While the two countries recently came close to fighting a war, two YouTube artists came under barrage of abuse and criticism for speaking the language of co-existence.
On February 27 2019, Pakistani YouTube influencer Farrukh Shabbir disabled comments on one of his videos. The video was about the recent tensions between India and Pakistan.
At least 40 Indian soldiers were killed in India-administered Kashmir's Pulwama district when a suicide bomber with links to a terror organisation based in Pakistan struck their convoy. In the days following the attack, Indian and Pakistani fighter jets engaged in dogfights and the two military powers came close to war. It wasn't the first time however that these two archrivals have mobilised their armies against each other. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, when they gained Independence from British colonialism.
On social media, many Indian users abused Shabbir, a YouTube influencer, after he shared condolences for the families of Indian paramilitary soldiers who lost their lives to suicide bombing in Kashmir.
Shabbir runs a YouTube channel named Pakistani Reactions. It has a subscriber base of more than 170,000 with 51,432,900 video views. He built his audience by reacting to Indian content such as movie trailers, advertisements and stand ups. According to Shabbir, more than 70 percent of his audience are from India.
“I don’t really understand why I get picked on because of [the tensions],” Farrukh said in his recent video about the attacks. “I try to not take sides.”
Shabbir wasn’t the only YouTube influencer who faced anger and abuse online. A week earlier, Mayank Ranjan, who runs Indian Reactions, made a video reacting to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech on the Pulwama attack. In two hours, his video had 70,000 views and more than 3,000 comments, he says. Most of them were abusive. This was at a scale Mayank had never experienced.
“I disagreed with Imran Khan’s video after the Pulwama attack. I said that he should’ve at least condemned what happened in Pulwama,” says Mayank. “But many people didn’t agree with me and in the end I had to take down the video.”
Mayank is a final year MBA student and runs his YouTube channel from Bihar, India. He has more than 150,000 subscribers and a total of 16,727,590 views on YouTube. More than 100,000 of his subscribers are from Pakistan.
Shabbir and Mayank may be divided by geographical and political realities but they share a vision of peaceful co-existence. However, the nature of their channels — a Pakistani reacting to Indian content and an Indian reacting to Pakistani content — doesn’t always go down well with their audiences.
“The first 300 comments are the sensible ones where people critique, support and say bad things about me,” says Shabbir.
The rude and insensitive comments don’t come from his subscribers, but from people who stumble upon his channel, he says. “They come there and they don’t even watch the video and say whatever they want to. So I wanted to avoid this on that particular video [about recent India-Pakistan tension].”
Despite the “troll armies”, as Farrukh describes them, the comments on Pakistani Reactions and Indian Reactions have mostly been positive ever since the two YouTubers launched them.
Both Shabbir and Mayank were inspired by Jaby Koay’s reaction channel. Jaby Koay is an American YouTuber who gained popularity after his reactions to Bollywood trailers went viral. He is closing in on one million subscribers and now even chats with Bollywood stars like Vicky Kaushal and Aditi Rao Hydari on his channel.
Jaby’s audience is primarily Indian, and he’s been cautious about addressing the tensions between India and Pakistan. On February 16 2019, two days after the Pulwama terror attack, Jaby released a video explaining that he didn’t want to talk about the tragedy because of childhood trauma.
When Jaby was reached for comment on this article, he responded with an email saying: “I am interested but apprehensive. I am concerned about being pulled into a political dialogue I am largely uninformed about.”
Since then, the video has crossed 282,000 views. The comments on the video were mostly positive and people thanked Jaby for sympathising with Indians. After watching his video, some of his subscribers also commented that they forget sometimes that Jaby isn’t Indian.
“I don’t think Jaby wanted to make a video on this incident. But he was getting too many comments from people to make a video on it,” says Mayank. “He realised that if he doesn’t, these comments wouldn’t stop.”
Still Jaby has engaged with India-Pakistan relations in the past.
On January 18, 2019, he made a poll on Twitter and YouTube asking his audience if they wanted him to react on the trailer of an upcoming Pakistani movie The Legend of Maula Jatt. He later created a poll on YouTube asking his subscribers if they’d be okay if he reacted to the trailer of the movie on another channel. Both the tweet and the YouTube post have been deleted (while I found a cached copy of the tweet, I can only call upon memory for the YouTube post).
Jaby never ended up reacting to the Pakistani movie and until today he has barely reacted to any Pakistani content on his channel.
Shabbir, regardless of Jaby choosing not to react to Pakistani content, says he feels a connection with him.
Shabbir saw a major gap in the market for Pakistani content even after the ban on YouTube was lifted in Pakistan. YouTube was banned on September 2012 after an anti-Islamic movie Innocence of Muslims was released on the site.
The first Pakistani reaction video Shabbir remembers watching on YouTube was a Buzzfeed video, where a Pakistani reacted to the Homeland series in 2015. In just two years, Shabbir built an entire channel dedicated to Pakistani reactions.
“I just wanted to improve my image, my country’s image on YouTube,” says Shabbir. “That’s why I named my channel Pakistani Reactions.”
Koay has been an inspiration for Mayank as well. But it was Farrukh’s channel that helped him take the leap in February 2017. His first reaction video was of a Pakistani movie Actor in Law. He got more than 100,000 views on that video and the comments he got from Pakistanis only strengthened his resolve to continue reacting to Pakistani content. Mayank credits a lot of his success to Shabbir.
The experience of reacting to Pakistani content has also helped Mayank shed a lot of the preconceived notions about Pakistan. He mentions that he used to think of Pakistan as an extremely poor country with nothing for tourists. He also thought that there used to be constant bomb-blasts and Daesh was very active in the country. Before 2017, when he hadn’t started his channel, he used to get all the information about Pakistan from Indian media outlets. He says, “Pakistanis too felt the same before seeing my reaction channel: that India must be the place where everyone hates Pakistan.”
He has observed a similar change in his Pakistani audience. “People comment on my videos like ‘it’s because of you that I now love India. I feel people of India are also like you’,” says Mayank.
Shabbir has similar feelings for his subscribers. Even though his channel gets a lot of hate from Indians on a daily basis. He’s been compelled to disable the comments on his videos five times in the past. The abusive comments that he got after the recent tensions between India and Pakistan made him contemplate quitting YouTube.
“The way they [Indians] were defending me really changed my mind. That really made me feel that there’s true love somewhere,” says Shabbir. “It was this rope that I held tight. If I hadn’t found this rope, I would’ve quit.”