On 21 July, Tony Ashai, a Kashmiri man based in the United States was suddenly under fire from Kashmiri social media users for a tweet where he questioned Kashmiris living in the Valley for not doing enough in advocating Kashmir’s cause for freedom. In the tweet he praised the diaspora for what he termed as working day and night to raise their voice.
“Why do I feel that Kashmiris living in Kashmir could do more but they aren’t? Ever since Aug 5 last year I see Diaspora here in US and elsewhere working day and night to advocate the cause but I don’t see the same energy among Kashmiris in Kashmir. Why?” Mr. Ashai Tweeted. The tweet drew widespread condemnation from Kashmiris across the globe and Mr. Ashai became the victim of ire thrown at him.
Among the many to criticise the tweet was renowned Kashmiri author based in the United Kingdom, Mirza Waheed. “The notion, the ridiculous and yet cruel idea that the Kashmiri diaspora understand and do more than 8 million Kashmiris who’ve resisted brutal imperial violence for decades, is, of course, hugely problematic. But it is not a representative idea at all. Let’s get back to work,” Mr. Waheed, who often writes about Kashmir, wrote in response to Mr. Ashai.
The criticism prompted Mr. Ashai to post an apology. “To All my Kashmiri brother and sister, you are my family and I love you all. I am sorry if I have hurt your feelings. Please understand these are trying times for everyone. I do understand the situation in Kashmir. Just like you I am also a victim and have paid a heavy price,” he wrote on his Twitter handle where he has also posted pictures of himself with celebrities, including politicians like the Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan.
However, as soon as things settled down and “K-Twitter” embraced Mr. Ashai again, another controversy was stirred up by the pro-Hindutva hawks on prime time television. Mr. Ashai, who calls himself a Kashmiri-American “dedicated to Kashmir and its people”, was the focus of their attention, with the hawks labelling him an “ISI agent”.
Mr. Ashai became the target of a section of Indian media that has always dealt in the realm of hyperbole and hyper-nationalist jingoism that often is on a different tangent from the facts. If the diatribe against him–based on no shred of concrete evidence–was not enough, photos of him with Bollywood celebrities like Shahrukh Khan were shared widely to allude to Mr. Ashai’s “links” with them.
Expectedly, this had led to a Bharatiya Janata Party leader questioning Bollywood’s “link” with the ISI, targetting the Muslim actors. BJP vice president Baijayant Panda created a flutter on social media by asking some unnamed Bollywood personalities to come clean on their alleged links with the ISI.
“Came across shocking threads documenting personal & business links of some Bollywood personalities with certain Pakistanis & NRIs with undeniable track record encouraging violence in J&K, who have verifiable links to ISI & Pak army. I urge patriotic Bollywoodies to renounce them (sic),” Mr. Panda wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
Soon the media trial started and the likes of Arnab Goswami and others joined in the party who ran this tripe on their prime time shows as they yelled at guests who were sane enough to call him just an ordinary Kashmiri living in the US.
Mr. Ashai also was quick to resort as he threatened action against the news channels who ran a smear campaign against him. He claimed that the “conspiracy theory” of him being an ISI agent is baseless. Warning of legal action, Mr. Ashai wrote on Twitter, “This conspiracy theory that Indian media is peddling about me being an ISI agent is baseless. These journalists either put out a proof or apologize unconditionally. Short of that you will be sued individually in US Courts and will have to prove it there.”
In another tweet, in a reply to Bollywood filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, Mr. Ashai said, “And you are a friend of Kashmir? You are a B grade movie producer who is collecting money from poor Kashmiri Pandits in the US to make a documentary for them? Playing with their emotions. Get a life,” he tweeted.
After the slanderous campaign, Mr. Ashai found support in Kashmiris as they ran a Hashtag WesupportTonyAshai that saw hundreds of valleyites writing in support of him against a vilification campaign.
However, the vilification campaign didn’t stop with Mr. Ashai. A number of Kashmiris living outside the valley came under attack by right wing social media users. The latest target is academician Ather Zia, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and gender studies in University of Northern Colorado, who became the victim of slander from a Twitter profile named “Hindus against hate”.
The profile called her a separatist who does not want Hindus to settle in Kashmir.
Ms. Zia termed the act as a violation of her academic freedoms, “This slander is a violation of my academic freedoms & undermines the cause I work/speak for. labeling genuine research & resistance as “terror” – concerted harassment by emails, articles, messages are becoming a time suck & dangerous,” she wrote in her response.
This is not the first time Kashmiris have been attacked on Twitter. Earlier this month a national news channel said that ISI had recruited 550 people to peddle lies against India through their social media handles on Twitter. K-twitter, a term used to define the twitter space of Kashmiris, was in the news for alleged ISI connections.
The smear campaign against renowned Kashmiris and those who raise their voice on Twitter have been victim of both media propaganda and right wing extremists. While it remains to be seen what the courts in US decide on the vilification campaign against Mr. Ashai, an average Kashmiri on Twitter will continue to talk about their culture, identity and raise voice against the atrocities irrespective of what the media trails decide.