Kashmir unrest: Youth struggle to provide alternate narrative, authorities try to run them aground
The desperate attempt of the Kashmiri youth to get themselves heard at the international forums is challenging the mainstream narrative.
On 14 April, a bystander shot an unusual video clip, which showed a young man, a 24-year-old shawl weaver named Farooq Ahmad Dar, tied to the bonnet of an army jeep as it led a convoy through a poll-bound Chewa hamlet in Budgam in central Kashmir. The man was used as a human shield by soldiers against the stone-throwing protesters as a voice speaking in Hindi can be heard saying, “Stone throwers will meet the same fate.”
Within minutes, the video was shared on social media and as soon as the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah shared it on his Twitter handle, it became the talk of the town. Omar pushed the video from social media to national and international media, which portrayed the event differently.
Another video that travelled from social media to the mainstream Indian media was the one that showed a couple of angry boys hitting troops returning from polling stations on 9 April, while the crowd was escorting them out of the polling station. The TV channels carefully edited the video to leave out that part where some of the boys were trying to shield the troops from those who were trying to hit them. In the video, the boys can be easily seen shielding the troops and hurl abuses against the assailants but even if the mainstream media had known it, they did not translate it thereby distorting facts and misinforming people.
The other videos which could not make it to the mainstream media, included that of the death of a stone pelting boy in Ratsuna village of Beerwah in Budgam when a CRPF trooper opened fire on him from a close range. The video was apparently shot by a poll officer. In another case, a mob escorted entire polling and security forces to safety amid anti-India sloganeering.
A glut of videos depicted alleged police excesses and the sparked outrage surfaced after government restored the internet services in Kashmir, which were snapped “to ensure the smooth conduct of by-polls,” as government believed that it would restrict youth from mobilising and supporting stone pelting and that it would prevent spread of rumours. The ban on internet failed to render desired results as the elections ended on a bloody note wherein eight civilians lost their lives and more than 150 were wounded after security forces opened fire on the protesters.
Voter turnout was the lowest in the last 27 years. A re-poll was held on 13 April, but only 2 percent of voters showed up for that too.
Disgruntled by the selective portrayal of news events, the youth of Kashmir have taken things into their own hands and are using alternate mediums like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites to show the ground situation. They consider mainstream media especially the Indian television channels “a mere propaganda tool.” The people in Kashmir have used their cell phones as a weapon against everything they despise: police excesses, routine stop and search operations and anti-militancy operations. Any cell phone can capture the misconduct of the security forces, thereby embarrassing an already embattled government. The social media in Kashmir is evolving as a space for dissenting opinions and people are using it to publicise their dissent and garner support from around the world. The netizens are almost running a parallel discourse and despite the multi-pronged crackdown the alternate media seem to be threatening the foundations of the mainstream media.
Mohammad Rafi, online media manager of one of the Kashmir based e-magazines said the new media was filling the gaps created by the formal media. “It has really decentralised the whole information flow. The ordinary citizens produce news themselves thus keeping all the regulations at bay. The protestors, savvy with social media, communicate among local participants as well as stimulate an international response. But I don’t think alternate mediums have been able to run a parallel narrative in Kashmir”, he said, “I think government’s decision to ban social media is based on the international events particularly Arab spring and the role played by the alternate media in different uprisings”.
On 27 April the government banned nearly 22 social networking sites and applications including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter in Kashmir as it believes these are being ‘misused’ by the anti- national and anti-social elements for transmitting inflammatory messages. The ban suggests that the media discourse has now decisively moved to the social media.
But the government’s move has drawn criticism from different quarters.
“It is a blow to the freedom of expression and (it) not only violates the Indian Constitution but international laws. There is no solid study, which says social media foments trouble in Kashmir. The restrictions are not reasonable. Even if one buys the argument of the government that, a video which shows police excesses creates trouble, authorities cannot punish the entire population for the acts of a handful of ‘miscreants’. We already have enough laws that can be used to push the accused. The ban appears to muzzle dissenting voices which will disfigure the image of world’s largest democracy,” said Rafi.
As per media reports, Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed 30 instances of internet shutdowns, with ten instances in 2016. These figures are higher in Kashmir than in any other state of India. The longest period of mobile internet blackout happened after the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani on 8 July, 2016. The ban continued for quite a few months and postpaid mobile services were restored only in mid-November while prepaid services were restored on 30 January this year.
A Srinagar-based journalist, who wished to be not named, said that during the 2016 uprising every newspaper was sent a diktat not to carry photographs of pellet victims and protests. “Mainstream media is bound to follow certain government policies, but alternate media is ubiquitous and free. People here are using social media to record the daily happenings and broadcast it. There are no editorial policies and no hidden agendas. They simply share the happenings. This alternative discourse is puncturing the propaganda of most of the Indian TV channels,” he said.
As per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Jammu and Kashmir has the highest internet penetration with 35-lakh internet subscribers and it has the distinction of having more internet subscribers in rural areas, which is the hotbed of militancy related activities. Against the 17.2-lakh internet subscribers in urban areas, there are 18.1 lakh such subscribers living in rural areas.
When Burhan Wani, who is believed to have opened a new chapter in Kashmir’s militancy, joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2013, internet penetration was just 5-6 percent, which has now risen to nearly 27 percent. This multi-fold increase has directly helped the militants as the majority of the youth in Kashmir share the same sentiment.
With a huge base of 980,805,242 mobile users, the internet is changing the dynamics of information flow and with cheaper data plans, every youth is a potential citizen journalist. Soon after the internet service was restored, youth bought Reliance Jio sim cards, which provided them with free internet services. Equipped with the free high-speed internet, they began to live-stream the protest. The youths are risking their lives to make people aware about the ground situation in Kashmir.
On 12 February, at Frisal in south Kashmir, a bullet hit a protestor while he was live-streaming the stone-throwing incident at the site of a gun-battle. This was for the first time, stone-pelters were live-streaming the stone-throwing incident aimed at helping the militants to escape the security forces.
On 28 March, in central Kashmir’s Chadoora, 14 kilometers away from Srinagar, hundreds of youth came out to clash with the security forces to help a militant trapped in a house. Zahid Rashid Ganai, 22, tried to live stream the video of the clashes near gun battle on his Facebook profile. He was hit by a bullet in his neck and died en-route from home to hospital. When his body was being brought home in an ambulance, police officers stopped the vehicle near Lal Chowk in Srinagar and did not let it go further. One of the boys attending to the body recorded the whole episode and uploaded it on his Facebook. The video went viral within hours, evoking sharp criticism against the police action. Along with Ganai, two other boys were killed in police action near the encounter spot in Chadoora. The clashes between the youth and security forces continued for days after that encounter.
Just hundred meters away from the encounter site, Shah Adil, a 24-year techie was live streaming the whole gun-battle as he felt the mainstream media was not showing the right picture and was biased. “When media misrepresents the situation, we have to take things in our hand,” he said adding that Kashmiris do not need the TV channels who twist facts for the sake of the TRPs. “Look at their prime time debates they are so untrue that one feels like slamming the TV. If they show facts, people will not risk their lives. We risk lives for the truth. It’s also a kind of Jihad for us”, he said.
He argued that by going live, people deflated the security forces’ excuses of stray bullets causing civilian casualties. “Every time a civilian is killed they would be-fool the world by saying a stray bullet has hit him. However, people now are exposing everything themselves. It has an impact as well. The police changed their statement regarding the killing of a civilian at Chadoora. First, they said a stray bullet hit him. But after a video showing police directly shooting a protector came forth, they changed their story,” Shah said.
On 1 April, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, claimed on the floor of the Lok Sabha that a new trend has emerged in Kashmir wherein social media was being used by groups based in Pakistan to provoke protest activities. “I will appeal to the youth not to be misguided by Pakistan. Some social media applications like Facebook are used to gather youth at the places of encounters. Those are based in Pakistan,” he said.
Police have also felt that social media was being used by the militant groups to influence youths and considered the rampant uploading of violent videos to be “threat to peace” regardless of the content the video was showing. A police officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the militant groups send audio messages to instigate youth to reach encounter sites and have posted fake videos on Facebook showing security forces committing atrocities on people. “During the Chadoora encounter, we intercepted hundreds of messages which originated in the neighbouring country. The message would ask people to help the militants flee as they are their brother and are fighting to liberate them. With these social networking sites, the militants are in touch with their Over Ground Workers, who motivate youth into violence and ultimately into militancy,” he said.
During a press conference on 30 March, the Director of Police, Shesh Paul Vaid said that enemies of India across the border use social networking sites to foment trouble in Kashmir. Speaking to reporters in Srinagar, the DGP said that some elements misuse social media to disturb peace in the Valley. “I would say this is a misuse of social media by people inimical to peace in the Valley and to our country. The moment an encounter starts, they activate around 300 WhatsApp groups, each having more than 250 members, and other social networking websites like Facebook get activated, instigating young boys to reach the encounter site and throw stones so that the terrorists escape from the spot”, he said.
“Some of these accounts have been traced across (the border). It is an attempt by the enemies of India to create problems. All these numbers are being monitored and we will take action against those operating them from here”, he said. “Forces and police take the cover of a bulletproof vehicle or a house. Youths coming to the encounter sites are committing suicide,” he added.
This desperate attempt of the Kashmiri youth to get themselves heard at the international forums is challenging the mainstream narrative. The government’s failure to reach out to this dejected youth has left them with no choice but to innovate a different flow of information. The experts, however, fear that imposition of an e-curfew can potentially further aggravate the situation as youth will feel chocked and pushed to the wall. As a former member of the National Security Council said once, “I will prefer the youth in Kashmir to engage in protests on Facebook, rather than come out on the streets pelting stones against the security forces.” With the shutting down of online spaces, people who were showing their resentment through online platforms will join their brethren on the streets, which will have far-reaching consequences for the unrest in Kashmir.
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