Last week, when Kashmiri actress Zaira Wasim was harassed and vilified ostensibly for meeting Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who held her up as a role model, the 16-year-old wrote an online post in which she pleaded that she did not want anyone to consider her to be one. She later deleted it.

The harassment of Wasim, who shot to fame for her portrayal of the young Geeta Phogat in the film Dangal, has been going on for a few months now, and is mainly driven by internet trolls in the conservative Kashmir Valley. Aided by a photograph of Wasim with Mufti, the issue took on political connotations last week.

On a different note, last year, in July, when the Valley was in the grip of unrest following the death of militant commander Burhan Wani, television debates drew parallels between Wani and the Kashmiri IAS topper, Shah Faesal, who was also held up as a role model for the youth of Kashmir.

Faesal struck out at the comparison in a Facebook post, referring to it as “conventional savagery” by the national media.

Faesal wrote: “At a moment when Kashmir is mourning its dead, the propaganda and provocation being dished out from red and blue newsrooms is breeding more alienation and anger in Kashmir than what Indian state can manage.”

Wasim and Faesal are just two instances of prominent Kashmiris whose public lives and actions are, more often than not, viewed and judged through the lens of politics – both by the national and local media, and by members of the community whom they are seen to represent.

Several Kashmiris chafe at this.

‘I don’t represent Kashmiris’

Muheet Mehraj, a first generation entrepreneur who co-founded an award-winning internet start-up, KashmirBox, said that he could not fathom why the media has always sought political statements from him disregarding the fact that his work did not entail politics. His start-up takes products of Kashmir’s farmers and artisans to national and international markets.

“I don’t know why whenever there is an interview regarding KashmirBox, most of the time I am asked what my ideas are regarding Kashmiri youth, and what should be done,” said Mehraj. “My stand has always been that my thinking is on an individual level. I do not represent society.”

Mehraj added that the constant scrutiny has made him cautious about his words and actions in public. “Most of the times, the media manipulates,” he said. “Even though you say those things, you don’t mean it in that context [in which it is portrayed by the media].”

Mahmeet Syed, a prominent female musician from the Valley, echoed Mehraj, saying that she is cautious about how she expresses herself in public as any public figure expressing his or her opinion about Kashmir is scrutinised vigorously by the media, more so if that person is Kashmiri.

“I typically avoid getting involved in political discussions,” said Syed. “I have learned to control my emotions and let the politicians and other leaders answer such questions.”

The overall notion about Kashmiris in India is that they represent violence, said Mohammad Muneem, poet, vocalist and songwriter of a band called Alif, adding that the media tended to seek out Kashmiris who were working in the creative field.

“Media plays a single thing in a loop and how it will be interpreted, who knows,” said Muneem, echoing Mehraj’s contention that the media tended to misinterpret or frame statements in a way the person being interviewed did not intend them to be framed.

Finding a role model

Prior to the Wasim-Mufti controversy breaking out, the 2017 calendar of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank, the state’s largest bank, sparked a debate over who Kashmir’s role models were after young Kashmiri achievers were picked to feature in it.

“I don’t see it as a calendar but an intervention into the social space with a certain power of messaging,” said Haseeb Drabu, the state’s finance minister at the launch of the calendar on December 31.

He added that the calendar sent a “very powerful message out and that is about the aspirations of youth. It is really a great thing for a calendar to focus on this positive theme during these times.”

Following this, a few copies of the calendar were set ablaze outside the Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar. Soon, calendars featuring Burhan Wani began doing the rounds of the internet. Later, online activists circulated calendars featuring other slain militants and civilian victims of state repression, particularly 14-year-old Insha Malik, who lost her eyesight after being hit by pellets last year.

The competing idea of who constitutes a role model in the Valley has pitted Kashmiris against Kashmiris. As in Faesal’s case, the media is partly to blame for this. In the past, it has seized upon any opportunity to juxtapose Kashmiri achievers who have gained national attention with stone pelters and militants by holding up the former as role models, putting them in a spot.

Shehla Rashid Shora, former vice-president of the students’ union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that Kashmiris who have made their mark in the national mainstream are instances of soft success stories that the media uses to show “how great Indian democracy is, if only [other] Kashmiris could be part of it”.

“What they [the media] is really saying there is that Indian democracy is so great that if you aren’t pelting stones and if you are making yourself heard in some creative way, then you might actually be heard, and not killed on the streets,” said Shora.

She also pointed out that the media’s questions to Kashmiris were never straightforward.

“’What is your stand on Kashmir’ is not an innocent question,” Shora said. She added that following last year’s sedition controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University “every time a Kashmiri student was asked about their stand [on the issue], it was basically for the purpose of witch hunting, not to know what they [actually] think”.

But some believe that by holding up some Kashmiris as role models, the media isn’t always looking to pit Kashmiris against each other.

“Television media celebrates the success of these people as the success of any ordinary Indian,” said a Kashmiri television journalist based in New Delhi. “A lot of people in India are genuinely interested to see a peaceful and progressive Kashmir and thus stories of progress of Kashmir make them relevant to the audience.”

“So if a channel states a fact that Zaira Wasim was trolled by Kashmiri youth and that her posters were burnt by a handful of stone pelters, does that mean that she is being pitched against the rest of the population?” he asked.

When role models fall

In the battle for role models, sometimes the projection of a successful individual as a role model in the Valley can backfire, as happened in Wasim’s case. As pointed out in this report, sexism is a factor too, with Kashmiri girls being soft targets.

Society in Kashmir does not easily approve of careers in fields other than engineering, medicine, or the government, said Mehraj of KashmirBox. In such a situation, the politicisation of individual success stories does not go down well with many people.

“People don’t need to drag politics into everything, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I don’t want to go into all of that [political commentary] and lose out on the greater picture that we as a team at KashmirBox are envisaging. We don’t want that [media scrutiny] to affect our work…If we start worrying about it, we will lose our core focus.”

Shora pointed to the irony of the State pushing role models. Kashmiri youth once had a role model in Sheikh Abdullah, she said.

“And what did the Indian government do?” she asked. “They put a sedition case on him, put him in jail and delegitimised him.”

She added: “The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] tried to force her [Zaira Wasim] as a ‘role model’ upon Kashmiris. But she has actually proved herself to be a role model by siding with the people and showing respect for their emotions – something that Mehbooba Mufti failed to do.”

“Kashmiris, from the start, did see her [Wasim] as a role model until the ruling PDP-BJP combine tried to appropriate her,” Shora added.