In August 2021, exactly two years after the abrogation of Article 370 and the erstwhile State's reorganisation into two Union Territories, the Government of Jammu and Kashmir announced its first film policy. It offered major incentives to the 'investors of peace', including the people who would revive cinema by shooting films and constructing multiplexes in the valley. In the last three years, the government also sponsored scores of music concerts and four fashion shows in Srinagar to 'change the wind'.
With the valley's entertainment community still waiting for the 'change', two unidentified terrorists on Wednesday, May 25, triggered a wave of unprecedented fear in the last over 20 years. Amreen Bhat (35), one of Kashmir's first entertainment Vloggers and YouTubers, was shot dead at her home in Hushroo, Chadoora, in the Central Kashmir district of Budgam.
Amreen's killing left behind big shadows of fear. Within the next 24 hours, at least six female singers and artists made frantic phone calls to a senior television and theatre producer, narrating how frightened they were. The producer, the organiser of the Kashmir film festival in Pune, counselled the artists to keep 'calm'.
With her TikTok videos, Amreen had broken a glass ceiling while shooting in a village 20 km away from the capital Srinagar. Even after the government failed to reopen cinemas in the last over 32 years and a resident Pandit closed down a flourishing music studio, Ravimech, private production channels mushroomed on the internet after 2010.
Married in 2012 and divorced two months thereafter, Amreen started earning through her performances in songs and drama serials at Doordarshan Kendra (DDK) Srinagar. Soon she quit television and forayed into Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, becoming a social media sensation in no time. As her followers and subscribers multiplied on all platforms, she became the sole breadwinner of her family, comprising her father, Khizar Mohammad Bhat, and sister Razia who lives with her husband and 10-year-old son Farhan at her parental house.
Amreen's killing is the sixth of its kind since March 8 in Budgam, considered a militancy-free district for over 25 years now. Her brutal killing was carried out thirteen days after the murder of Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit, who was killed at his office in Chadoora, just 4 km from Hushroo. Amreen was gunned down a day after the murder of a selection-grade constable Saifullah Qadri in Srinagar's Soura neighbourhood. Saifullah's nine-year-old daughter sustained injuries in the incident.
Early in the morning on Friday, 27 May, police and security forces claimed to have killed Amreen Bhat's assassins in an overnight encounter at Aganhanzipora in Awantipora Town in Pulwama. They were identified as the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists Shahid Mushtaq Bhat of Hafroo, Chadoora, and Farhan Habib of Hakripora, Pulwama. They were among the ten terrorists, including six foreigners, killed in four encounters in the last three days.
Unlike other killings, no terror outfit or a front organisation claimed responsibility for Amreen's murder. "I can say a Muslim is killing a Muslim, and it's no azaadi, and it's called terrorism. Please wipe out this terrorism," Khizar Mohammad Bhat, Amreen's father, said, speaking to The Probe. "She was my family's only bread-earner, and she took care of all of us. She would take me to Jammu for 5-6 months every winter. She was my son, not daughter," Bhat said, refusing to identify the killers.
Amreen's sister Razia said she was milking the cow when two young strangers appeared and asked her son Farhan about Amreen. "Farhan went in and called out Amreen to see the two guests. As she came out to the veranda, one of them told her that they were her neighbours and wanted her to sing at a wedding in Budgam. She pleaded that she was not a singer at weddings. Thereupon the youth took out his pistol and opened fire. Amreen rushed into the house for cover, but they chased her and shot her dead inside," narrated Razia while claiming she would not recognise the killers. Farhan was left injured.
Most of the people in Kashmir believe that the young woman lost her life due to her popular video reels on social media platforms, but nobody wants to outrightly blame the militants.
Amreen's targeted killing came days after the police seized the first haul of the 15 highly sophisticated US-made pistols, which according to an officer, were found with 15-round magazines, different from the conventional Chinese pistols of 8-round ammunition magazines. "This is the first haul of the small arms the American troops left behind in Afghanistan in August last year, and we seized it after it was being smuggled to Kashmir," the officer revealed to The Probe.
As of now, there is apparently no evidence of the Taliban fighters' infiltration into the valley, but the fear is building up following a series of pistol attacks on soft targets. While the US-made pistol cache was seized in Chanapora, on the Srinagar-Chadoora road, five more pistols were recovered in Baramulla last week.
Out of the 26, foreign terrorists gunned down this year, including men from the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), as many as 6 were killed in two encounters in Baramulla and Kupwara in the last 24 hours alone. "It indicates an increased infiltration of the jihadist cadres from Pakistan. If they are enforcing a puritanical form of Islam, in which every entertainment from cinema to social media is strictly proscribed, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, how could they tolerate it in Kashmir?" an official asserted.
Significantly, last weekend, the Taliban emirate in Afghanistan issued a decree asking female television hosts, anchors and presenters to cover their entire body from head to toe. Even as violence against female artists and singers has seen a thaw in the last few years, quite a number of them have been killed for defying cultural and religious diktats in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
In recent times, popular Pashto singer Ghazala Javed (24) was shot dead in Peshawar in 2012. Television and theatre performer Bushra (18) was killed at Nowshera, 150 km from Islamabad. Pashto singing sensation Gul Naz a.k.a Muskan, was gunned down in Peshawar in June 2014. Stage actress Sunbul was also shot dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in February 2018. Actor-singer Reshma was shot dead by her husband in Nowshera Kalan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in August 2018. Famed Pashto singer Sana was stabbed to death by her brother in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in August 2019.
Amreen's killing has brought back traumatising memories of some clerics and jihadist groups issuing diktats against everybody associated with the glamour and entertainment industry in Kashmir. They view such activities, particularly by women, as ‘immoral’ and ‘un-Islamic’. Defiance caused such killings on several occasions.
Amreen's growing popularity in social media is believed to be an irritant for the guerrillas enforcing the puritanical form of Islam from Afghanistan to Kashmir. She had 26,700 followers on Instagram and 15,600 subscribers on YouTube. Many of the hundreds of her short videos - lip-syncing and dancing on Bollywood hits and popular Urdu ghazals - had been hugely liked by the valley's young generation. Some of her reels had touched 1.3 to 1.9 million hits.
In Kashmir, all entertainment outlets stand banned by militants. All wine shops, video kiosks, beauty parlours and cinema theatres were closed down under the militant threat in August-December 1989. There were scores of grenade and firing attacks on cable operators, dish antennas and a revived cinema theatre. Over a dozen cable operators were killed in different attacks in the recent past.
Even after technology and the internet changed everything and militants lost control of the entertainment industry, diktats on women's dress codes were issued and enforced intermittently. In 2012-13, chief cleric Mufti Bashir-ud-din got the valley's first all-women music band 'Pragaash' closed with a fatwa. On certain occasions, there were threats and armed attacks on beauty parlours.
A number of the artists and officials associated with Doordarshan were also attacked in the 1990s. Those killed in the terror attacks included the Director of DDK Srinagar Lassa Kaul and drama artist Shamima Akhtar who was shot dead in downtown Srinagar. Radio newsreader and engineer Mohammad Shafi Faryad, Bashir Ahmad Bhat and TV anchor Altaf Ahmad Faktoo were also shot dead in Srinagar.
30 years later, a young entertainer's life has been snuffed out, and a community of more than 3,000 stakeholders - film and song producers, theatre and TV actors, singers and dancers, vloggers and YouTubers, models and fashion designers - has been left shell-shocked.
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is an independent journalist based out of Jammu & Kashmir. With 27 years of experience, Fayyaz is a policy analyst and a political commentator. He has extensively reported on conflict - after the 1990 Kashmir conflict - for the national and international media.