By the time Dangal was released and turned out to be a blockbuster, Zaira Wasim, its child star who plays the role of the young Geeta Phogat, was ripe for a story. Her Kashmiri background made her one. She snugly slotted into time-honoured tropes about Kashmir. One of them certainly has a bracing message, and it's the telling contrast between her spectacular success story and her long troubled homeland which only recently recovered from yet another extended season of turmoil.
Another taps into a stereotype: it pits the success stories from the valley against their own people to set up an imaginary tug of war between the emancipation and its alleged backward baiters. Implicitly though, the latter are everybody from the valley. It is long since the section of the media, particularly some TV channels, stopped drawing a line between a few trolls and the people at large. Perhaps understandably so. For it will detract from the pretence of a profound ideological clash - one between modernity and its perceived medieval detractors - and in turn the news value of the story.
Trolling, as we all know, is a worldwide phenomenon and Kashmir is no exception. Indians are among the most vicious trolls anywhere - just ask Mehdi Hassan of Al Jazeera. They make no evolved distinctions in who they target, prompted by the reigning sentiment, hurt or opinion of the day, and at times simply by caprice or a pathological desire to humiliate for personal psychological reasons. So, one fails to understand why the trolls of one of India's states should be held to the highest standard.
Zaira fits into the latter trope. She is a tantalising blend of all the elements of a perfect Kashmir story. The broad outline of the story goes like this: Zaira is a 16-year-old girl who has wowed us with her performance in an Aamir Khan blockbuster and she rightly incarnates our image of an ideal teenager from the state. She was viciously trolled on social media after which she posted a heart-breaking apology. It is, no doubt, a story.
But the problem begins when a teenager is forcibly enlisted to symbolise a convenient progressive idea of Kashmir and her online trolls mutate into a wholesale representation of what is wrong with the place, along with all its inhabitants. Other than, of course, a few chosen exceptions whose successes in diverse fields are gratuitously appropriated to bolster one side of the valley's ideological binary.
Until Zaira emerged on the scene, these were civil services toppers and the sports achievers. The 2009 IAS topper Shah Faesal has been the greatest victim of this entrenched reflex. At the peak of the five-month-long unrest, some TV channels juxtaposed Faesal's picture with that of the slain militant leader Burhan Wani to dramatise the conflict between two Kashmir narratives, forcing him to publicly call for an end to it through an opinion piece in The Indian Express.
Zaira is the latest catch. Like a lot many contentious developments in Kashmir, you can only hope to get the broadest possible contours of her story, not its specifics and the detail. A few basic questions about the development should make things clear to everyone.
Are people in the valley against Zaira's acting in Dangal? Nobody has publicly objected to it, not even the rent-a-fatwa muftis who TV channels usually rope in to add a peppy dose of religion to any story. That is, if you don't allow a few unidentified loonies on social media speak for all of Kashmir.
Zaira was no doubt trolled. But again, was she trolled for acting in Dangal and thus defying the stereotype of a Muslim girl? Not at all. Again, don't project the fulminations of a smattering of crazies on all of us. This much needed explanation should thus collapse the implied and painstakingly-forged Islamist versus emancipated debate which so electrified many of our TV news rooms, and always does.
Now, is Zaira a role model in Kashmir? She is. A large section of the youth look up to her and want to be like her. Last year, even while Zaira was still shooting for Dangal, she was invited to many youth-centric events in Srinagar, one of them Kehwa Talk, an initiative to promote "a debating culture" in the valley and reclaim "the lost social and intellectual spaces".
Why was Zaira trolled then? She faced the flak for meeting Mehbooba Mufti. Why? Because as chief minister, Mehbooba's government presided over the killing of 96 people, most of them youth and teenagers, and blinded several hundred, again predominantly youth and teenagers. In addition, hundreds of others were maimed. And as a public figure and a youth icon, Zaira was seen to have thus acted numb to a raft of horrors inflicted on Kashmir until a month ago.
One person who trolled Zaira wrote, "Wow hat's off dude... I guess this girl have no information about what happened in Kashmir in these 6 months..... Bzy in daily life??? We all have 2 die."
It was in response to this anger that Zaira posted an apology: "I know many people have been offended and displeased by my recent actions or people I have recently met. I understand the sentiments behind it especially considering that what had happened over the past 6 months."
And when sections of the media went berserk, claiming she had been forced to apologise, Zaira wrote another post denying this in unmistakable terms: "Regarding my last post, I have no idea why this has become such a big issue. Again and again I am telling people that I have not been forced into anything by anyone. From media to everyone else, please don't blow this out of proportion. Neither was I forced nor am I against anyone."
But the media would have none of it. Again, understandably so. Their favourite trope would have fallen flat on its face. Never mind if in doing so they denied Zaira her agency, imagined her duress on her behalf and decided, again on her behalf, to articulate her predicament. That is even when Zaira insisted that she had apologised out of her own volition. By no stretch of imagination was it a "condemned heretic's forced public recantation under the Inquisition's encouragement in medieval Europe", as Ranjit Hoskote wrote in Scroll.in.
But when trope is the end in itself, the specific detail of an incident doesn't matter. Even many respected intellectuals and writers like Hoskote whose job is to think beyond the tropes seem only too willing to buy into the TV circus and treat it as fact. The result is this egregious disproportion between the Zaira incident and its immediate comparison in history: Zaira is a heretic, her trolls are Inquisition, and Kashmir is medieval Europe. No such comparisons for massacres and the mass blindings in the state with anything in the history or the contemporary world.
What is more, we do not even presume that the leader who oversaw this slaughter has done anything remotely wrong. This is the moral worldview that underpins the indignant righteousness of many a commentary originating from Delhi on the state of today's Kashmir. Hence this unconscionable disproportion in the outrage over a trolling incident and the convenient silence over a carnage.
But Zaira wasn't blind to it. Like other residents of the valley, she was a helpless witness to what happened in Kashmir last year. She understood the anger and hurt that animated the trolling against her after she met the chief minister, whose purpose was to deploy her success as a weapon in an ongoing battle of political narratives. So, Zaira unreservedly apologised. I, and Kashmir, respect her for that, so should all conscientious Indians.