There's a kind of restless questioning anxiety surrounding the young Kashmiri Pandit who has made a thought-provoking documentary on Kashmiri migrants. Entitled 'And The World Remained Silent,' Ashok Pandit's film is a searing indictment on human apathy to the suffering and trauma of other people. Even as Pandit speaks about the callous indifference of the world to the sufferings of the homeless Kashmiris, his attitude brims over with grief and indignation. Known on television for his laugh-a-minute sitcom 'Filmi Chakkar,' Pandit's poised to unleash his ideas in a feature film. But before that there's much to be done, and said.
What prompted you to make the thought-provoking documentary 'And The World Remained Silent'?
"The humiliation and suffering of my community, just because we're truly secular and believe in Indian democracy. Though we were just three percent of the population in Kashmir, we were willing to co-exist peacefully with the ninety-seven percent of the Muslim population in the Valley. But we were reduced to being refugees in our own country. That humiliation was too much for me to take. I've been watching the so-called secular elements in our film fraternity who stand and scream about issues related to other communities. They refuse to react to the pitiable plight of the Kashmiri Pandits. The so-called secular voices in our industry like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza choose issues that suit them. But they remain silent when it comes to persecution of Hindus."
But aren't you going to the other extreme?
"I am not! I've always spoken about issues that concern both communities. As part of IPTA, I've been vocal on Muslim issues. But where are the supporters when it comes to a Hindu issue?"
But haven't other Kashmiri Pandits in the industry, like Anupam Kher and Sanjay Suri, supported you?
"To an extent Anupam has been there when we've needed him. Sanjay Suri's father was killed by militants. But what's he done to help his people? We have to come out on the streets and make ourselves heard if anything is to be done for thousands of our people who are homeless. I'm basically the lone voice from within the industry, or for that matter from any part of India, crying against the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. I fail to understand why the Indian government is turning a blind eye to our crisis. Kashmiri Pandits are a remarkably literate people. And yet, our lives are plunged into darkness. There's a three-and-a-half km long tunnel connecting Jammu to Srinagar called the Jawahar Tunnel. We thought there are people, organizations and nations waiting to support us at the end of that tunnel. But there was no one there. The light at the end is a mirage. Kashmiri Pandits have remained in the dark for thirteen years."
Have you personally gone through the trauma of militancy?
"Of course. In 1988-89 my wife and I, and my in-laws were in Kashmir when terrorism was at its peak. This was the time when our so-called representatives and spokespersons were busy letting us down. People from our community were being kidnapped and killed. My wife's family lived next door to a family of terrorists. They lived together for years without the truth being revealed. My friends and I had formed a 40-50-member group to protect Kashmiri Pandits. January 19, 1990, changed my life. After what happened to us on that day, my whole approach to violence changed. I became aggressive. I wanted to retaliate, hit back. I wanted blood for all the blood of my brothers."
When did you decide to do television?
"You'll laugh. But when I began doing the sitcom 'Filmi Chakkar,' the exodus of my people from Kashmir was at its peak. Can you imagine, I had to make people laugh while I was crying from inside. Sanjay Chhel, who wrote the serial, contributed immensely . He knew the workings of the film industry. And though it was a spoof on the film industry, people from showbiz loved it the most. I remember David Dhawan used to call me and complain, "Yaar abhi tak tune meri khichai nahin ki apne serial mein?" After 'Filmi Chakkar' I made a more serious soap 'Tere Mere Sapne.' It touched on the Kashmir problem. Kya karoon? Uske alawa main kuch soch hi nahin paata. All the Kashmiri painters and writers are only creating works on this theme. No Kashmiri can get away from the shadow of homelessness. Even dogs bark on the streets when their food is snatched away. But we aren't making one squeak about our refugee status in our own country. I think we've distorted the original principles represented by Gandhiji's three monkeys by shutting our eyes, ears and mouth to injustice."
Whom do you blame for the crisis in the Valley?
"It's ironical. But I don't blame the ISI, Pakistan or Musharraf for the tragedy. I hold my own government, parliamentarians and people responsible. For the last thirteen years I've knocked on every door possible for help. Everywhere the leaders have failed our community. What are they doing to solve the problem in Kashmir? Forget a solution, the crisis is deepening by the day. I've experienced the tremors of terrorism. I'm a hundred percent sure of one thing. Terrorism is no longer confined to one state or community of people. It's now knocking on every Indian's door in the country. Even then we aren't waking up to the imminent danger."
As a filmmaker, what are you doing to carry your message to the masses?
"I realize my documentary doesn't have the reach that I require. I've completed my script co-written by Mahesh Bhatt, Raman Kumar and me for my feature film 'Meri Zameen.' It's about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. I've recorded the songs as well. Now I'm looking for a producer. Naseeruddin Shah will play one of the pivotal characters. He was very excited by the script and felt only he could play the role that I want him for. I've also spoken to Urmila Matondkar and she's charged about the film. Then I'll probably cast Sanjay Suri who knows what the characters in my script have gone through. I feel it from the core of my heart. The day 'Meri Zameen' is made I'll definitely go places. The emotions in the script don't come from reading a book or the newspaper headlines. I've lived through the trauma of the homeless. The character of Naseeruddin Shah's wife moves around with a bunch of 50 keys in the refugee camp. When her husband asks what she's doing with so many keys when they are homeless, she points to each and every key in the bunch and says, "This is the key to the front room in the house that we lived… This is key to our Pooja room… Whenever I touch these keys I return to my home." These aren't emotional moments from a drama. They're feelings I've seen first hand."
What did you feel about Vinod Chopra's film on Kashmir militancy?
"'Mission Kashmir' was a third-rate pretentious piece of cinema. As a Kashmiri, the catch-line for the film's publicity—'Two Brave Men Battle each Other As Paradise Burns'—was an insult to our entire community. In my whole lifetime I'd never call a militant a brave man. A man who wears a mask and kills innocent people cannot be brave. Vinod Chopra tried to change the definition of bravery. You can't reduce a historical reality to a masala product. Kashmir is a real issue. We Kashmiris were rendered homeless the day India was divided into two countries. What a shame that we continue to be homeless 55 years after independence. I fear Kashmiri Pandits have begun to feel a sense of rootlessness, which is a step towards extinction."
The Human Tragedy - a film by Ashok Pandit
Published in StarDust magazine.