(Correction note: In two instances from Joseph Thomas' interview, the phrase "Hindu groups" has been changed to "Hindutva groups".)
"What the supporters of the film have done very well in New Zealand is that they have managed to shift the public discourse from the content of the film to freedom of speech and expression."Joseph Thomas, Member, Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians
"We should definitely talk to the Muslim community in New Zealand and address its concerns, but in no way should we allow a situation in which the concerns of the Indian community are swept under the rug by not releasing The Kashmir Files. A balanced approach is necessary."Sunil Kaushal, President, Waitakere Indian Association
These are the opinions of Joseph Thomas and Sunil Kaushal respectively, two community leaders in New Zealand who spoke to The Quint and described their varying perspectives regarding the controversy in the country surrounding The Kashmir Files, an Indian film based on the 1990 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.
'The Goal Is To Isolate Muslims'
Thomas is a leader of the Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians, an organisation of diaspora activists in New Zealand, which also acts as a watchdog against religious extremism.
'Not About Free Speech, Memories of Christchurch Shootings Still Fresh'
"It's not about free speech as the Hindutva groups here would want you to believe. There are two mains concerns with the film."
"Number one", he said, "is of course the content of the film, which, as the petitioners point out, demonises Muslims and especially Kashmir Muslims."
"The second concern is what is happening outside the theatre with respect to the film. We have seen the videos coming out from film theatres in India. What is to stop those events from happening here? Hate speech is dangerous, and must be prevented because it leads to violence".
He asserted that "Hindutva groups in New Zealand have been organising a disinformation campaign, and they have been claiming that the censor board is going to ban the film. This is not true. I wrote to the classifications office, and they wrote back to me saying it is reviewing the film, not banning it."
Claiming that the hate ecosystem in New Zealand is now thriving with Islamophobia, Thomas further said that the goal of this ecosystem was to isolate Muslims in New Zealand.
He went on to say that there were two important aspects of the current controversy that people needed to keep in mind.
"We must acknowledge that the jarring memories of the tragic Christchurch mosque shootings that occurred three years ago are still fresh, especially within the Muslim community. The other thing is that aside from the film's anti-Muslim narrative, it could lead to a serious security issue for the Muslim community here."
The Hindutva groups are creating a situation that is best characterised by the phrase "you are either with us, or against us", Thomas added.
Hindu-Muslim Polarisation in New Zealand
When The Quint asked him whether this was the first time he was witnessing such Hindu-Muslim polarisation in New Zealand, his answer was no.
"The polarisation has been gradually increasing. In fact, not long ago, when Professor Mohan Dutta of Massey University published a white paper discussing the dangers of Hindutva, he started receiving horrendous abuse and death threats."
The white paper in question is titled Cultural Hindutva and Islamophobia and is available online.
When asked about the comments of former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who criticised the censor board's decision to review the film, Thomas said that "this is the same guy who discouraged MPs from attending an event on the 2019 revocation of Kashmir's special status, organised by a Kashmiri PhD student (Omer Nazir) who had lost touch with his family due to the internet blackout".
On the Role of the High Commission of India
Thomas also criticised the response of the High Commission of India, which wrote to the censor board earlier this week opposing the review, and asserted that "an unnecessary controversy has been created in New Zealand during the weekend regarding the film and its planned release."
"There are three aspects in this regard," Thomas argued. "Firstly, the classifications office is an independent and domestic body, while the High Commission is the diplomatic body of a foreign nation. Any attempts of the latter to influence the functioning of the former is tantamount to interference in New Zealand's democratic protocols and social harmony."
"Secondly, the High Commission should not be acting as a representative of only Hindus. It should represent India in her entirety, which includes its Muslim population."
"And finally, the High Commission should stop lying when it says that there have been no incidents of violence after the screening of the movie. We've all seen the anti-Muslim videos. Hate speech, if not checked, will lead to violence," he added.
Finally, Thomas told The Quint that he has three recommendations for the New Zealand government and the censor board.
"Firstly, the age limit for the film should be raised to 18+. Secondly, content warnings should be used. People should be told beforehand about the negative description of a particular culture and a particular community. Lastly, the state should become more vigilant and crack down harder on the Islamophobic ecosystem thriving in New Zealand before its too late".
'We Cannot Erase History'
Sunil Kaushal, the president of Waitakere Indian Association, however, had a different opinion on the controversy.
"First of all, nobody in New Zealand has seen the film yet. How can people judge the content of the film? Additionally, film is an art. And it is wrong to impose restrictions like this."
"But more importantly", Kaushal asserted, "we cannot erase history. The painful story of the Kashmiri Pandits deserves to be told in full."
He then went on to give the example of the extremely popular movie, Schindler's List. "Can you imagine censoring or banning a movie like Schindler's List, a movie that so poignantly captures the suffering of millions of Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis? The Kashmir Files in its own way captures the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits, and like I said before, we cannot and must not erase history."
'Terrorism Has No Religion '
When asked about the grievances raised by the Muslim community both in India and in New Zealand, Kaushal asserted that he understood their concerns.
"Look, nobody is saying and nobody should ever say that all Muslims are terrorists. Indeed, terrorism has no religion. Have I not celebrated religious festivals with my Muslims friends? Of course I have! What I am saying is that their grievances should be discussed in a calm, productive, and harmonious manner. We should not be engaging in inflamed debates, like that Times Now journalist who yelled at the wrong person. But that doesn't mean that the film should be banned or censored. It should be released."
'A Balanced Approach is Needed'
Kaushal acknowledged the existence of the shocking anti-Muslim videos that have been captured in Indian theatres that are screening The Kashmir Files.
"I am not denying the significance of what we're seeing in those videos. I do believe, however, that New Zealand is a mature democracy and communal passions are much less inflamed in comparison to India. Communal harmony exists in this country. We have learnt from the Christchurch mosque massacre."
On this note, he further claimed that "the New Zealand government and the police are extremely quick to crack down on hate speech. I do not believe we will encounter incidents similar to what we are seeing in theatres in India, and in case we do, the police will be quick to act."
In conclusion, Kaushal said that while the concerns of the Muslim community in New Zealand must be heard, the concerns of the Indian community should not be ignored.
"We should definitely talk to the Muslim community and address its concerns, but in no way should allow a situation where the concerns of the Indian community are swept under the rug by not releasing The Kashmir Files. A balanced approach is necessary."
The Story So Far
The controversy came to light when the director of the film, Vivek Agnihotri, claimed on Twitter that the New Zealand Censor Board was being pressurised to ban the film in the country.
It was later reported that the censor board was not banning the film but was rather reviewing its classification due to concerns raised by the Muslim community.
The film was supposed to be released on 24 March. On 18 March, however, the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) wrote directly to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, claiming that the film promotes a false narrative, "most probably to make an impending genocide of Kashmiri Muslims acceptable and necessary".
It raised concerns regarding the screening of The Kashmir Files in New Zealand, and claimed that the film had "already resulted in serious and widespread anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmiri sentiments in India".
Arguing that "the purpose of this movie is to undermine Kashmiri and Indian Muslims in general, as well as inciting hatred against Muslims in India and globally, including here in Aotearoa New Zealand", the email also pointed out the film is being "promoted globally by Hindu Right Wing groups such as the RSS and VHP both overseas and in Aotearoa New Zealand".
Aotearoa is the Māori (indigenous Polynesian people of the mainland) name for New Zealand.
Citing viral videos from theatres in which hate speeches against Muslims were being given, the email in its conclusion stated that FIANZ was concerned that the "film will cause further social discord in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as fuel Islamophobic hate", thereby disrupting efforts to create a harmonious society.
In response, the Hindu Council of New Zealand stated in a blog post that "to forward, heal and recover from any conflict, we need to provide victims with the means, medium and opportunities to share their stories. The history of events that might be an uncomfortable discussion should not be avoided or swept under the carpet."
Winston Peters, the former deputy PM of New Zealand, has also commented on the issue, arguing that "to censor this film is tantamount to censoring information or images from the March 15th atrocities in New Zealand, or for that matter removing from public knowledge all images of the attack on 9/11."