The Malala Paradox: No Matter What Your Views on Kashmir, It’s Impossible to Comment Without Being Trolled

Social Commentary

The Malala Paradox: No Matter What Your Views on Kashmir, It’s Impossible to Comment Without Being Trolled

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Malala Yousafzai, at the age of 22, has already done more than most people many decades older than her will dream of. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban while she was still a teenage schoolgirl, won a Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy for ending violence toward women and children, and now lends her name to the Malala Fund, a global organisation that works toward empowering girls worldwide to pursue their education. Today, she can add another achievement to her list – uniting India and Pakistan (or at least their Twitter trolls) in a week where the two countries have suspended bilateral relations after the Indian government abrogated Article 370 and bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir.

How did Yousafzai achieve this feat? To be perfectly honest, she can’t claim sole credit. She has to share some with India’s Parliament, which ended Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, sending shockwaves through not just India, but also neighbouring Pakistan. Yousafzai was a common target for both Indians and Pakistanis online. The Pakistanis were upset that she remained silent when India passed the resolution to revoke Article 370, with actress Veena Malik announcing she was unfollowing the activist over her silence on the Kashmir issue. Others accused her of staying silent because there’s “no money to be made from highlighting #KashmirIssue”. 

When she finally did speak out two days later, it was a soft statement that refrained from condemning the Indian government’s decision outright, but simply expressed concern for the well-being of women and children in the region. Still, that was enough for the Indian to descend en masse, calling her a hypocrite for speaking about Kashmir and not Balochistan, among other less-savoury epithets. They were joined by Pakistanis who condemned her for not speaking out sooner or strongly enough. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but these are the stakes when commenting about such a historic geopolitical development.

In Yousafzai’s statement, she brings up the “seven decades of conflict” in the Kashmir region and ends with a call for “a peaceful resolution”.

If the struggles that she’s already overcome weren’t enough, this online catch-22 predicament is bound to make a casual observer feel sorry for Yousafzai. “Malala will just breathe and you guys will find a reason to throw her under the bus,” read one of the rare tweets that actually had some sympathy for her. But though Yousafzai’s case received more media attention, she’s not the only one being thrown under the bus of heated online discourse. Right now, the Kashmir topic is like blood in the water, and the Twitter trolls are like hungry sharks on the lookout for the next feeding frenzy. Whether you are for Article 370’s revocation, against it, or simply on the fence, expressing an opinion of any sort is sure to attract a wave of hate online. And as we saw with Yousafzai, even staying silent isn’t a fool-proof way to dodge this bullet.

The conversation around Kashmir has been hijacked by extreme views on both sides. Staunch supporters of the move clash with its strident critics in virtual battles, where weapons are replaced by hashtags like #KashmirWithModi and #KashmirIsBleeding. Depending on your position, Article 370 being removed is either the first step on the road to India’s complete unification, or total destruction. And the supporters of both viewpoints are equally vitriolic, trying to browbeat anyone who disagrees into submission. As is often the case, being locked in a perpetual struggle has turned both the extremely liberal and extremely nationalist crowds into bizarro-world reflections of each other.

If you support the government’s move, you’ll be labelled as insensitive to the human rights of the 1.25 crore people living in J&K. If you condemn it, you’ll be considered a separatist traitor to India, or at best, an uninformed armchair critic. Sitting on the fence or espousing a wait-and-watch approach will be considered a mark of privilege and complicity. The singer Sona Mohapatra, who is known for her otherwise progressive views and usually enjoys the support of India’s liberals, was one of the victims of this polarised environment when she, like Yousafzai, made the mistake of posting a statement that didn’t clearly take sides, opening her up to salvos from those who felt she was abandoning the liberal values she normally represents. Mohapatra pointed out how the online debate was overlooking Ladakh and Jammu while focussing disproportionately on Kashmir, but moderation and rational thought is antithetical to the spirit of this debate.

In Yousafzai’s statement, she brings up the “seven decades of conflict” in the Kashmir region and ends with a call for “a peaceful resolution”. It seems like an inoffensive take, and yet she managed to upset people from both camps. Commenting on Kashmir in any form has become like drinking from a poisoned chalice; there will be consequences, and they will not be pretty. But can we expect any better from social media? PM Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan might shake hands over the Kashmir issue before Twitter learns how to have a civil conversation. Yousafzai’s wish for “a peaceful resolution” may yet come true, but it certainly will not apply to our online theatre of conflict.