In a move that has historically failed to quell protests and check mobilization of the youth in Jammu & Kashmir, the state government on Wednesday banned 22 online applications including popular social networking sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Since 2012, the state government has interrupted web services 29 times but there is no evidence to suggest that a crackdown on the web have succeeded in scaling down protests.
The current round of online censorship in Kashmir comes in the wake of what is described as ‘video wars’-- a series of videos juxtaposing two realities of Kashmir: the local population’s opposition to the armed forces, and human rights violations by security personnel.
These videos stormed the web after the by-election for the Srinagar parliamentary seat on April 9. Eight people were killed in the clashes that broke during the day of polling that witnessed a seven per cent voter turnout.
In one of the videos, local men can be seen heckling a CRPF jawan returning from election duty. The jawan does not pay attention to the hecklers and keeps walking. The video went viral and triggered prime-time debates on news channels. Later, two more videos of mobs shouting “India, go back” at security personnel, roughing them up and abusing them were widely shared on social media.
On the morning of April 14, National Conference spokesperson Junaid Mattoo tweeted an 11 seconds video that showed a Kashmiri man tied to the bonnet of a military jeep as a human shield. The voice in the background can be heard saying, “This will be the fate of stone-pelters”.
Reacting to the human shield video, former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted, “I understand the outrage the CRPF video generated. I’m also outraged that the video of the youth on the jeep won’t generate the same anger. Let’s see channels going ballistic and having discussions with outraged panellists now. Probably not since ‘Kashmir is ours’ hell with Kashmiris.”
The army ordered a Court of Inquiry into the video that was reportedly shot in Budgam area and turned the spotlight on human rights abuse in Kashmir.
In a third video, security personnel can be seen firing from close range on a boy, part of a group of young protesters throwing stones.
Grainy, shaky, unedited videos shot from mobile phones first emerged in the Valley during the summer of 2010 when massive street protests broke out. No one knows who shot this video: Four naked Kashmir men passing by a field escorted by security personnel. A voice is heard taunting the men and telling them not to try and cover themselves with the clothes they are holding in their hands. “The sister******* have been making us run after them since the morning. The police station is where we need to take them,” the main voice is heard saying in the video. A detailed description of the video is given by artist and writer Shuddhabrata Sengupta, in a blog posted on countercurrents.com.
The three-minute long footage created shockwaves in the Valley and outside. Newspapers including Greater Kashmir and Indian Express reported on the video which surfaced on Facebook and YouTube in September. It triggered outrage specifically among the youth, who, by then, had formed online communities for political discourse and to conduct protests.
It was their way to vent their anger in the wake of curfew and strikes which continued for more than four months. “These are children of conflict. Most of them were born in the 1990s when militancy broke out or after that. They have seen nothing but violence. They do not trust the media and have created their own ways of telling people what is happening here,” said Sheikh Mushtaq, senior journalist and former Srinagar bureau chief of Reuters.
The authorities responded by an excessive monitoring of social networking sites and detaining Kashmiris who were found sharing or uploading ‘disturbing’ content. Faizan Samad, a 16-year-old boy and Mufti Wajid Yaqoob, 26-year-old bank employee were arrested as part of this crackdown.
The YouTube videos of two most popular anthems of the uprising, rapper MC Kash’s ‘I Protest’ and Rehman Rahi’s song Zinda rozna bapath chii maran lukh, chii marakh naa? (People die so that generations can live! Won’t you?) show raw footage and stills of violence in Kashmir.
In spite of frequent internet shutdowns in Kashsmir, content being taken offline, detentions and warnings by the police, the number of Kashmiri youth who resort to social media to relay human rights abuses by the armed forces has increased manifold since the 2010 uprising.
At the time of writing, the ban was only partially implemented and many social media users could access these sites. Others were using proxy servers to defy the blockade.
MOIN BILAL: THE BOY FROM CHADOORA
Moin Bilal’s eyes were wet. He appeared older for his age, 17 years. He looked away as he recounted the events of March 28. “Even if God himself had come down, I would have done what I did,” said the class 10 student of the Chadoora area in Srinagar’s Budgam district.
That evening, Bilal was one of four people in the ambulance carrying the dead body of his cousin Zahid Rashid. The 22-year-old who loved exploring the valley on his KTM Duke bike and taking pictures on his Nikon DSLR, died of gunfire while witnessing the encounter between the armed forces and the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Tawsif Magray in Chadoora.
“He was holidaying in Bengaluru with his friends for more than a week. He returned because we said to him that it’s time he came home,” said one of Zahid’s five sisters who chose to remain anonymous.
On the way back from SMHS hospital in Srinagar to Chadoora, the cops stopped the ambulance at Jahangir Chowk, a busy intersection in the heart of the city, saying that Rashid’s corpse reaching Chadoora might lead to disturbances. Bilal stepped out and started live streaming what was happening through Facebook. “AsalaamualaIkum mera bhai shaheed ho gaya hain. Aap dekh rahe hain Kashmir mein kitna zulm chal raha hai. Hum azadi chahte hain. Ambulance kee chaabi lee inhone,” Bilal can be seen screaming in the video that went viral.
Bilal doesn’t log into his Facebook account frequently. He doesn’t have a page on the social networking site. Nor is he part of online communities and groups. One day, he came across Facebook live footage of his friends enjoying snowfall in the Valley. He tested the feature once himself.
The second time he pressed the live button was when he got out of the ambulance. “I wanted to expose the cops. I wanted the world to know what we face on a day-to-day basis. Had I not broadcast it live, would you have believed that the police actually stopped an ambulance?” asked Bilal, whose smartphone was with the police at the time of writing.
He is upset with the discriminatory way the authorities deal with video footage uploaded by locals. “When cops shoot a video, it is considered all right. But when local boys post something, the police arrests them,” he said, adding that he would not be surprised to find that the police had registered a case against him. “They can do anything to curb our voice. I want to know what my crime is. I was not pelting stones. I was not protesting. I simply filmed what was happening. Then why did their blood start boiling?”
Zahid’s sister said it was brave of Bilal to live-stream the event. “Social media is not meant only to make friends and chat with them,” she said.
She added that the impact of social media was evident. “Having seen videos of torture and humiliation by the Indian Army and the J&K police, people here feel a sense of unity like never before.”
SHAHID: STONE IN ONE HAND, PHONE IN THE OTHER
Let’s call him Shahid. Stone pelters in the valley idolise him. The soft-spoken man in his late 20s is known for his feistiness, and dislike for the Indian military’s presence in Kashmir. In 2008, Shahid was at a protest site in Srinagar’s downtown area when gunfire hit a civilian. “As the CRPF men started hitting the wounded man with rifle butts, I filmed it on my phone,” he said. Since then, Shahid has been taking turns to throw stones and video-graph protests on his smartphone. “Once we are at the protest site, we do not know who among us will be filming it. There is no one person deputed for this. Any of us can do it,” said Shahid, speaking of more than a dozen friends who routinely confront security personnel during clashes.
The group, comprising students, traders and labourers, is aware of the consequences of raising a mobile device amid clashes and filming the action when the CRPF men respond with pellet guns, tear gas and bullets. “I tell all my friends that if they have entered this field, they should be ready for anything, even death. We fear nothing because our intent is good. We are not going to live forever but once we are gone, the coming generations will see the events that we captured and continue the struggle,” Shahid said.
Although Shahid and his friends in downtown Srinagar have been documenting violence using mobile devices for almost a decade, he attributed the recent spurt in videos emanating from the Valley to slain militant commander Burhan Wani. “He was in the habit of regularly uploading footage on social media. There are videos of him playing cricket and singing for his mother. That content galvanised the youth here to become more active on social media than before,” said Shahid.
All the members in Shahid’s group are well versed with almost all 21 social networking sites which the state government has banned for a month, and have figured out ways to remain active online despite the ban. “Let me assure you, there is no stopping us now. The government is doing its job. We will do ours,” said Shahid.
For him and his friends, the internet shutdown in Srinagar is actually a victory of sorts. “We have been successful in relaying our unedited voices to a global audience. We have bypassed the mainstream media, national and local. The government is aware of this. Hence the ban,” he said.
Mocking the government’s strategy of halting web services to check protests, Shahid said, “On the one hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promotes Digital India. On the other, he bans internet in Kashmir. This means that he doesn’t consider Kashmir as a part of India.”
MUHAMMAD FAYSAL: DOCUMENTING UNREST IN THE VALLEY
Within hours of the J&K government ordering ban on 21 social networking sites and apps in the valley, Muhammad Faysal, a political blogger in Srinagar, tweeted, “A screenshot of a mobile screen of a Kashmir activist after the social media ban.” The accompanying picture carried icons of VPN (virtual private networks) which would enable the use of apps when the ban is in place. “In the past such bans have not worked. This time also, people here will find alternatives,” he said.
Faysal is one of the earliest proponents of recording unrest in Kashmir, online. He is founder member of the voluntary group that runs the site lostkashmirihistory.com. Apart from latest data on killings, disappearances, torture, and rape cases, the site is a repository of news articles, blogs and PDF copies of more than 100 books on Kashmir. In free time, Faysal tweets on politics and internet crackdown in Kashmir and films clashes.
“Kashmiris like me are fighting the news blackout through such videos. The amateur video is evidence with which we can make ourselves heard globally without approaching any media outlet,” said Faysal. “Secondly, it challenges the state’s narrative of Kashmir. This is the narrative of people, and not of any political party,” he added.
Faysal said while media reports project that young citizens of Kashmir have recently started capturing clashes and encounters on their phones, the trend goes back to 2008 when markets across Kashmir got flooded with cheap smartphones. Following year, the Shopian rapes and murders took place. People massively shared pictures through bluetooth. That was the phase when mobile phone emerged as a source of images in Kashmir. “Pictures of mutilated corpses and bulled ridden faces of civilians including minors started travelling to remote corners of the valley. These pictures had shock value,” he said.
Between 2008 and 2010, Faysal filmed many protests and clashes across Kashmir. He remembered that people were apprehensive of getting clicked because of the fear of being persecuted by the authorities. “Once I saw kids playing in a street in Nawatta area and started taking their pictures. They stopped me saying that they would be arrested,” he said.
When, in the summer of 2010, 17-year-old student Tufail Mattoo was killed by a tear gas shell triggered, Faysal became part of a lose group of online community which campaigned for a fair investigation in the case. “The online space turned completely political after that tragedy and has remained so since then,” said Faysal.
ZABIRAH FAZILI: REGISTERING PROTEST IN THE VIRTUAL (AND REAL) WORLD
Zabirah Fazili, a 21-year-old English graduate from Women’s College, Srinagar, protests online as much as she joins her friends on the streets in solidarity. “Some of us pelt stones to protest. I protest by sharing videos of atrocities on Kashmiris and by writing poems which I share online through my Facebook account,” she said.
Fazili belongs to the growing tribe of young citizens of Kashmir who find solace in writing and meeting like-minded people online and offline.
Her Facebook timeline chronicles the internet shutdowns in the Valley and her thoughts on the issue.
“While they ban the internet, I write articles, poems and essays to keep a record of all the brutalities. Let the world know,” read one of her posts.
She shared the thoughts of one of her friends which read, “Some people use Internet. Others are born Kashmiris.”
On the evening of April 26, Fazili posted, “Whenever I will have something on my mind, I will call my friends in India and ask them to post on my behalf.”
For her, the web is a medium to share her thoughts, mark her resistance to the prevailing situation in the Valley and project the complete picture, which, she said, is often missing in the narrative of the mainstream media. “Through newspapers and channels, you get to see one side of the story. We show the other side using social media. Let the world watch and decide,” she said.
Fazili believes that banning internet services and social networking sites in the Valley with the aim of checking mobilisation of protesters is a futile exercise. “You cannot ban people’s movement by banning the internet. Four days ago, the police entered the campus of Government Degree College, Pulwama, to reign in protesters. It is a co-ed college and many girls got injured. Consequently, college girls in Srinagar were out on the streets to protest. The internet ban was still in place. It could not stop the girls,” she said.
Recalling the internet shutdown that lasted for around four months after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in July last year which triggered massive unrest in the Valley, she said, “The movement sustained for six long months in spite of no internet. Curbing the internet is not a solution to this issue,” she said.
Fazili is aware of the government’s crackdown on social networking sites, particularly those running WhatsApp groups and avoids joining digital communities. “There is a constant fear of being watched over by the government agencies. If you create a community, there are chances of someone joining it with the purpose of leaking information of members’ activities to the authorities,” she said.