Arvind Kejriwal and his ‘The Kashmir Files’ firefighting | OPINION

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made a comment. It left him firefighting over ‘The Kashmir Files’. Why is a wily politician like him looking edgy?

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Arvind Kejriwal and his ‘The Kashmir Files’ firefighting
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made a comment. It left him firefighting over ‘The Kashmir Files’.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been giving an unusually high number of interviews and sound bites. Unusual because we’re not right in the middle of elections that usually warrant such interactions. His party colleagues, including trusted aide Manish Sisodia, have also been speaking to the media a lot.

Many would argue that Arvind Kejriwal is trying to damage control after his last week’s remarks "on the issue of Kashmiri Pandits". Let’s first examine what the AAP leader, in essence, said on the floor of Delhi’s Legislative Assembly.

Rejecting a demand from the BJP MLAs that the AAP government make 'The Kashmir Files' tax-free (by giving up its share of revenue to make tickets cheaper as done by multiple BJP state governments), Arvind Kejriwal questioned why they are sticking posters of a jhoothi film (that tells lies).

Arvind Kejriwal said the BJP should ask the film director, Vivek Agnihotri, to upload 'The Kashmir Files' on YouTube so that everyone can watch it for free.

The Delhi CM also said that in the last 20-25 years, since the Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus, the BJP had been in power at the Centre for 13 years, but nothing was done for Kashmiri Pandits.

The speech triggered a firestorm of criticism. The film’s director and actors, the BJP, and the Right-wing in general went after Arvind Kejriwal. They questioned why the AAP government in Delhi had made tax free movies starring Swara Bhasker (Nil Battey Sannata), Taapsee Pannu (Saand Ki Aankh) and other actors critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Read: Gandi baat hai ye: Kejriwal slams BJP, says there shouldn't be politics on Kashmiri Pandits

They also asked why Arvind Kejriwal could not upload his government’s advertisements on YouTube, instead of placing them on media platforms by spending taxpayers’ money.

But the most stinging attack came because Arvind Kejriwal was laughing while calling ‘The Kashmir Files’ a movie that told lies. The charge was that he was laughing at the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, forcing him to go on an interview spree to clarify his position on this highly emotive issue.

He has now said, in essence, that he was laughing at the BJP’s nautanki (drama) and not Kashmiri Pandits “who need rehabilitation, and not a movie, 32 years after the great tragedy and injustice happened in the Valley.”

“Unlike the previous BJP and Congress governments in Delhi, we have given permanent jobs to Kashmiri Pandits who worked on contract in the National Capital. For the BJP, ‘The Kashmir Files’ is important. For me, Kashmiri Pandits are more important,” Arvind Kejriwal has now said, adding that he has not watched the movie.

But clarifications do not often cut, especially in case of hot-button issues.

First, look at the story. At the cost of giving a simplistic review, let’s say the film (a runaway success) revolves around the genocide, torture and exodus of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in 1990, and blames the “system, the mainstream media and politicians” for “hiding the truth”.

On the other hand, critics have said the film's biggest problem is that it fans anti-Muslim sentiments and seeks to target the minority community even outside Kashmir. This is because it misses the context. And when you miss the context, everything is split between black and white, good and bad, allies and enemies, perpetrators and victims. Context brings those grey shades that help us make sense of our past, present and future.

But film critique is not ideally a chief minister’s job—though Arvind Kejriwal has frequently done it in the past on Twitter—especially when we’re talking Kashmir. Beyond how the movie has been made, what it may be doing to the audience, and Vivek Agnihotri’s cinematic credentials, it’s a political self-goal to get entangled in such a truth versus lie slugfest.

No matter how many clarifications, Arvind Kejriwal would struggle to come out entirely unscathed. Because, in effect, the movie is now less about Kashmiri Pandits and more about the larger Right-wing (including politicians, intelligentsia and millions of ordinary people) that laps up such polarising narratives even if they are not well nuanced.

And the stakes are high. After Delhi, the AAP is now also ruling Punjab, and appears to have the potential of further taking up the fast-declining Congress’s space (senior BJP leader and Union minister Nitin Gadkari has said he wants the Congress to survive. It might be a genuine wish, but it is no secret that BJP well-wishers want this continued fragmentation of anti-saffron votes).

In fact, the AAP is the only party, after the BJP and the Congress, to have a majority government of its own in more than one state. And, for now, Arvind Kejriwal has outcompeted TMC’s Mamata Banerjee for a national role (even if we’re talking of 2029 and not necessarily 2024, when PM Modi would seek a third straight term). In many of the coming state elections (Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan), the AAP hopes to pose a challenge to the BJP.

Arvind Kejriwal’s back-to-back clarifications over the Kashmiri Pandit issue stem from his awareness that the BJP will leave no stone unturned in branding him anti-Kashmiri Pandit, and by extension, anti-Hindu in these states. In the AAP, the BJP would see a high-yielding, Congress-like punching bag.

But why does Arvind Kejriwal find himself in such a bind? This is where his challenges and contradictions lie. He wants to fight the BJP. But in doing so, he doesn’t mind looking a bit like the BJP. He proudly worships at temples, Delhi’s government schools have deshbhakti (patriotism) curriculum, and runs government schemes to promote free pilgrimage and other such causes.

On Tuesday, Arvind Kejriwal said on Twitter that the country is above everything for him. He again tweeted an hour later, this time saying staunch nationalism tops his party’s ideology and that “we are prepared to die for the country.” Clearly, the Assembly speech, which he says was unfairly reported, is still bothering him.

Many political parties were surprised when Arvind Kejriwal supported the Modi government when it abrogated Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir to revoke its temporary special status and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two Union Territories (Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh) for the region’s “peace and development.” Also, because it was “an issue of national security”.

Arvind Kejriwal’s unqualified support for the Article 370 move had a background. Three years ago, his questioning of India’s surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir had placed him on the wrong side of the nationalism debate. This had left his party doing a lot of explaining in TV studios while the BJP was painting him with “anti-national” colours.

This was also when Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP were distancing themselves from overt religious linkages. The party had refused support from the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid in the Assembly election. However, the AAP chief never shied away from displaying a persona of a devout Hindu politician focussed on effective governance and honest politics.

So, when Arvind Kejriwal talks about “nationalism” and betrays “soft Hindutva” traits, he is essentially countering the BJP narrative that could work against his politics and come in the way of realising his political aspiration. Arvind Kejriwal has been carefully positioning himself as a non-anti-Hindu and non-pro-Muslim alternative in national politics. His original comment on ‘The Kashmir Files’, against the backdrop of the popular narrative, put him on the wrong side of the debate, once again.

To be fair, of all the complex emotional experiences, ambivalence--simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings--is characteristic of all human beings but widely misunderstood. As author Marie von Ebner Eschenbach has said, "You stay young as long as you can learn, acquire new habits, and suffer contradiction."

Many of us judge ambivalence because of our black-and-white thinking, the same black-and-white thinking that's triggered by stories without context. But why review a movie when you have not seen it!