Yawar Ahmad Wani is sitting despondently inside a room in the backdrop of over a dozen trophies and his smartphone on silent. “We are the pioneer YouTubers [in Kashmir],” said the 19-year-old co-founder of Kashmir’s biggest YouTube channel – Kashmiri Kalkharab (Crazy Kashmiri). “We made the scene without anyone’s help. We did it on our own.”
For the last 150 days, he wakes up cranky and restarts his smartphone to cross-check the Internet restoration rumours. “I have dreams where I’m using the Internet,” he said. “That feeling is surreal – but as soon as I wake up, I realize we are still locked down.”
On 5 August, the central government scrapped the region’s decades-old partial-autonomy and divided – and downgraded – the region into two federally-governed territories: Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) and Ladakh; it also snapped all lines of communications in J-K.
If not for authoritarian countries like China and Myanmar, the on-going Internet blackout in Kashmir Valley is the longest in any democratic governance – ever; it has left young Kashmiris, who were using YouTube as a tool of emancipation, miserable.
After 2016, the Jio network entered the mobile services market and changed the way people access the Internet in India. The effect also reached Kashmir and within a year or two, it gave birth to numerous home-grown popular channels producing varied content – from comedy acts, regional food recipes, independent music, to much more.
The Kashmir Walla sat down with YouTubers from different walks of life to understand how the Internet clampdown has affected their lives.
Tragedy in Comedy
Kashmir’s comedy, or vines, the scene can find its roots in an extended family living in the outskirts of Srinagar, in Shalteng. Two brothers among five siblings, in a family of seven, run two of the most popular channels – Kashmiri Kalkharab and Ultimate Rounders.
One day in December 2016, the youngest in the family, Mr. Wani, the then 16-year-old, was laughing out loud on the street-side jokes of his maternal cousins, Pervez Ahmad Bhat and Showkat Ahmad Mir.
“Why not shoot it?” Mr. Wani had wondered. “I just posted it randomly on YouTube and within a week it was everywhere.”
“YouTube had endless possibilities. It was like I could do anything. I was the most powerful man. I felt empowered. Now, I feel like a labourer without legs.”
A viral video gave them confidence and an idea emerged – Kashmiri Kalkharab. Starting from scratch, a smartphone camera, a minimal video editor, and socially-conscious humor in the Kashmiri language – “which is a deliberate attempt to save our culture” – was all that the cousins had. And it totally rang with Kashmir.
Soon, the channel subscribers rose and Kalkharabs became the first channel to touch the Silver Button mark of one lakh subscribers. Their most popular video has been watched more than 1.6 million times. Today, they are the biggest channel in Kashmir with more than four lakh and seventy-four thousand subscribers.
While Mr. Wani wrote and acted for Kalkharabs, back at home, for the next two years, his elder brother, Ishfaq Ahmad Wani, 26, drove buses for numerous schools to support his carpenter father and homemaker mother; and watched his younger brother’s channel grow like anything in awe.
In December 2018, in an attempt to try his hands at acting, elder Wani founded his own channel in the same house – Ultimate Rounders. Following the same path, guided by younger Wani, the Rounders too made a name in Kashmir’s YouTube space – with more than one lakh subscribers.
Seeing success coming his way, elder Wani ditched the wheels and took up acting as a fulltime gig.
By the end of July 2019, Kalkharabs had employed six actors and was able to mint about seventy thousand rupees a month from AdSense, while Rounders has employed five actors and was able to mint thirty thousand rupees.
“I was going to get married in the upcoming April,” elder Wani said, sitting inside an overexposed room wearing a dusty grey sweater. “If the Internet is not restored soon, I need to look for an alternative job.”
After more than 150 days in a land without the Internet, many YouTubers like the Wanis are sitting at home helpless and idle – thinking of looking for alternative living.
“YouTube had endless possibilities. It was like I could do anything. I was the most powerful man. I felt empowered,” he said showcasing an edited, yet unpublished, comedy act. “Now, I feel like a labourer without legs.”
One of the five co-workers at Rounders had flunked a subject in tenth grade as he was “all into YouTube and thought of making a career out of it.”
Younger Wani sitting next to his elder brother, sporting an oiled moustache, expressed how everyone in the room awaits the restoration of the Internet services like a pious wait for Eid crescent. “But Eid isn’t coming,” younger Wani laughed.
According to internetshutdowns.in, which tracks Internet cuts across India, noted that from 2012 to 2018, the Indian government has imposed a total of 180 internet shutdowns in Kashmir and this year alone, there have been a total of 55 internet shutdowns till now.
From the monthly earning of thirty thousand rupees, Mr. Mir, who had co-founded Kalkharabs, was looking after his family of seven, including his two daughters – three and five years old. To make sure that his daughters don’t sleep hungry, he “moved on from YouTube and started trading rice in south Kashmir in September.”
“Government doesn’t know we exist,” younger Wani said. “They don’t know people make living from YouTube.” Even the restoration of broadband Internet services won’t be of any help to these YouTubers because, as per them, their entire audience depends on mobile Internet services.
The Wani brothers spent their life watching their father running a wood-log to and fro on a machine to bring money at home. Life expected them to take up a minimal job and hold the responsibilities of the family. For them, as they say, YouTube was a chance of getting out of the “poverty-circle”; for once, while shooting acts, the brothers felt emancipated.
“Now, I feel like a zero,” elder Wani sighed.
“Missing Independent Vibe”
Unlike the Kalkharabs and Rounders, who looked at YouTube as a tool to make people laugh and mint money, Tassiya Tariq, 26, was uploading food recipes on YouTube based on her subscriber’s request “to teach younger generation – how to cook Kashmiri food?”
“Young girls found their inspiration in me. But, the frequent Internet shutdowns have caused us losses – YouTubers outside Kashmir are racing ahead of us.”
Back in 2015, after she completed her Masters in Arts from IGNOU, she got married to a food inspector, working with a government department. When people around her initially rejected the idea of a food-based YouTube channel, she found her support, and producer-cum-cameraperson, in her husband.
From her start in January 2018, today her channel, Kashmir Food Fusion, has more than forty-five thousand subscribers – though, halted since the clampdown. She had also found sponsors like Peer Mustard Oil, who would market their product to her audience.
To start with, she couldn’t think of anything better than traditional wazwan, which she had learnt from her family cook, or waza. In the past two years, she derives her drive from the “two-way communication model of her channel.” She interacts with her viewers on posts’ comments and makes sure she makes what her audience demands.
Sitting in Pratap Park, Srinagar, in the chilling cold weather of late December 2019, as her 2-year-old daughter, Aisha, punches a red-balloon in air, she said, “[Post 5 August] my channel is totally shut. Earlier, people were recognising my work and it felt good.” Asking her daughter to not run away, she continued, “It was a feeling of empowerment. Now, I miss the independent vibe.”
When the Internet will be restored, if ever she wonders, she would not have only lost on the financial front but the consumer relationship and the trust of sponsors as well. “Young girls found their inspiration in me,” she said. “But, the frequent Internet shutdowns have caused us losses – YouTubers outside Kashmir are racing ahead of us.”
“Indeed, it feels sad – very sad”
In Delhi, the 29-year-old is known by his name Mir Gazzanfar and the clampdown has forced him to take up a daily-job in a digital marketing company. Back in Kashmir, he is one of the first hip-hop artists, locally called as EssXaar.
In the politically charged hip-hop environment of the Valley, to make a name for himself Mr. Gazzanfar said that he “chose conscious music, and not political, to sound different.” Over the years, the scene depleted – with most of the pioneers leaving music to pursue an alternative career – and slowly faded away. In the absence of a rock-solid music industry in the Valley, the artists made an independent scene – however, they couldn’t find a proper mechanism to monetize it.
The only method lying with Mr. Gazzanfar was to find money through YouTube audience – “more than eighty per cent of them are Kashmiri;” thence, dropping any new song doesn’t make sense to him.
By 4 August 2019, a day prior to the clampdown, he had taken out the final mix of a new song with half of the video shoot done. With more plans in the basket, the Internet blackout has held his feet tight and dragged him to Delhi, looking for a job to stay afloat.
“Indeed, it feels sad – very sad. Music was something that I had in my heart,” he said. “They (government) didn’t do right. Does anyone say it is right? From online businesses and students to artists, everyone is suffering because of them.”
His work mostly swings between bling-bling hip-hop and fusion of Kashmiri folk with his own verses. Though, the clampdown hasn’t been able to cut through his passion for music but has halted his ideas for sure.
2019 has ended and there is no word around Internet restoration other than rumors and officials’ statements claiming it would be done in a “phased manner.” Apparently, no one is answering when and how?
Uncertainty is getting elder Wani anxious with the thought of looking for a new career, younger Wani and his team is missing out on their fairy-tale growth graph, Mr. Tariq feels sad for girls who looked up to her, and Mr. Gazzanfar isn’t coming back to Kashmir anytime soon.
Yashraj Sharma is a features writer and assistant editor at The Kashmir Walla
The story appeared in our 6-12 January 2020 print edition.