Uploading Uprising: Indian Occupied Kashmir from 2010 to 2016

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Note: This article was originally published by Kashmir Life and is being reproduced here. Article is written by Bilal Handoo who is a Kashmir Life correspondent.

Uploading Uprising

Before it could trigger uprising in Arab world toward 2010 ending, the social media blitz had already made 2010 Kashmir summer a digital upheaval. Six years after, as another seething summer unfolded in valley with restricted online activity, Bilal Handoo details the impact of social media and its role in Kashmir’s summer slams.

Three days before Tufail Mattoo’s killing in downtown Srinagar, an Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim was stunned to see a gory image of his fellow countryman on June 8, 2010. That 28-year-old man was Alexandria’s Khaled Mohamed Said whose jaw-broken image had made it to internet like Tufail’s brain-splattered picture. Egypt’s Khaled had stark resemblance with Kashmir’s Tufail: Both killed in police action, both disfigured and both became flashpoints of two different uprisings in two different regions.

What Ghonim shortly did politically galvanized Internet. He created a Facebook page—Kullena Khaled Said (We Are All Khaled Said)—and posted: “Today they killed Khaled. If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me.” Over 250,000 people ‘Liked’ his page within 90 days. What bubbled up online shortly spilled onto streets and culminated into the historic Tahrir Square rally in downtown Cairo a year after.

That summer in Kashmir (with Arab Spring yet to bloom), ‘Ghonims’ were already galvanizing internet: “We Are All Tufail Mattoo”. One Srinagar-based columnist tweeting non-stop during the 2010 uprising couldn’t make a distinction between Facebook users and dissident bloggers — both posting at their own peril. “Social media fuelled 2010 uprising in Kashmir,” says the columnist, now a low-key government official. “As I remember it, Facebook was catalyst to make that summer a kingmaker in Kashmir’s dissent dateline.”

By putting “revolution” on Facebook, Valley’s Ghonims were informing the world about everything happening in Kashmir claimed both by India and Pakistan. And it was working.

A swift change was noticed in Indian urban, middle-class — otherwise blasé about Kashmir news. In 2010, social media’s instant nature showed them the ‘other picture’ of Kashmir. (From 0.7 million in 2008 summer, Facebook users in India had risen to 13 million by August 2010.)

Tweeting, updating, uploading was “empowering” Kashmiris to an extent of highlighting their plight without facing censorship and gate-keeping of traditional media. But a year ago, things were different.

Shopian double rape-murder protests hadn’t set social media afire. Still a year ago, 2008 Amarnath land row was unable to trigger online fury — as few used Facebook, and fewer Twitter. But 2010 ‘online Intifada’ went ballistic and made user-driven online activity an epic encounter. Not only it informed 10 million plus Indian online community about Kashmir issue, but also triggered an apparent change in Delhi’s media Kashmir reportage. Back home, it was proving to be a ‘new found’ expression.

“Seeing those images, videos on Facebook was only making resistance a religious duty,” says Shahid Bhat, a banker, who faced police summon in 2010 for his pro-active online campaign. “For me, Facebook was cathartic platform to vent old woes and to question occupation.”

Then, Cyber Sangbaaz Force struck. That group of Kashmiri hackers began taking down official websites clashing with their “ideas of justice”. They were like global Vigilante Hackers that emerged in 2011, and hacked CIA’s, Sony’s and Syrian government’s websites on behalf of freedom of information.

Amid this raging online activism, the ‘beleaguered’ Kashmir community was getting hopeful that their “pro-freedom uprising would have global backing”. Out of this belief stemmed an idea to assemble at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. Before they would come, they shared their imminent arrival on social media.

State sleuths calling post-9/11 ‘dateline’ as militancy’s ‘deadline’ in Kashmir like elsewhere were apparently biting their nails over possibility of watching 50,000 plus dissenters at Lal Chowk. While they were still exploring options to counter it, the marchers flooded Kashmir’s trade heartland in one summer day. Suddenly it seemed that the barricades didn’t bristle with bayonets and firearms — but, with phones.

Perhaps a ‘prized’ moment of that march was youth holding phones aloft amid cheers and chants, taking pictures of few ‘daredevils’ mounting on the clock tower with Pak flags. Later that year, when the dissenters in Tunis Medina held aloft their blackberries to picture somewhat similar scenes, many realised that global dissents share a common umbilical cord.

In Tunis, those were the scenes of Twitter or Tunisian Revolution — starting when a young man Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire on Dec 17, 2010 after officials prevented him from selling vegetables on Sidi Bouzid streets.

Later world learned that Bouazizi like burning had already taken place in Tunisia in September 2010. Failing to make it to internet like many Kashmir killings prior to Tufail Mattoo’s death in 2010, those deaths never became flashpoints.

“Facebook was huge,” says a cop, detailing social media’s impact in 2010. “A few thousand geeks on Twitter and some ten thousands on Facebook were exposing State’s never seen before torture methods.” That summer, the social media did expose “Abu Ghraib pattern” abuses in Kashmir prisons.

At peak 2010 protests, two video clips left cops red-faced. One clip shows chuckling police forcibly parading four naked young Kashmiri detainees through a field. The second video shows abusive cops forcing a fibre cane into the rectum of a semi-naked detainee.

Police immediately dubbed the clippings “staged” to “stigmatise” the 1873-born state force. But before cops could file criminal case against Facebook and YouTube for hosting them, the clippings had done their damage.

Then, Omar government launched a full-scale internet offensive. Suddenly “anti-government” web-pages, blogs began flashing “404” error message, implying a page being blocked. An online police was recruited and put in action to hunt the social media’s “rah-rah brigade”. For the former blogger Omar Abdullah who had quitted blogging in the face of trolling, the virtual crackdown on bloggers, Facebook pages, Twitter handles and anonymous users seemed only saving grace.

Calling a few pages “anti-India” before culling them was akin to give a dog a bad name and hang him. Omar’s conduct made many to equate him with ex-Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev who had blocked access to various “dissent” websites during the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” in his post-Soviet nation. But despite tactical match, Omar proved to be chip off the different block.

After banning texts, calls and videos, Omar — jabbing at his blackberry — would say: “Democracy has responsibilities.” With an aura of his signature airs, he would hasten to put in: “It gives you rights, but how you use it also has repercussions in Kashmir that can be deadly.” For a Shopian banker, social media did prove “deadly” than “democratic” tool, later that fall.

When police arrested Mufti Wajid Yaqoob of Baba Mohalla Shopian in Oct 2010, he was slapped with lawless Public Safety Act and shifted to Kathua jail for “organizing” protests in his hometown through Facebook. He wasn’t alone. Omar and police force he headed tried making an example of dissenters. The move backfired.

It was the time when the underground bandmaster of Kashmir’s dissent orchestra — the ‘Go India, Go Back’ crusader, Masrat Alam — was propelling the uprising with his pro-freedom calendars. With social media multiplying his dissent messages, Alam became the face of street defiance whose appeals resonated among youth and students. At the end when Omar Abdullah government captured Zaindar Mohalla’s rebel with spying acumen of Zanglipora’s sleuth Altaf Laptop, the summer protests waned.

With jailbird Alam sent back to prison, the state started hounding dissenters. Police summoned 35 administrators of Facebook pages tagged as “anti-India”. Dozens of FB users were booked under PSA — prominent among them were pro-independence leader Shakeel A Bakshi, Islamabad cleric Qazi Yasir and others. Keeping hawkish gaze on online activities, police even booked the ex-broadcaster and now PDP member Nayeema Mehjoor for broadcasting her FB views from abroad.

One cyber cop says different computer tools were used to trace people uploading “objectionable content” on Facebook and other social networking sites. “For us,” the cop says, “the virtual policing wasn’t an option but obligation in the face of massive online blitz. We were the first to crack whip on online dissenters. Ours was the first cyber army before Syria could raise its much-talked about Syrian Electronic Army in 2011 to launch cyber attacks on anti-government online activities.”

With state’s virtual counter-insurgency grid persecuting Kashmir’s online community for broadcasting “peace threatening” views, the move backfired like it did in Egypt where Hosni Mubarak blocked Internet for five days in early 2011 only to hasten his fall.

Then, social media was mobilizing masses, building support and ‘romanticizing’ the old featured stone-throwing protests. Amid this, Arab spring erupted in Tunisia in Dec 2010 with the popular slogan: Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want to bring down the regime). Spreading shortly to ten countries, the protests toppled regimes, created constitutional reforms in Arab world. West called it ‘digital democracy’ brought by videos, cellular phones, blogs, photos, emails, and text messages.

In Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti was probably first unionist to congratulate Egyptians. “It’s necessary to mention Egypt because there are many similarities,” said Mufti, then fiery opposition leader, now an apparent Omar-reincarnate. “They were fighting for democracy; we are fighting in spite of democracy. We have been fighting for the last 60 years.” It miffed Omar Abdullah to an extent of tweeting this: “It seems, she wants Army rule in Jammu and Kashmir.” An “uneasy” crown wearer, Omar was one of those who believed that “revolution can’t be tweeted”.

But if truth be told, both 7-Race Course and Gupkar never wanted resurrection of 2010—until, they dramatically gunned down Kashmir’s new age dissenter in Kokernag hamlet on July 8, 2016.

From Hizb’s courier in 2011 to its commander in 2014, Burhan Wani’s cyber outreach had made him a “darling rebel”. Sleuths say he would regularly tweet from a particular twitter handle that now stands suspended. “He first uploaded his unmasked photographs along with his comrades around Srinagar,” a CID officer says. “He was clear-headed militant who made militancy a heroic idea for youngsters through images and videos.” Burhan’s social media blitz made him a “cult figure” for around 60 percent of Kashmir’s below 30 population — tagged as “hyperactive” on social media by state intelligence.

After six eventful years, Burhan’s passage not only triggered rage on ground but also stirred online fury. Despite ban on mobile internet, the hashtag storm trended him on virtual world for days together. Kashmir’s surging social media users – from 25 percent in summer 2010 to 75 percent in summer 2016 – equally made him a global phenomenon.

But posts “glorifying” Burhan were soon censored. Being “famous” in Pakistan, Burhan managed to create ripples where an actor Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Facebook post on him was removed. Many Kashmiri Facebook users also faced virtual suspension. Later Facebook “receiving second highest annual requests from India after US” clarified that it took down content that “praises or supports terrorists…” But this clarification coming from Facebook raised many eyebrows. “Wasn’t Facebook the same platform,” many asked, “that was used by Burhan as a weapon?” The enigma was later solved by a senior state sleuth.

Invoking recent meetings between PM Narendra Modi and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, he says, everyone in security setup was aware how the entire Kashmir situation was being remote controlled through Facebook. “Unlike 2010,” the officer says, “we didn’t allow Facebook warriors to call their choicest shots this time around.” Amid debate over probable government role in recent Facebook controversy—the fact remains that social media’s power did compel governments to intervene in it.

When the “twitter-driven” student protests rocked Tehran in 2009, the US State Department brazenly asked Twitter to suspend its scheduled website maintenance — as it didn’t want “switching off” of “such a critical tool” at peak protests. Later a former national-security adviser called for Twitter’s nomination for Nobel Peace Prize for “empowering” Iran!

Today as the war cry for “freedom” has again echoed across valley, the restricted social media is busy detailing Kashmir’s street mood. Emerging situation in valley seems no different from the concluding scene of 1966 classic The Battle of Algiers—the movie depicting struggle for Algeria between France and Algerians.

“Go home,” a stressed French police officer directs a stone-throwing Algerian crowd, “what do you want?”

After 2010, many case studies done to detail social media’s impact in Kashmir’s uprising only recreated the Algerian demand.

One study done by state agencies suggests that people in September 2010 alone used the word “Istiqlal” (Freedom) 97% times on Facebook, followed by “Go India, Go back”.

Six years after, Kashmiris seem no different on Facebook.


The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Dispatch News Desk. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of Dispatch News Desk.