It’s broken box office records in India, but a film about historical violence against Hindus has been made R18 after a classification review which set freedom of speech against concerns of hate against Muslims

A polarising Indian film about the treatment of Hindus has been made R18 – but the Chief Censor has opted against banning it outright, saying the movie provides a chance to build rather than erode social cohesion.

David Shanks has also hit out at claims from India’s representative in New Zealand and others that his decision to review the film’s classification was politically influenced, saying independence is “absolutely central” to his role.

The Kashmir Files is a fictionalised retelling of the exodus of between 100,000 and 150,000 Hindus (or Pandits) from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley in early 1990s over fears of religious persecution and violence.

The movie has received praise from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian politicians, and been granted tax-free status in states by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

However, there have been reports of anti-Muslim hate speech at screenings of the film, which according to its director Vivek Agnihotri has been banned in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

While the film claims that 4000 Pandits were murdered as part of a “genocide”, previous reports in Indian media have suggested a total of 219 had been killed in the region between 1989 and 2004. Questions have also been raised about the film’s deviation from history in recounting attacks on the Pandits and the omission of violence against Muslims in Kashmir during the same period.

American NGO Genocide Watch this month issued a warning about a potential genocide of Muslims in Kashmir, saying: “Islamophobia is no longer a fringe sentiment in India. It has become a state-manufactured ideology.”

“I think there is an opportunity here to build understanding and social cohesion, rather than erode it.”
– Chief Censor David Shanks

The Kashmir Files had been due to come out in New Zealand on March 24 as an R16 movie, but in the days leading up to its release Agnihotri claimed on social media that “terror sympathiser groups” were putting pressure on the Government to ban the film.

Announcing a change in the film’s classification to R18, Shanks said he was satisfied the film did not promote extremism or violence in a way that meant it should be banned in New Zealand.

“However, I think an R18 restriction is warranted given the nature and intensity of the violence and cruelty depicted. This age restriction is consistent with what the film received in Australia and India.”

He said the decision could disappoint some members of the Hindu community who believed the film had historical value and should be released with no age restriction, as well as some members of the Muslim community who believed the risk of harm meant it shouldn’t be screened at all.

But community leaders had made it clear they would not tolerate expressions of hatred or oppression in their communities and would try to ensure the film did not prompt such actions.

“I believe them, and I think there is an opportunity here to build understanding and social cohesion, rather than erode it.”

Indian High Commissioner Muktesh Pardeshi has suggested the Chief Censor’s office is under “tremendous political pressure” regarding The Kashmir Files. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

ACT leader David Seymour, National broadcasting and ethnic affairs spokeswoman Melissa Lee and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters had all expressed concerns about any ban impacting freedom of expression, while the controversy led the Indian High Commission to intervene.

In an open letter to Chief Censor David Shanks published on the high commission’s website, Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand Muktesh Pardeshi said there was “unnecessary controversy” about the film’s planned release.

“It is gathered that some organisations led by the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) have approached the New Zealand Government, including the Hon. Prime Minister urging to stop the release of the film,” Pardeshi said.

“There are concerning reports that the Office of the Chief Censor is under tremendous political pressure.”

He claimed the film was intended to “educate future generations about the menace of extremism and terrorism”, and had been well received both in India and other countries.

“An erroneous, biased and politically-motivated impression is being created in the minds of New Zealand audience that the film is likely to create a sense of disharmony and Islamophobia.”

However, Shanks said it was not true that he had been politically influenced, adding: “The independence of my office is absolutely central to carrying out our challenging role, and I will always act to protect it.”

Pardeshi and the Indian High Commission have previously spoken out to criticise the research of Massey University academic Mohan Dutta, who has written about New Zealand’s Hindutva movement and the Islamophobia from those who subscribe to the strain of Hindu nationalism.

Hindutva has grown in prominence under Modi’s BJP, and has been described by critics as a form of right-wing extremism or fascism.

In a November 2021 briefing, the NZ Security Intelligence Service said there was “almost certainly a small number of individuals and groups in New Zealand who adhere to Hindutva IMVE [identity-motivated violent extremism]” according to the interagency Combined Threat Assessment Group.

“It creates Islamophobia and basically sows those seeds of distrust, anger and violence. My concern really is…how much hate is generated already: the movie hasn’t even started and there have been threats against the Muslim community.”

A Muslim community leader in New Zealand, who asked not to be identified due to fears of retaliation, told Newsroom (before Shanks’ final decision was announced) he and others were concerned about the movie “weaponising the plight of Kashmiri Pandits” through half-truths to encourage hateful action against Muslims.

“It creates Islamophobia and basically sows those seeds of distrust, anger and violence. My concern really is…how much hate is generated already: the movie hasn’t even started and there have been threats against the Muslim community.”

While the community leader did not believe the film would itself cause direct acts of violence on New Zealand streets, it could galvanise extremists who the Government and others wanted to de-radicalise.

“Over the last three years since March 15, we have worked really, really hard in terms of trying to get social cohesion within New Zealand, trying to [make] everybody understand each other better…this is going to destroy that three years of investment, and that’s what my concern is.”

A spokeswoman for Ardern referred Newsroom to Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti, who in a statement said she was not involved in the Classification Office process given its independence.

“After concerns were raised about the possibility of incitement to violence Chief Censor David Shanks thought it might be useful to take another look at the film and the distributor agreed not to screen the film in the interim,” Tinetti said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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