Virtual Kashmir

As government is grappling with the idea of managing the information highway, the technology has already changed Kashmir. Now the governance structure must convert its discomfort with the new trend into its strength by responding positively to what happens on the internet, instead of lowering the bandwidth switch, argues Masood Hussain

page-of-militant

History repeats itself. In mid-July 2010, Omar Abdullah, then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir chased his ‘trouble-makers’ (read ideological opponents) to the virtual world. Interestingly the venue was same: south Kashmir’s Islamabad. He ordered arrest of Qazi Yasir, slain Qazi Nissar’s son, under Public Safety Act (PSA) for many charges including “inciting violence” through Facebook.

With the Qazi Jr, around 30 others were also rounded up, some actually driven away to Kotbalwal. They faced almost same charge: uploading a video recording of the June 29 triple murder by a police gang.

The triple murder case might be still unresolved but the ‘upload- download’ process, a half a decade later, is already splashed on the streets. Now almost every single person in Kashmir qualifies as a potential ‘trouble maker’ if one goes by the quantum and the scale of interventions and expressions that people post on social networking sites. During times of unrest, these tips lead to the mapping of the mess on ground. That is perhaps why controlling the bandwidth at the Main Switching Centre (MSC) is the only option that government routinely avails in managing the tide.

July 2016 that witnessed a situation worse than 2010, at least for a few days (if action and reaction on ground is a pointer) is apparently the best period for the governance structure to understand one major shift that silently Kashmir has undergone: in the internet backed virtual world, Kashmir has discovered its own democracy. Far away from the violent polling booths and noisy assembly hall, they purchase a space where they are comfortable in expressing, opposing, exposing, interacting and informing others. Policymakers must see this revolution as strength of a society rather than a luxury that can be control or manipulate.

Last week explained the strength and importance of the virtual world for the real Kashmir. Burhan Muzaffar Wani emerged as the towering dissenter and a rebel commander in Kashmir’s history (do not exclude politicians) whose death was mourned by a record number. Almost born posthumously, anger over Burhan’s killing triggered a spate of violent reaction that eventually led to nearly 40 deaths, tainted images of people in public life hitherto blaming others for the same.

Son of turmoil (he was born in 1995), Burhan was shy, smart, bike-loving cricketer who studied well and passed his exams with flying colours. That was till a few men manning an outpost of Kashmir’s hyperactive security grid humiliated him at the peak of 2010 unrest when Kashmir felt as if the new generation was being culled. That changed everything.

Avenging his personal insult, Burhan became a militant. Though situation was ripe, a dominating security grid had not only thinned foreign fighters, who had reinforced the host militants after 1996; trimmed the possibility of resource flow from outside; made borders almost impregnable (using fence and strict guard) but also created weapon-scarcity for potential militants.

Once into it, Burhan wrote his own rules. Skipping a crossover to Pakistan for training, he armed himself by snatching weapons. This handsome boy of around 15 years – had he been arrested he would have landed in the juvenile home and not in jail, he donned the battle-fatigue and started communicating with his peers. For talking to real world, he skipped traditional formal media and used social media. Eventually he got both. He emerged as first Kashmir rebel who delivered his convincing arguments directly to the people and implemented his ideation in creating perhaps the first successful module of home-grown militants.

In last five years, police suggests that he has influenced around 120 youngsters (almost 99 from south Kashmir alone), some of whom eventually joined him. Though police have around 12 cases against him, history will remember Burhan as Kashmir’s first virtual rebel who displayed AK-47 but had web as his weapon.

“The handsome young militant would post pictures of himself posing like a Bollywood star, laden with weapons on a picturesque Kashmir hillside, a few days worth of stubble on his chin,” reported Justin Rowlatt in BBC, insisting that online videos and lectures are a now standard part of any revolutionary movement’s arsenal. “It is one thing to have a message, quite another to have an audience.”

That was key to his larger than life stature that not only triggered a serious mass consuming 40 lives and leaving scores maimed for life but also helped him get his rebirth as a youth icon posthumously. Now security experts fear that he might prove more dangerous in his grave than in Tral woods that sheltered him for years.

That is part of the power that the web and the smart phone have established. Unlike older generations, this power is alluring to the youth bulge that has witnessed tragedies and travails of their parents while growing up. They understand this technology platform better and feel it engaging, liberal, accommodative and impactful.

Burhan-using-Cell-Phone

“Seeing the situation from the unionist point of view, there are three points of engagement that the formal democratic set-up offers: panchayat, assembly and the Lok Sabha,” insists one youngster, managing youth activities of a unionist party. “All these three engagements are open for youth above 18 and there is no engagement for the sub-18 population that really turns the tables.” Burhan was only 15 when he rebelled!

This young unionist believes that the below 20 age group that forms half of Kashmir’s population created its own icon in Burhan. “That solved the separatist problem of how to transfer the tehreek to the new generation that was well-read, techie and modern and they have succeeded in that,” the young man said.

The acceptance of IT by the new generation has created sort of a scare in the security set-up. Post-Burhan, the state police intelligence has leaked an empirical study about the cell-phone penetration suggesting that accessibility to social media has reached 70 percent in Kashmir.

“The glamorisation of the gun and violence gets acceptance in a small section of young, impressionable minds who consider themselves at the receiving end in the contemporary political scenario,” Kolkotta based Telegraph reported quoting the study carried out by IPS officer Abdul Gani Mir. “A sharp observation, rendered suddenly relevant, is this: the steep climb in social media access coincides with the swift burgeoning of Burhan Wani’s reputation, built largely out of accessing social media networks from his hideouts.”

Burhan was trending on Facebook for almost five days even though the bandwidth was banned and most of Kashmir was without internet.

This might explain police’s keenness to have some ‘ethical hackers’ – a rarity in techies that exists mostly in sub-20 age group, work for them. The resource abundant (it has Rs 3400-crore a year budget) and state’s second most populous organization, they are yet to get these chaps required for supervising the virtual highway.

J&K is a high spender on IT. It foots a yearly talk bill of Rs 1100 crore for nearly nine million cellphones and an additional Rs 800 crore to purchase phone devices. But that should not scare the sleuths.

This scenario is a double-edge weapon. But it has a great facility for being used positively. It will make governance problematic for corrupt but if rulers are keen to encourage accountability and take their job seriously; it will be a great tool of improvement.

Last one week is just a glimpse of the power that this trend can add to the governance system. It has completely changed the system of reporting an event.

Saturday afternoon, some doctors rang up Kashmir Life newsroom alleging that a police officer had stopped an ambulance, forced down the critically injured person and arrested his attendant. For the lack of immediate confirmation from any side of the civil society or the government, the desk took its own time.

By the time the news item was uploaded on the website, it shocked the newsroom that a video clip recorded by some citizen had already gone viral. This capsule offers the entire detail of the shocking incident. Tragically, the injured who was being driven from Kulgam to SMHS lost almost an hour in Pampore till the doctors there somehow managed to send him in a different ambulance to SMHS, eventually died in the hospital. This video is enough to get the ambulance interrupter for a long rest in jail. Any honest governance structure in the world will do that.

A similar report about police formally raiding the SMHS hospital was received. This time, the caller mentioned that the entire film of the raid is already on facebook!

In the ongoing unrest, there may perhaps not be a single incident in which the people may not have recorded the evidence. These will start coming up once the MSC is put on and the ‘green-house’ resumes some normality.

But there is no room to panic. The best option for the governance structure is to take these evidences seriously and give them the weight they deserve in ensuring that it means justice. That could mark the beginning of a new era of engagement with the youth bulge that participates more in the virtual democracy than the one that is enforced by the set-up. Any dis-respect to these in-puts will lead to another disaster and a crisis.

By the way, the virtual world is huge and can take the ‘battle of ideas’ to the next level. Omar is already doing it: he is followed by 1.52 million people on twitter which is much more than the votes his party polled in 2014. Even Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq are trying their best to use virtual media for staying in touch with their respective constituencies. Both are doing much better given the real limitations they face in the real-world governance.


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