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‘Conflict can’t stop me’ – Kashmiri influencers are censoring, lying low, but won’t go offline

When YouTube star and TV actor Amreena Bhat was killed in Kashmir, it sent a message to social media influencers. But conflict, bad internet won’t stop them.

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‘Why is it hard to accept me the way I am
I’m so tired of your expectations that I don’t give a damn
I don’t care anymore from now, I’m gonna make my own choices
I was neglected for so long that I’m sick of being voiceless’

This is what Kashmiri rapper Mehak wrote on the evening of TV actor and social media influencer Amreena Bhat’s brutal killing by militants in May this year. But this was not just another rap for Mehak. It was her biggest battle.

Mehak life has a lot in common with other social media influencers across India. Except, she constantly lives under the fear of being killed by militants for her music.

Mehak is the first female rapper from the Kashmir Valley. The 21-year-old has over 2,400 followers on Instagram and is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from a Kashmiri college. As she walked down the lanes of Lal Chowk in Srinagar to meet ThePrint on a bright sunny day, she stood out from the crowd. Her hair had been brightly coloured green, purple, and red. Her bell-bottom jeans paired with an oversized T-shirt and a lot of quaint accessories. Mehak has carefully constructed this look for a reason. She wants to be seen and recognised as a conventional rapper, even if it comes with threats to her life. “People here say it is wrong to dress up like I do in Islam. This may get me killed, but I don’t think it is wrong so I don’t pay heed,” says Mehak.

But Amreena Bhat’s murder in Budgam sent a chilling message to Kashmir’s young influencers and celebrities – do they go dark and flee, or continue to be online?

When she began, little did Mahek know about the challenges of social media influencing in Kashmir. She did not know that she may upset or offend others with her raps, let alone the terror groups operating in the Valley.

Social media stars in Kashmir are stuck between a rock and a hard place, Mahek says. There’s no “formula” for their safety. All they can do is lie low on social media after someone is killed, which many started doing after Amreena’s murder. And for the ones who continued to post, the process has become more time-consuming. This is what sets them apart from influencers outside Kashmir. Rather than thinking about what is trending, Kashmiri influencers have to factor in what extremists will not like.

The security apparatus in Kashmir say that Amreena’s killing marked the arrival of a new terror target group in Kashmir, the social media stars who want to show normality. According to them, militants believe that entertainment – cinema to social media – is a sin and disobedience to Allah, and women indulging in it need to be punished.

Illustration by Prajna Ghosh | ThePrint
Illustration by Prajna Ghosh | ThePrint

Also Read: Muslim comedians standing up against Islamophobia—one self-deprecating joke at a time

Influencers in self-censor mode

Kashmiri social media stars now have to change scripts and locations at a moment’s notice. And the recent spate of killings has compounded the fear.

“I wanted to write about the civilian killings, but there’s so much scrutiny and fear that eventually, I couldn’t. For an artist, it’s depressing to not be able to express,” says Mahek. Even her raps have changed after Bhat’s killing. From raps about violence in Kashmir to unapologetic selfies captioned “kiss my disrespectful ass”, Mehak is clear about who she is. But now she has to do a double-take on her content. From hard-hitting commentary, her posts have become about her journey into rapping and her emotions when she raps. Though Mehak says she’s writing on women empowerment, she says she will wait for the situation to calm down before she releases those raps.

A lot of other influencers in Kashmir also resonate with the feeling. Rahil Khan, a 27-year-old actor from Pahalgam, says, “Earlier I used to spend two days on my scripts, now the same script takes at least 4-5 days. If I am commenting on any issue in Kashmir, I have to be very careful about my choice of words. Each word is carefully selected and vetted by at least 3-4 people before the video is shot and put out.” Rahil uploads reels of movie scenes, lip-syncs songs and has several dance videos.

And not just the script, even choosing a location has become a task. No zone is a safe zone anymore, but public places with a lot of tourists are relatively safer and have become the go-to places for influencers.

“After Amreena was killed, my neighbours and relatives kept telling my parents that I will be the next target. All I want is to be able to tell my story through raps and do what I love, like lakhs of other people. I have the right to have a normal life, conflict cannot stop me,” says Mahek as she fidgets with the rings on her fingers.

She calls herself the biggest fan of Eminem – even her Instagram handle is called ‘Menime’ – his music inspired Mahek to rap for the first time when she was 12. She recalls listening to ‘Lose Yourself’ one summer day in 2017.  She didn’t waste a second and ran towards her cousin’s house in Kashmir’s Sonowar area. “Create a YouTube profile for me, I want to rap,” she told her cousin. Mahek could not sleep all night because she was so excited about being on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Mahek knew she needed to take her talent online.

But the sense of fear among social media influencers, especially women, is palpable now. Most influencers keep their posts as “non-controversial” as possible. From the serene mountains to the Chinar trees, the content is Kashmir as tourists would like to see.

Also read: Lambasingi is sold as the Kashmir of South India, but tribals have had enough of tourists

Can’t argue with bullets

Amreena Bhat performed in songs and drama serials produced by the Doordarshan Kendra in Srinagar in 2012. She was the sole earner in her family of five. When acting gigs started to dry up, Amreena turned to social media. She became a sensation with 25,000 followers on Instagram and 19,000 subscribers on YouTube. Her lip-syncing videos were an instant hit. But she was also severely criticised and hated by radical Islamists for her content. Thousands of nameless comments on her social media profiles attacked Amreena for “insulting Islam” by indulging in dancing, acting and singing. They cursed her for being a “shameless woman” who did not cover her face. Some even celebrated her death. Most of these comments have since been taken down.

An Instagram user called Musharraf Altaf Wani lauded Amreena’s killers, saying, “Glad to hear that unknown gunmen have killed Tiktok Girl.”

Her sister Razia, who was milking the cows when Amreena was shot, told ThePrint that the men who killed her sister “wanted her to perform at a wedding”.

“What kind of azaadi is this? She was a practising Muslim woman who just wanted to feed her family and be happy, is that too much to ask for?”

Unlike the 17 other civilian killings in Kashmir this year, no terror outfit took responsibility for Amreena’s death. However, people in the Valley agree she was killed for her social media videos. Even top security officials corroborate this. Vijay Kumar, IGP Kashmir, told ThePrint, “In our understanding, Amreena was gunned down because her videos on social media became an irritant for the extremists who see art and social media as ‘haram’ (sin). We have intel that her killing was to send out a message to other social media influencers, especially women, that such things will not be accepted.”

Mahek understands this. She says, “The same men who give me lectures on ‘Islamic conduct’ are the ones who slide into my DMs for my number. Men will be men; it doesn’t matter what religion they’re following.”

Social media influencers in the Valley say they don’t have the luxury to reason with bullets.

A top security official told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity that just a few days before the killing of the vlogger, a consignment of 15 highly sophisticated US-made pistols was seized by the J&K police. They have the capacity of firing 30 rounds from twin magazines. The same kind that was used to shoot Amreena.

Mehak works on a few raps | By special arrangement

Also Read: BJP-backed influencers using YouTube to target Muslims & women, says NYU Stern Centre report

Can we not talk about Kashmir?

Being a social media influencer from Kashmir can be creatively suffocating too. Influencers here are almost always expected to talk about the state of conflict they’re living in.

Saima Shafi, who goes by the name Kral Koor on Instagram with 50,000 followers, says that there are other social problems in Kashmir that she wants to highlight. Her handle is popular for its posts on Kashmiri pottery, an art she wants to save while also working as a civil engineer in the PWD department of the J&K government.

Conflict gives rise to creativity, Saima says, but in Kashmir, everything becomes about conflict. She wants to talk about patriarchy and everyday sexism – something women battle every day. Saima is a victim of domestic violence and triple talaq.

“Being Muslim women does not mean we can be dictated. We have to anyway think a hundred times before selecting a topic. Then choose a safe location to shoot, and then lie low for weeks. So, what we really want, the attention, the validation, we are scared of. I feel terrified even when someone looks at me in a crowded place,” says Saima.

Saima Shafi, also known as 'Kral Koor' | Sajid Ali/ThePrint
Saima Shafi, also known as ‘Kral Koor’ | Sajid Ali/ThePrint

When ThePrint met her for the first time in a narrow lane in Srinagar, she laughed: “I love how you call me ‘Kral Koor’ and not by my real name. Mission accomplished.”

Saima drove us to a nearby café. As soon as she came out of the car, she fixed her Hijab and said, “Being independent is the most important thing in life.” As if she wanted us to know that covering her head does not make her any less liberal.

‘Kral Koor’ in Kashmiri means ‘potter girl’, a profession looked down upon. But her reason for joining social media was not to put out her talent for the world.

“Pottery took me to social media, and talking about the civil issues in Kashmir kept me going,” she says.

Her recent post about women in Hijab talks about agency for women to choose and not blindly follow what society tells them to.

With her thousands of followers, Saima knows she is definitely on the radar of militants, but life in Kashmir is more uncertain than in any other part of the country, she says. If she were to die tomorrow, she doesn’t want to regret not doing what she loved.

Like Mahek and Saima, hundreds of young Kashmiris trying to make their name on social media struggle with problems that their contemporaries don’t even have to think about.

Take, for instance, the constant suspension of the internet. But there are also some influencers who feel no threat. They say Amreena’s killing was not an act of terror against art.

“Kashmir is complex. Everything that takes place here, including killings, cannot be seen as black or white. It has many layers of politics, security, societal pressures, discrimination, etc.,” says a 32-year-old RJ in Kashmir, who didn’t want to be named. She has a following of almost 50,000 on Instagram where she regularly posts her RJing sessions, her pictures and tidbits from her life. However, she says she likes to keep it low-key and less “controversial”. So, her handle is peppered with posts about Srinagar’s flea markets and touristy locations.

Threat or no threat, social media influencers in Kashmir have to go the extra mile to get that like and now, avoid extremists. At the cafe where ThePrint met Saima, many recognised her, but didn’t throng her or ask for selfies. Outside, a protest raged on against Nupur Sharma’s controversial remarks on the Prophet.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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