says. "They were asking me questions in between [scenes]."
The drive home was "pure silence," but once they got home Ganju says that they engaged in a "good debate session."
"Now they understand our history much better, they can connect better, and I was so happy that I took them with me."
While some in the Kasmiri Pandit diaspora feel like The Kashmir Files validated their experiences, the film has been criticized since its release for promoting anti-Muslim sentiments, especially in India.
The movie depicts in graphic detail the killing of Kashmiri Hindus by Islamist militants, including the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a group which sought to "liberate" Kashmir from India and Pakistan. Its final scene shows militants sawing a Kashmiri mother in half and shooting dozens of unarmed Kashmiris into a mass grave, a dramatization of the 2003 Nadimarg Massacre.
Particular concerning for critics, however, is how the movie portrays nearly all Muslims as terrorists or antagonists. Shree Paradkar, a columnist for The Toronto Star, described the film as "a Goebbels-worthy piece of malevolent filmmaking" in which "every single Muslim is extraordinarily bad."
Paradkar goes on to describe how the movie prompted a wave of anti-Muslim hate in India, including audiences calling Muslims "traitors" and instigating violence against them. She further argues that the film lacks any sembleance of nuance, instead reverting to biases and stereotypes to create what she describes as a "propaganda film."
The movie solely depicts the experiences of Kashmiri Pandits, whereas in reality "[a] number of Kashmiri Muslims, National Conference leaders, and Indian government officials were also terrorised," according to the Indian digital news publication The Quint.
Vivek Agnihotri, the director of The Kashmir Files, defended his work, saying in a New Delhi press conference that his film is not an anti-Muslim film, but rather an anti-terrorism one.
He further stated that he worked with Hindus and Muslims alike throughout the process of creating the movie. Agnihotri says this included conducting hundreds of interviews with Kashmiri Pandits, sourcing music from Pakistani artists, writing the present-day scenes about "freeing Kashmir" with the input of Kashmiri Muslim youth, and premiering the movie in a Pakistani-owned theatre in New York City.
But for Paradkar, any attempt at nuance was lost over the course of the production. "[The film has] little practical interest in whether or not Kashmir is free," she writes. She further articulated her concern over the amount of support The Kashmir Files has received from the Indian government, which includes a personal endorsement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tax exemptions, and paid leave for some state employees and police to watch the movie.
In spite of the controversy, Nani Taploo hopes that people will see the movie and come away not with hatred for another community, but rather with a sense of understanding for the pain she and her people have experienced.
This is especially important for her given how long she's felt disbelieved when sharing what her family endured.
"[The] truth must come out. [The] world should know so that these things don't happen again with anybody…in any part of the world."
60, RICHMOND HILL
When she and other Kashmiri Pandits left Kashmir, they told others what happened. But few believed them. It didn't help that even there was minimal real-time coverage of the crisis, even with Indian newspapers. Many journalists, Taploo says, avoided Kashmir as they feared being killed.
So instead, people would doubt their experiences, saying things like, "Oh, no, this cannot happen. This is 21st century," Taploo recalls.
"Now they know," she added.
"[The] truth must come out. Even if it would have been against the other communty, I would strongly, strongly recommend that people go and see what's the truth," she says. "[The] world should know so that these things don't happen again with anybody."
Taploo went on to say that learning about such histories should make us vigilant.
"Let's not [have] these things happen in any part of the world," she says. "Not only in Kashmir or in India, for that matter — anywhere in Canada, every single place.
"Basically, humanity is greatest thing that we should nurture."
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