AZADI DISCOURSE fills Facebook, so does the rage against security excesses. A year after the seething crowd of protesters left the streets, ushering in an uneasy peace, the battlefield has changed to a more familiar terrain. Facebook. Administered by young Kashmiris, a number of groups have emerged on the social networking site out of a need to make themselves heard. Early this year, Aalaw, an anti- State group describing itself as the “uncensored voice of Kashmir”, was blocked by the state authorities. Reason? “Aalaw was giving you sleepless nights. You couldn’t face the resistance of Kashmiri youth through Facebook also. You would never be able to break our resolve,” warns Mohammad Raafi, a member of the group, adding, “We will not surrender… Aalaw is growing fast yet again.” Aalaw has now shifted base to Twitter.
Meanwhile other online groups like The Electronic Intifada, Frontline Kashmir, Rationale of Struggle for Freedom in Former State of Jammu & Kashmir, Free My Kashmir, Kal-e-Kharab (hotheaded) and Sangbaaz have emerged on the cyberscape. With every fresh incident of human rights violation, these pages crackle with angry outbursts against New Delhi and its “puppet state government”. One such online forum, The Parallel Post, carries media reports on Kashmir from across the world and comments on them. In July, when there were alleged attempts to hush up a rape case in Manzgam village involving a security personnel, a strong critique emerged on the website: “After all, this is Kashmir, where justice is just another slogan and the raped girls are neither Priyadarshini Mattoo nor Jessica Lall.” The impact of the medium itself can be assessed from the fact that in the thick of the unrest last year, Masarat Alam, the chief architect of the protests, had posted videos of his speeches on Facebook to a large and predominantly young audience.
When not politically charged, the discussions revolve around the ‘unmatched’ hero Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has several groups, pages and scores of alleged personal accounts in his name. His pictures pop up in almost all the photo albums of these Kashmir groups. Geelani, though, remains active only on the All Parties Hurriyat Conference page on Facebook, where he posts statements and videos of his speeches and press meets.
If the groups and the heated discussions weren’t enough, the fake accounts are ensuring that tempera tures remain high. One such account with Geelani’s name rails bitterly against the anti-separatist ideology. Another fake account of Yasin Malik was religiously updated every day with exhortations to friends to rally behind the Kashmir cause. This virtual twin closely followed Malik’s public activities and then issued statements that corresponded with them. On Malik’s birthday on 3 April, he lapped up the congratulatory messages from friends and fans.
A police officer, who did not want to be named, says these groups are “virtual detritus of the last year’s turbulence”. He recalls how a number of youth would rumble through the streets in the day, throwing stones, and would actively post messages and pictures on social networking sites at night. On online forums, he argues, even the upper middle-class youth, who may not take to the streets, feel inspired to register their protest.
Can these online groups make way for a more radical debate? Naseer Ahmad, author of the graphic novel Kashmir Pending, nods in agreement. “The exchanges on social sites are not only radical but to a large extent nuanced also. And together they echo the politics and sentiment in the Valley, at least in its broad drift. Besides, azadi is not a default discourse in the Valley, not just another name for the legitimate and imagined grievances against New Delhi. It is an authentic discourse and has been so for the past six decades,” he says.
PDP spokesperson Naeem Akhtar echoes Ahmad’s views but avoids reaching a simplistic conclusion. He says the public opinion in the Valley is divided into three groups — one, a radical section of the population who want to be out of India, the second one a large middle ground disenchanted with the status quo, and finally a “thin, flimsy” pro- India segment.
But Ahmad argues that the youth engaging in discussions on Facebook and other sites represent a large cross-section of the population. From their profile — their address, education, interests and hobbies — the debate appears mostly an urban phenomenon, even though there is some rural participation too. And this, says Ahmad, may be because of limited penetration of the Internet in the countryside. “It is a mixed crowd. It has the protesters from downtown Srinagar and other urban centres of the Valley, besides professionals, entrepreneurs and a section of Kashmiri diaspora,” he says, adding, “So the online debate does make a point about the larger reality in Kashmir, not just a shade of it.”
Sensing some truth in that claim, the J&K Police has already sounded the alarm bells. It recently set up an internet monitoring cell at its headquarters led by two deputy superintendents of police.
It could help keep tabs on the debates on the social networking sites along with a broader remit of facing up to the wider online security challenges. Recently, the Minister of State for Communication and Information Tech nology Sachin Pilot inaugurated a computer forensic lab (CFL) at a DOEACC centre on the outskirts of Srinagar. The CFL will help the government “collect, process, interpret and provide a conclusive description of cyber crime activities”.
‘This is Kashmir where justice is just another slogan and the raped girls are neither Priyadarshini Mattoo nor Jessica Lall,’ reads a comment on The Parallel Post
In addition, the Union Home Ministry has asked the telecom operators in the Valley to monitor all communications on the Internet and social networking sites on real-time basis. The directions were issued at a meeting of top executives of the telecom firms and top intelligence and security agency officials headed by Home Minister P Chidamabaram. Besides monitoring their cyber activities, the J&K Police have arrested virtual protesters like Irfan Ahmad Bhat, 27, creator of the group Kal-e-Kharab, and two others — a PhD scholar at the Kashmir University and a civil engineering student. The arrests have, in turn, tempered the level of vitriol in the existing groups where the exchanges have ceased to be as explicit as before. Once blocked, the groups usually do not operate under new names. Another outcome of the police action has been the increase in the number of Kashmir groups believed to be administered by Kashmiri diaspora, mainly working in the Middle East, who are actively advocating the need to stand up against the state machinery. Their identities mostly remain hidden as they use fake names to post comments.
A POLICE OFFICER, himself a member of many online groups on Kashmir, says, “It is a kind of shadow-boxing going on Facebook and the other sites. But we don’t want to control the discussion beyond a point. We only act when opinion crosses the limit and the youth try to rally others to revolt or promote stone-throwing.”
A successful police counter is IG SM Sahai’s Facebook page. Followed by more than 4,000 people, it is a site for fierce debates though it leans towards the police’s side of the story
A successful endeavour is a group created by Inspector General of Police SM Sahai. Called SM Sahai IG Kashmir, the page is followed by more than 4,000 Facebook users. The wall is a site for fierce debates — the drift of it pro-police, though sometimes a few posts do throw up a surprise. Sample this: “How do you feel after the custodial killing of Nazim Rashid?” Yamin Khan asks of Sahai about the death of 28-year-old in police interrogation. Khan reacts: “How do you feel for the person killed in broad daylight in Sopore, also the person killed in Lal Chowk. What about two sisters who were shot dead in their home?”
This virtual confrontation is also a reality on Twitter and YouTube, but Facebook remains the mainstay of the anti-Delhi campaign in the Valley. Twitter in Kashmir, for one, seems to have been hijacked by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who has about 40,322 followers. Besides, the limitations of Twitter as a forum for in-depth discussion has rendered it unsuitable for the personalised group exchanges, a facility that the youth in Kashmir have finally discovered in Facebook.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent, Kashmir with Tehelka.