How India Can Win Over Kashmir Through Bollywood
One of the most iconic obsessions of Bollywood seems to be persistently Kashmir. From Mission Kashmir in 2000 to Fanaa in 2006 to Haider in 2014, there’s no shortage of Bollywood movies with plotlines that center around the Kashmiri conflict directly or indirectly. And no wonder. Kashmir really, really matters to the Indian past, the Indian present, and very possibly the Indian future. The trouble with Kashmir has always been that it also matters to the past, present, and certainly the future of the country across the border. The result has been a never-ending political competition over Indian-administered Kashmir, with both countries’ strategy of choice for gaining influence almost exclusively violence.
While Pakistan resorts to recruitment through Jihadi ideology, India isn’t shy to use a heavy hand in its ‘counter-insurgency (1). For instance, there’s no shortage of evidence that Pakistan at least aided in militarizing the Kashmiri 1989 separatist uprising and that it continues to send fighters within Indian-administered Kashmir that is seldom disputed amongst scholars (2). Similarly, India’s excessive resort to unjustified curfews, randomized house searches, illegal detentions, degrading interrogations, and of course the use of actual force against Kashmiris is also well documented (2). In both cases, the target victims are the same: young Kashmiri men. Beaten, detained and illegally held by men in uniforms in the morning and chased by men in beards, come evening time. And the result? A 60% Kashmiri boycott of elections last election season, indicating large-scale Kashmiri disengagement and indifference to both political rivals (3).
In this Desi game of thrones season 74, what India and Pakistan must have surely realized by now is that violence is an outdated weapon that can’t alone secure their strategic political outcomes. This season, the most effective strategy for securing political goals has shifted from violence or hard power to attraction or soft power (4). Where ‘hard power’ is power through force or the threat of force, soft power is the ability to get what you want solely by attracting voluntarily through messages, values, and stories. From an Indian perspective, this means that India’s strategy in Kashmir should be to become more attractive to the people of Kashmir for them to finally want integration. In other words, India needs to raise its soft power reserves in Kashmir. Luckily, India has one of the most potent soft power tools in the world; the Indian film industry.
Bollywood has an extraordinary track record of attracting its wide audience base to subscribe to values, social issues, and causes packaged in the shape of a movie. For instance, it’s highly acclaimed My name is Khan highlighted Islamophobia post 9/11 as an international social issue. Meanwhile, 3 idiots raised awareness of all the trouble in our educational systems. Bollywood is not just emerging as a soft power tool of an international order, but it is also proving as a national soft power tool that is increasing feelings of Indian-ness within India and raising the status of the Indian beyond India. In fact, the rallying around the flag that national social issue movies such as the Dabang and Singham series are achieving have only been historically paralleled by the unifying effect of wars.
With this potent tool at its disposal, the Indian government can tremendously increase its attractiveness to a sidelined, isolated, and pretty exhausted Kashmiri population. Especially with Pakistan’s lacking track record in integrating the so-called Azad Kashmir into the class-obsessed Pakistani society (1). It can do so by creating movies about Kashmiris for once and not just the political dilemma of the land of Kashmir. Bollywood can also do well to decrease the polarization in its rhetoric when it comes to presenting the good Kashmiri: the Indian nationalist vs. the bad Kashmiri: the Muslim-terrorist-Pakistani-spy-separatist, a damning stamp (1). An interesting recent trend has been the emergence of ethnic Kashmiri celebrities to Indian TV including Hina Khan and the tremendously successful Asim Riaz who managed to carve a cult-like fan following for himself. A byproduct of Asim Riaz’s success on Indian TV was a Kashmiri perception of an India that is willing to accept Kashmiris as just another ethnic minority in a diverse country. Without the Muslim-terrorist-Pakistani-spy allegation package deal usually reserved for the average, alienated Kashmiri. A powerful message, well-received by most Kashmiris.
In a final analysis, BJP’s political objectives with the controversial revoking of article 370 of the Indian constitution which stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its exceptional autonomy is ultimately integration with the rest of India. Surely, the ability to hold property would open the gateway to investors that can boost the struggling Kashmiri economy (2). Admittedly, it’s a good departure from the violence-only Indian strategy in Kashmir. Yet economic prosperity alone cannot suddenly instill a sudden sense of Indian-ness in the people who have been simultaneously competed over and disdainfully discarded. If the end goal of the BJP is indeed organic Kashmiri integration with the rest of India, then instilling a sense of nationalism in Kashmiris is a priority of the highest order. But nationalist sentiments don’t emerge from voids. A sense of nationalism takes years of poetry, romanticized folklore, songs, novels, and certainly movies that can all – with luck – conspire together to bring about a sense of identification with the country. Here, what India has is an optimal window of opportunity to win over Kashmir through leveraging one of its truly remarkable assets: the Indian film industry.
1. Kashmiri Nationalism beyond the nation-state. Ali, Nasreen. 2, 2002, South Asia Research, Vol. 22.
2. Ganguly, Sumit. A New Season of Turmoil in Kashmir: Harsh Counterinsurgency Tactics Have Led to Mass Frustration. [Online] April 21, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/kashmir/2017-04-21/new-season-turmoil-kashmir.
3. Shah, Khalid. Observer Researcher Foundation. [Online] December 21, 2020. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/moderate-voter-turnout-rekindles-hope-in-jammu-and-kashmir/.
4. Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics. 2005.