n the sunny afternoon of August 4, 2019, Musaib Bhat sat with his friends in a park along the banks of the Jhelum River, in Kashmir’s Srinagar district. The usually unkempt grass was clean and shiny in the sunlight, creating the perfect background for an Instagram video.
While a friend filmed him on their phone, Bhat, a 28-year-old online content creator who makes social and comedy skits for his Instagram account @mr_musaib_, acted out a scene in which he scolds a friend about respecting and loving his parents. Sitting together on a park bench, Bhat gestures dramatically at the friend. “Someone who can’t be loyal to his parents, how can that person be loyal to me?” he says.
As the sun set, casting silhouettes in the park, Bhat and his friends wrapped the shoot and headed home. At his house in Srinagar’s old city, Bhat paused only to drink a cup of nun chai, Kashmiri pink tea, before rushing upstairs to his room to edit the video, adding a filter and fixing the framing. Hours later, he hit the publish button, sharing the video with his followers.
Bhat went to bed with the hope that his video would receive an overwhelming response in the form of comments and likes. But the next morning, his phone didn’t make a sound. He had not received many notifications. He quickly opened Instagram, only to find silence on his profile and a pop-up saying: “Couldn’t refresh feed.” The internet wasn’t working.
He got up and checked with his family. “I didn’t know what had happened for the internet to go off,” he told Rest of World. His family explained: the government had launched a communications blackout. The internet, phone landlines, cable connections — everything was gone. “We were back to the Stone Age,” he said.
Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 post-British colonial rule, Kashmir, which is majority Muslim, has been beset by territorial disputes between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. For more than 70 years, India-administered Kashmir, also known as Jammu and Kashmir, had a special status in the Indian Constitution, which granted it relative autonomy, but there were frequent violent clashes between the Indian military and Kashmiri separatists. With the growth of social media platforms, the Indian government has struggled to control news in the area, even after placing restrictions on mainstream media, and so internet shutdowns have become common.
But, though Bhat didn’t know it at the time, this one was different. The August 2019 blackout, which was imposed by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party at a time of increased communal violence against Muslim citizens, would go on for longer than any before in the region, leaving citizens in the dark for months.
For Kashmir’s nascent online creator community, it posed a significant setback. “The concept of content creating had just arrived in the [Kashmir] Valley, and many people had started posting their videos on social media before the internet ban,” Bhat said. Just as they were building their audiences, they lost connection.
The Indian government imposed the first internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir on January 26, 2012, when India celebrated its Republic Day — an occasion often met with protests from Kashmiri separatists wishing to show their resistance against Indian rule. Since then, the internet in the area has been shut down 411 times. Shutdowns have become more frequent in recent years, with 286 occurring since 2019 across various districts.
“India remains the world’s leading perpetrator of shutdowns, and people in the Jammu and Kashmir regions continue to suffer incessant internet shutdowns,” Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn campaign manager at Access Now, told Rest of World.
Internet shutdowns impact every sector, including business, education, and health care. “Whenever government authorities shut down the internet, people’s lives are also shut down,” Anthonio said. “Aside from the fact that internet shutdowns make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for people to access critical information as well as emergency or health services — costing lives in certain cases — they enable those with power and authority to control narratives and cover up atrocities perpetrated against people with impunity.”
In some cases, businesses may be forced to close, and students may be unable to access learning materials.
But, despite the challenges with connectivity, there is a small community of Kashmiri influencers who continue making content on social media — when internet access allows.
Instagram is the most popular platform among the Kashmiri content creators Rest of World spoke to, with many posting content including photography, fashion blogging, and comedy. Their followings are largely made up of local Kashmiris and the diaspora community.
Nishant Shah, a professor of digital technologies at the ArtEZ and Radboud universities in the Netherlands, credits the rise of content creation in the region to three factors that he said have boosted user-generated content across India. These include investment in internet infrastructure, including the government’s 2015 Digital India program, a commitment to universal access and net neutrality following a ban on Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, and greater interest from global social media companies. “More and more user-generated content companies, like Facebook and Instagram, were localizing their platforms, encouraging the use of non-English and non-textual communication, thus increasing participation in many different new demographies,” he told Rest of World.
The launch of TikTok in India in 2018 in particular inspired Kashmiri youngsters to start making videos (India banned the app in 2020, following border disputes with China; TikTok is owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance).
Kashmiri influencers have to contend with many issues, including censorship and social stigma. But the hardest challenge, they said, is dealing with internet shutdowns. The August 5, 2019, shutdown, which lasted in some form or another until February 2021, marked a pivotal moment.
While Kashmiri content creators like Bhat were trying to figure out the cause of the sudden internet outage that summer, India’s minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, was giving a speech in Parliament, more than 500 miles away, pronouncing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution null and void. This article, which had been in place for more than 70 years, granted Jammu and Kashmir special status: among other things, it meant that non-Kashmiris were prohibited from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir, and the region had its own constitution, flag, and legislative freedom. The decision followed years of increasing Hindu nationalist rhetoric and policies from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which have led to attacks on Muslims across India.
To curb the anticipated uprising against the unpopular decision, the Jammu and Kashmir administration had imposed a ban on all forms of communication — including the internet, landlines, mobile phones, and satellite TV — in the dead of night. For Kashmir’s budding social media influencers, the lights were off. “People were still able to produce content, they were just not able to share it any more,” said Shah.
Bhat, who is a businessman by profession, didn’t stop creating content during the blackout and, instead, made drafts of his videos to post on social media after the internet was restored. “When it took more than half a year [for internet restoration], I left Kashmir and started posting videos from Delhi for three months,” he said. But as the majority of his followers were Kashmiri and still lived in the region, they couldn’t see his posts. “My reach was restricted, as my main audience had zero access to the internet.”
Arif Hussain, a 19-year-old who also lives in Srinagar, started posting on social media in early 2019 with dreams of becoming a social media content creator. By mid-2019, he had amassed thousands of followers on Instagram, where he posts lip-sync videos to emotional Bollywood songs and dialogues. The internet outage left him dismayed. “I was disheartened and almost decided to give up,” he told Rest of World.
After struggling for five months to find an internet connection, he heard that a nearby hospital in Srinagar’s Dalgate area had internet: broadband internet connectivity was restored at 80 government hospitals in Kashmir in January 2020. He made his way there to use the Wi-Fi. “I connected with the hospital’s internet and checked my social media after many months,” he said. But there was zero engagement: his followers were still offline.
While being a content creator is a hobby and not a full-time job for Hussain, blackouts can have a financial impact. Hussain said he charges local companies 1,500 to 2,000 rupees ($19 to $32) for advertisements and has made around 90,000 rupees ($1,140) in the past two years as an influencer — a considerable sum in a region where the average income is around $1,300. “I would have earned more if the internet was not banned frequently,” he said. “It’s important for us to be online every day.”
Another content creator, Mudasir Farooq Hajam, 29, lives in the northern town of Sopore and makes comedic videos about social issues, such as drug addiction and dowry, for a YouTube channel called Koshur Kalakar (“Kashmiri Artist”), along with five others. He said that, during the communications blackout, thousands of the channel’s Kashmiri subscribers couldn’t get online to watch. “Before 2019’s [blackout], our videos would get views in millions, but, after that, due to the [inactive] subscribers, view counts decreased drastically,” Farooq told Rest of World.
Before the 2019 clampdown, Koshur Kalakar had 180,000 subscribers and “was earning approximately 25,000 to 30,000 rupees [$315–$380] per month,” according to Farooq. “We would have crossed 500,000 at this time, but the contentious internet shutdown for two years not only affected our new subscriber count but also made our old subscribers inactive,” he said.
Over time, the 2019 crackdown eased. In January 2020, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that indefinite internet shutdowns by the state were not lawful under the Indian Constitution and constituted an abuse of power. The internet was restored, in a limited capacity, that month. But the government then focused instead on controlling mobile internet speeds, lowering them from 4G to 2G, making it almost impossible to upload or watch content online.
A year after the 2019 internet ban began, Bhat tried to upload a two-minute-long video to YouTube over 2G on his smartphone, but it wouldn’t work. He tried again and again for over a week, but he kept failing. “I went to my friend’s place for a broadband connection, and it still took me one and a half hours to post the video,” he said. “Such was the speed back then.”
The high-speed internet was restored in February 2021. “The first thing I did was switch from mobile internet to broadband connection,” Bhat said. “The main reason behind buying the connection was to post my content online and not lose touch with my audience.”
Shutdowns and throttling remain regular occurrences in Kashmir. In October 2021, when Kashmir witnessed a spike in targeted killings by unknown gunmen, the authorities yet again barred the internet or restricted it to 2G in many areas, including the old city, citing security concerns. During this time, Bhat was able to upload posts to social media, using his broadband connection, but much of his largely Kashmir-based audience could not see them. “I would post my videos online, but the reach started decreasing due to the internet cuts in downtown,” said Bhat. “It was almost like the return of 2019. The views on my videos started decreasing, and my popularity was hit.”
Shutdowns aren’t the only issue that Kashmiri influencers have to deal with. They also have to contend with censorship, especially around content that may be perceived as political, and with social and cultural expectations about what is and isn’t acceptable.
In March 2022, Kashmiri content creator Syed Areej Zafar invited Rest of World into her home in India’s New Delhi to watch her film a video performance for her Instagram followers.
In her room, she had pasted vintage wallpaper on the walls to provide an aesthetic background to her videos. On one wall, a poster read: “Try and fail but don’t fail to try; No negative thoughts allowed; Follow your dreams; Believe in yourself….”
Wearing green pheran, a traditional Kashmiri outfit, and brown karakul, a warm winter cap, Areej prepared to make her daily video for her more than 50,000 Instagram followers, most of whom are located in Kashmir. She sat at her corner desk and arranged a ring light in front of her face, then placed her phone on a stand and hit “record.” The smile on her face never faded.
When Areej was little, she used to listen to famous ladishah, a traditional musical and satirical art form highlighting social and political issues, on the radio. Three years ago, she decided to try performing these herself for Instagram, bringing the traditionally offline format online.
In 2020, the “LADYshah” — a name given to her by her audience — posted her first video performing ladishah on Instagram. “It went viral, and that’s when I decided to make more of them,” she said.
Although Areej was in Delhi — in an online world — in 2019, when Kashmir was cut off from the world in its longest shutdown to date, her video reach was still affected. “My content was in Kashmiri. It wasn’t reaching people in Kashmir. So the reach was automatically down,” she said. “No matter where you are making videos, it still affects you because the internet is down at home.”
Over the last three years, the Indian government has cracked down on online speech in other ways too. Several social media users were summoned by police in 2020 for posting political content or criticizing the government online, and, earlier this year, the authorities held a meeting at Srinagar’s Badami Bagh cantonment, where they discussed monitoring social media closely and curbing the spread of “propaganda” against the current dispensation. Journalists have also been arrested after publishing material considered to be “anti-national.” In light of such situations, many Kashmiris restrict themselves from posting content that appears critical of the government.
In February 2022, Areej wrote poetry about an acid attack survivor of Kashmir. It took her two weeks to complete the poem, but she never posted it. “I thought it’s too sensitive, and it won’t do justice to her suffering,” she said.
She often makes content that she doesn’t end up posting. “You know how it is in Kashmir, you have to be careful,” she said.
After the death of Kashmir’s prominent pro-freedom leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani last year, the valley faced another blackout. Areej wrote a ladishah describing the situation in Kashmir but did not post it because, as she said, “It was political.”
Areej said that as a Kashmiri woman, another issue she faces is gender bias. In Kashmir, women tend to face more criticism than men online for keeping their accounts public and posting their videos and pictures. “In comparison to men, I face a lot of bashing online. I never thought that I would face gender bias,” she said. “But if our society needs time to evolve, let them take it. I won’t stop posting videos.”
Despite all the challenges — connectivity, political pressure, and harassment — many of the Kashmiri influencers said that it’s worth staying online.
Areej said that she appreciates the recognition she gets from fans for being the first woman ladishah, an art form originally performed by men. She often finds people outside her homes in Srinagar and Delhi, greeting her, taking pictures, and asking for autographs.
Several other Kashmiri content creators who spoke to Rest of the World had similar stories about the mixed reaction to their videos.
When Hussain goes out to find new places to shoot his videos, young people often recognize him from his content and take pictures with him. On his birthday, fans often send him portraits, greeting cards, sketches, and notes.
But on some days, he doesn’t like the attention. “You don’t always like it. You don’t have a personal life. Once you are out there in public, you have to be what you are online,” he said. “It affects me mentally.”
Several years ago, Hussain went live on his Instagram profile — which today has more than 54,000 followers — and talked about going to college, revealing the location and time he would be at college. The next morning, he said, he found fans shouting his name and waving at him on the road.
“I felt so awkward that I had to hide in a shop,” he said.
Then, there’s the hate and intolerance that comes with being an influencer. “I, too, received hateful comments, but I learned to ignore them. They don’t know me as a person. I don’t understand the reason behind their hate,” said Hussain.
Bhat now has 100,000 Instagram followers and 223,000 subscribers on YouTube. He said that he’s motivated by his audience’s appreciation of his comical content. “They [the audience] are my family, and their prayers push me to never stop making videos,” he said. “People send me gifts with notes that read, ‘I’m smiling only because of you.’”
He’s also driven by the goal of keeping his mother tongue alive. In Kashmir, young people are mostly taught English and Urdu by their parents and teachers, and experts have raised concerns over the decline of Kashmiri. “My goal is to keep the Kashmiri language alive. When someone talks in Kashmiri, they feel ashamed. I just want to end that,” he said. “I want kids to learn Kashmiri from my videos, to keep it alive. I’m trying to preserve my own identity.”
Internet shutdowns still remain an ever-present threat to Kashmiri creators’ ability to share content. In 2021, Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition documented at least 106 shutdowns in India, with at least 85 of them in Jammu and Kashmir.
Hussain said that, after every internet interruption, he has to work hard to recover his follower count. “I’ve already given a second chance to content creation after 2019,” he said. “If the internet is banned again, I won’t be able to give myself another chance. It’s tiring.”
In his view, content creators like him are helpless in the face of greater forces. “The internet has been working fine for now. At least Wi-Fi does. But it’s totally up to God and the government to ban the internet again.”