soniasarkar26

Battle Sites

Posted on: May 9, 2016

IMG_1269IMG_1277Kashmir’s young are no longer just shouting slogans on the streets. Their smartphones are their new battlefield – as well as their ammunition, finds Sonia Sarkar

Like millions of other young teens, Usman Hussain spends considerable time on Facebook and YouTube. But the 13-year-old student of a Srinagar public school surfs for information that is not likely to interest his peers elsewhere in the country. He spends almost seven hours a day on the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and related issues.”I want to know what the world has to say on conflict and Islam. It helps me to understand my identity and role as a Muslim,” Hussain says.Nazir Masood, 22, is glued to the social media, too. But the student of Srinagar’s National Institute of Technology (NIT) doesn’t waste time poking friends or sharing the latest musical hits. He uses the platform to voice his protest against government moves and policies.”This is our platform for resistance. We resist, so we exist. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to us,” he says.In Srinagar, the stage for resistance has moved from the streets to the Internet. The youth, the police say, is being “radicalised” by the Internet, and expressing their views on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Masood’s Facebook page, for instance, is flooded with photographs, videos and articles against the deployment of security forces on the NIT campus after two groups of students – Kashmiris and those from outside Kashmir – got into a fight over a recent cricket match where India was defeated.

“ISIS is the most searched word on the Internet in Kashmir,” a senior police officer says. “The radicalisation of the youth on the social media is a cause for concern in Kashmir,” adds another senior police official. An eight-member cyber team was set up by the police last year to keep a close check on the social media. So far, the team has only been monitoring the sites.

According to a 2015 report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, over 35 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir use the Net, and the state has 97 lakh mobile phones. An internal survey by the ruling Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) reveals that even in villages in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag, where electricity is available for only two hours a day on an average, a large number of people own smartphones with 2G connections.

Indeed, almost every young Kashmiri has a smartphone in hand. The phones – once used by the youth to assure their parents that they were safe – help them gather and share information, and voice dissent.

“Our children have been caged for years in Kashmir. Social media sites give them the wings to reach out to the outside world,” says Masood’s father, a Srinagar businessman. “But they shouldn’t do anything that would create trouble for them and us.”

But the police have been sniffing trouble – though they seek to stress that there is little danger of Kashmiri youth moving to outfits such as the ISIS. Some of the popular Facebook pages in Kashmir are Pulwama Live, Islamic Jamiat Talba and Tral – the Land of Martyrs, and Burhan the Fighter. Burhan is a reference to Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the 21-year-old commander of the militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

The pages have 3,500 to 12,000 followers, and carry photographs and videos of militants posing with Kalashnikovs, funerals of militants and videos of militants calling for violence.

Among the popular hashtags on Twitter, frequently retweeted by Kashmiris, are GoIndiaGoBack, Indianoppressedkashmir, Kashmirbleeds, IamBurhan and FreeKashmir.

The Kashmir police have blocked 186 pages which portrayed militants as heroes and propagated anti-India sentiments in the last one year. Among them were FB pages such as India ki Mout, Rahii Mir, Mujahideen-e-Islam and Tral Tigers Tigers.

Social scientists fear that young Kashmiris, who have always been on the forefront of the movement for secession, are now looking at Islamic movements across the globe and showing a readiness to embrace radical forms of Islam.

“Kashmir’s youth are looking for a global Islamic identity,” stresses sociologist Farah Qayoom of Kashmir University. “More and more young men and women are turning towards [the ultra conservative] Salafism. And they are using the social media for a selective interpretation of Islam.”

What attracts the young to the social media are parallels that they see across the world – of struggles for nationhood, police and army action against the youth and uprisings. “Social networking for Kashmiris is all about telling their story of alienation in India and also connecting to those who have similar stories to tell,” points out Srinagar-based psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoub.

Indeed, when a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who had been jailed by Israel was released recently, the news was widely shared by Kashmiri youngsters on Facebook. “We relate to it because children have been picked up by the police and kept in custody for months in Kashmir,” Kashmir University student Nadeem Muhammad says.

There are several other reasons why social media sites are becoming more and more popular in Kashmir. For one, Kashmiris tend not to trust mainstream media, especially television, and look at Internet as a source for news.

There was a time when Kashmiris had few channels for expressing their anger. Those days, people would write their grievances in sealed envelopes and leave them at the UN observers’ office in Srinagar, recalls artist Masood Hussain. “While dropping the envelopes, people used to chant, ‘azaadi‘.” The situation changed with the advent of the world press corps. The Kashmiri’s angry voice was carried abroad by representatives of international news groups who reported extensively from Kashmir.

Now social media sites have replaced the world press. “The mainstream media censor our grievances, so we share our stories on social media with the world,” says Zaraq Jahan, an undergraduate student at Kashmir University. “My mother often says, I’ve heard such-and-such thing has happened. Just check it out on the Internet,” adds another student.

Continuing police and army action against Kashmiris has fanned the simmering anger among the young, politicians stress. Waheed Rehman Parra, the youth wing president of the PDP, believes that the killing of children by security forces in 2010, the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament) in 2013 and other such incidents have “exacerbated the simmering anger and hatred” against the Centre. “What we see on social media is the manifestation of this anger and hatred,” he says.

Qayoom adds, “This generation of Kashmiris has grown up witnessing frisking, crackdowns, disappearances, summons to police stations and killings. So resistance on social media seems an obvious way for them to express their anger.”

Attacks on Muslims in other parts of the country, such as the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, have also added to the Kashmiri’s sense of alienation, a police officer admits. Kashmiri students have been attacked, too – in Rajasthan, Meerut, Mohali and Greater Noida in recent times.

“Even after witnessing such incidents against Kashmiris, if we don’t become radical now, then when,” asks Mushin Khan, a student of Kashmir University.

It’s not just angry posts that flood the sites. Black humour also crops up often. Mir Suhail, a 26-year-old cartoonist, has been taking potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one cartoon, he shows the PM standing behind his wax statue, recently unveiled by Madame Tussauds, watching a man hanging from a tree. “This man represents anyone who is oppressed in India – cattle traders, Dalits or farmers,” Suhail says.

One of Suhail’s cartoons, criticising the hanging of Guru, was pulled down by Facebook in February this year.

The government, too, has on occasion banned Internet in the Valley. When the news of a Handwara girl who had allegedly been molested by security forces spread last month, Internet was disconnected for three days. Last year, too, Internet lines were severed for three days when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to impose an economic blockade on Kashmir if cows were slaughtered for Eid.

There is concern in political quarters about the trend. “The Kashmir conflict was always political. But now many young Kashmiris are trying to give it a religious colour after being influenced by the conflict in West Asia,” says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, Awami Action Committee. “It has influenced them so much that they don’t listen to us when we try to dissuade them from moving towards this ideology.”

The police say they are now planning to use the social media to foil the radicals. “But we have just taken baby steps,” a senior police officer admits. “And whatever we do, the youth will be much ahead of us when it comes to using social media sites.”

The use of the social media has so far hampered the administration only in one way. Word spreads fast about police raids or search operations, and the youth reach the spot almost at once. “Sometimes we’ve had to abandon our operations because of the crowds,” the police official says.

There have been sporadic incidents of masked men waving ISIS flags in the Valley in recent times. A 23-year-old man from Ganderbal in Kashmir, who was in Dubai, was arrested in January this year by the National Investigation Agency for alleged links with the ISIS. But the police stress that they are not worried about radicalism leading to a rise in militancy in Kashmir.

“Not all those who have been radicalised on social media are joining militancy,” says the inspector-general of police, Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani. “It is easier to be a Facebook jihadi than to fight on the ground.”

But for young Kashmiris, the arena for the battle is indeed shifting. And people like Suhail are not going to give up their campaign on the social media. The cartoonist says his friends often warn him that the security forces may target him for his “radical” art.

“But the security forces don’t understand that what is radical for them is the reality for us,” he says.

Facebook pages blocked by police

186 pages blocked since 2015. Some of them are:

  • India ki Mout
  • Qaidai Azamm
  • Tral The Land of Martyrs
  • AK Burhan
  • Malik malik [burhan bhai]
  • Mujahideen-e-islam
  • Tral Tigers Tigers
  • Tral The Beauty Land

Popular hashtags on Twitter

#GoIndiaGoBack, #Indianoppressedkashmir,  #Kashmirbleeds,  #IamBurhan, #IamKashmir,  #RagdaRagda,  #AndOccupation,  #FreeKashmir,  #BlackDay  #Illegaloccupation

( Some names have been changed to protect identities)

A longer version of the story is published in The Telegraph on May 8, 2015


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