Freedom of Speech is a right that should be available to all people, barring illegal examples.

This is not an analysis of the merits or demerits of ‘The Kashmir Files’ movie, rather this is a discussion about freedom of speech, set in motion by attempts by some quarters for the film not to be permitted to be seen by New Zealand audiences.

While the rest of the world has access to the movie released in theatres on 11 March 2022 and can decide for themselves whether it deserves to be seen or not, the movie is sought not to be allowed to release in NZ and nor is it available for watching on online streaming platforms.

So far there is little news about why this has happened (barring exceptions like former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters’ statement saying that the film must not be prevented from screening and Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand H.E Muktesh K. Pardeshi brief interview with Indian Weekender).

The movie’s director Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, who is also a member of the Indian Censor Board of Film Certification, has raised the issue online. Agnihotri posted on Twitter an unmarked message sent to him, which states that Muslims in NZ have objected to the film’s release and plan to protest in front of theatres if the movie releases.

‘The Kashmir Files’ is based on the incidents which led to Kashmiri Pandits leaving the Kashmir valley in the 1990s, with the number of people leaving ranging from 100,000 to 150,000. Insurgency had intensified in Kashmir, triggering destruction of property, the rape of many Kashmiri Pandit women, and the killing of scores or even hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits, with the resultant fear and upheaval causing them to leave their home region after centuries of living in what is India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Going by Agnihotri’s message on the internet, we may infer that the concerned group of Muslims who lodged the complaint and the plan to protest, fear that the movie might trigger communal tension against them in NZ, particularly in the aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque shootings of 2019. The contention against the movie seems to be that it carries a type of depiction that might unleash similar waves of animosity against Muslims in NZ.

The crux of the debate is this – Does NZ’s Classification Office and the NZ Govt. hold the opinion that the movie’s freedom of expression is superseded by the risk of damage it might cause to Muslims? The NZ Classification Office states, “We may ban content if the harm it may cause meets the high threshold for illegality”. Going by this declared principle, will the Office deem ‘The Kashmir Files’ as “meets the high threshold for illegality”?

Even as Winston Peters has come out emphatically in support of screening the film and National leader Melissa Lee – herself a former broadcaster – has written to the Classification Office, we would also like to know the position of NZ MPs of Indian origin – Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Gaurav Sharma – would they object to the film being screened in NZ or not.

ACT leader David Seymour has issued a statement saying, “The Kashmir Files is clearly controversial for some New Zealanders, but New Zealand is a country committed to freedom of expression. Furthermore, the film is widely regarded as being based on facts, and has being defended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as such.

“It appears some complainants have had the film censored, but answer to uncomfortable issues is not censorship. The New Zealand Government should not try to resolve foreign disputes by censoring one side in favour of the other. If you come to New Zealand, you accept New Zealand values such as free speech.”

High Commissioner of India to New Zealand H.E Muktesh K. Pardeshi spoke to Indian Weekender and said that since the film has released after 30 years of the actual events occurring, the impact on law and order had been averted. Stating that the film carried “inconvenient, uncomfortable truths”, he said, “If history is being narrated with a sense of genuineness and sincerity, then it should be supported. If it meets the standards of certification and the censor, if it is not creating any law-and-order situation, and if it has not created any sense of disharmony in India, why should it create disharmony in NZ?”   

This is a complex issue no doubt. But the question at the heart of it, is a fairly simple one – does the Classification Office and the NZ government honestly, impartially and independently believe, without undue influence from other parties, that ‘The Kashmir Files’s freedom of speech is superseded by the risk of animosity it may incite against Muslims in NZ?

If the government genuinely declares this opinion, then they owe it to us to explain the legality and morality of such a ban. They should also remember that this ban will set a new precedent, which will be applicable to a lot of films involving sensitive matters, and not just the one restricted to ‘The Kashmir Files’.

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Dr U Prashanth Nayak is Indian Weekender's film reviewer and contributor.

The views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of Indian Weekender or Kiwi Media Publishing Limited.