Bollywood and the Banality of Militarization

By Niharika Pandit

This piece is part of APLA’s newest Speaking Justice to Power Series, which focuses on Kashmir and marks the one-year anniversary of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution (August 5, 2019). The Series page is available here

On August 5, 2019, the Parliament of India unilaterally rescinded Article 370 of the Indian Constitution granting relative autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir followed by a renewed military siege, especially in the densely militarized Kashmir Valley. More than ten thousand additional troops were moved to the nearly 700,000 soldiers deployed in the region with conditions of curfew and a blanket communication blockade, which is only now being gradually undone. In the unfolding COVID-19 health crisis, the Indian state has also hurriedly changed domicile laws further paving the way for settler colonialism. Notably, abrogating Article 370 and Article 35A – the latter allowed Jammu and Kashmir to decide its permanent residents – had long been a poll promise of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling political party that imagines Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir as part of its Akhand Bharat (undivided India) project. This is notwithstanding the protracted territorial conflict and military occupation of the region or the varied political demands of its people including the right to self-determination. Earlier this year, as India saw nationwide and transnational protests on discriminatory citizenship frameworks and state brutality against protesters, especially students, Kashmir held a contentious place even in discourses resisting exclusionary nationalist imaginaries.

Following the latest siege, what stood out as damning – perhaps, not surprising – were the large number of Indian people in support of the brazen militaristic move while variously framing critics of this political decision as “anti-national,” “terrorist sympathisers,” “Pakistan-sponsored” or “anti-army.” Even more jarring were several news reports in its immediate aftermath detailing how Indian film producers, mainly those in Bollywood – the Hindi language commercial film industry based in Mumbai – rushed to register film titles such as “Article 370,” “Article 35A” and “Kashmir Hamara Hai” (Kashmir is Ours) with the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association. In what follows, I focus on how Bollywood – often deemed less significant and thus understudied in traditional scholarship – and its intertwining with nationalism not only normalizes militarism in India, but also facilitates intense military occupation of Kashmir. To do so, I draw on rich analyses of “cultures of militarism”[i] (Teaiwa 2005) that persuasively illustrate how socio-cultural artefacts and discursive regimes such as the news media facilitate and normalize militarization well beyond the military or state institutions.

In addition to demarginalizing gender as an analytic, feminist scholars have long insisted that militarization is a “subtle, step-by-step process by which a person or a thing gradually comes to be controlled by the military or comes to depend for its well-being on militaristic ideas” (Enloe 2000, 3; Lutz 2002). In contrast with conventional scholarly focusing on the battlefront, this insistence has led to conceptualizing militarization as a contingent process that seeps into the “banality” of everyday life (Dowler 2012) and that is sustained through the glorification of war, military values, and ideologies in films among other forms of cultural production. Indeed, this attentiveness to militarization in/of everyday life reveals its complex and intersecting links with nationalism, colonialism, and other vectors of power that come together to normalize a perpetual sense of battle-readiness. As Kazi (2009) argues, enforced militarization in Kashmir is concurrent with increased acceptance of militaristic values in India. Specifically, it was in the post-Cold war moment when the Indian state bolstered military build-up, seen as a marker of “modernity” wherein deployment of military force to tackle “internal” (in statist framings) crises was framed as a legitimate response to political issues, of which military-led quashing of the Kashmiri armed insurgency is a case in point. In thinking through the everyday, Teaiwa goes a step further to argue that if we are to map the changing landscape of militarization, it is necessary to pay attention to cultural artefacts and forms of production that make militarism palatable and ultimately normal in daily life.

Relatedly, in her thinking on visuality and the colonial gaze, Ananya Kabir (2009) argues that Bollywood films engender a collective sense of “desire,” a form of fetishised obsession with Kashmir by consolidating a nationalistic fervour in which the region is construed as “integral” to India, no longer a disputed territory — an argument that is also at the heart of Hindu nationalism. Here, Kashmir is variously framed as ethereal and a feminized site of eternal beauty that is only ever marred by Islamic “extremists” and “suspect” natives. While Bollywood’s fixation on Kashmir, links with nationalism and racialized othering of Muslims have a lengthy history, the film industry’s brazen support of the BJP –its political ideology and militaristic values[ii] tinged with reinvigorated nationalistic fervour — has seen a sharp, and deeply unsettling, surge. For Sharma (2019), this is precisely because ‘the BJP government has actively enabled the making and screening of movies that conflate nationalism with pride in a macho, militaristic Hindu state.” It is in this sense that nationalism, including its aggressive, often violent displays and militarization, emerge as interlinked processes that co-constitute one another and further discursive regimes that eulogize military cultures.

One such recent example is the 2019 military action film Uri: The Surgical Strike roughly based on a militant attack in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, and the subsequent “surgical strike” by India in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Last year, the film won four national awards with free screenings on Kargil Vijay Diwas (Kargil War victory day) in many cities. For a prominent film critic, Uri “manufactured jingoism anew.” From the opening credit exalting ‘Naya Hindustan’ (New India), the viewer knows that they are in for a militaristic propaganda with zealous nationalism. The impact of Uri has been such that a film catchphrase ‘How’s the josh?’ (How is the spirit) by an army officer to his squad and their response ‘High, Sir!’ is now popular parlance, invoked by political leaders, and cabinet ministers, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Well beyond politics, this invocation also has a life of its own on social media platforms that were crucial in drumming up public support for war, as was seen in the February 2019 military escalation between India and Pakistan. Further, after Article 370 was de-operationalized there was barely any critique from the industry; there was only support, so much so that immediately after, Modi urged Indian film industries to shoot their films in Jammu and Kashmir. This shows that silences in Bollywood, its complicity or role in sustaining militarization—both in India and in Kashmir—necessitate careful unpacking.

Consider, for instance, the terror attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir in February 2019 which killed 40 Indian soldiers, leading to a serious military escalation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. As an Indian air force officer was captured by the Pakistan army and later returned to India, Bollywood producers yet again rushed to register film titles such as “Balakot” (a region in Pakistan where India claimed to have launched airstrikes) and “Pulwama.” While many in Bollywood celebrated India’s actions, mainstream discussions ignored the complex politics of the Kashmir conflict, the region’s militarized occupation, and the repercussions of war on its people and those on India-Pakistan borderlands. The exaltation of military practices and militaristic values by a section of the Bollywood fraternity, the mainstream news media, and the public was such that any anti-militaristic and anti-war feminist opinions were shunned and shamed for being “anti-Army” and “anti-India,” further reflecting the interface of militarization and nationalism.

That militarization is a diffuse yet unfinished process opens up contingent avenues for resistance to it (Henry and Natanel 2016). More specifically, the interlacing of militarization with nationalism has engendered creative resistance, as seen in Kashmiri political cartoonist Mir Suhail’s work that subverts Bollywood’s fetishizing gaze to talk about violent occupational strategies such as mass pellet blinding of Kashmiri protestors. In one of his illustrations, he rejigs the poster of the famous 1964 Bollywood film Kashmir ki Kali and covers an eye of the female actor with a bandage and a face full of pellet injuries (Illustration 1). This has inspired many social media groups to variously illustrate popular Bollywood actors with pellet injuries through which they draw attention to the mass blinding of Kashmiri people by the militarized state.

Illustration 1 by Mir Suhail. Republished with artist’s permission. Image cropped on this website’s homepage.

In conclusion, attending to such cultural production in India, specifically Bollywood’s investment in nationalism and how that co-constitutes military repression in occupied regions, reveals the pervasiveness of seemingly banal processes that inhere in militarism, ultimately making it normal. In doing so, I do not suggest that we center the militarized state, which has, time and again, rendered Kashmiri people, their narratives, and their political resistance peripheral. Rather, focusing on socio-political and cultural processes through which military power is sustained in everyday life allows thinking through the logics that make occupation possible. While these logics regulate bodies into gendered and racialized hierarchies which are then marked as “ungrievable” and ultimately “killable” (Zia 2018), sustained analysis of militarization can offer pathways to envisioning newer ways of resistance and transformation.

[i] Militarization and militarism are interlinked concepts. Within feminist scholarship, there is some consensus on conceptualizing militarization as an ongoing social process while militarism as the underlying ideology sustaining these processes.

[ii] I have recently written about militarized discourses here:

Niharika Pandit is a PhD researcher working on the everyday politics of living under military occupation in Kashmir in the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is an editor of Engenderings and tweets @nihaarikaan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s