Virtual Wars

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This past week Kashmir remained on the edge after half-a-dozen videos of atrocities surfaced online. Aakash Hassan reports how mobile phones are changing the ground realities in Kashmir

Before setting up his twelve-wheel truck for ‘Bombay’ sojourn, Mohammad Ashraf Bhat, asked around for new videos he can store on his android phone. The grainy video clips with occasional shakes and strident sounds depict happenings of last ten days in Kashmir. The days Bhat spent driving on the highway from Srinagar to a Maharashtra town.

A resident of Pulwama, Bhat, who is in his early forties, is witness to change on both sides of the Jawahar tunnel – the 2.8 kilometers twin tubes connecting Kashmir valley with mainland India. “I have been on the highway since last two decades,” said Bhat, a father of two sons.

Bhat’s first phone was a Nokia handset gifted to him by his transporter for making it to Srinagar from Delhi in just 22 hours, a record of sorts for a heavy vehicle. It was ten years back.

“Earlier I would use my phone to stay in touch with family and friends,” said Bhat. “But now it is my lifeline.”

He is happy to own a cell-phone with extended memory, which helps him store more photos and videos.  “Once I reach home I ask my friends and family for videos of recent protests, stone pelting incidents, encounters and funerals. These videos help me stay connected with my land.”

Over last few years the virtual world has turned into a new platform for Kashmiris to highlight their plight.

The recent addition to the repository of such videos happened when by-polls were conducted for Srinagar parliamentary seat on April 9 and 13. As the polling day ended on a bloody note, the first video that emerged was from a Budgam village.

The shaky video, shot by a protestors, showed a group of boys escorting CRPF personnel to their camp, after the booth they were guarding registered zero vote. The scene was akin to Hollywood war movies where defeated army is escorted out of the city.

The second video, apparently shot at the same spot, shows a boy hackling a CRPF trooper. The later part of the clip was hand-picked by Delhi based TV channels to make a case!

However, this was not the last clip that came from the restive by-poll day amidst internet blockade.  Another video was shot from the window of the polling station of restive Churmujroo village.

Captured by a polling staff member on his phone, the video shows a group of teenagers pelting stones at CRPF troopers.

They fired a few shots in the air but the boys do not leave until a CRPF trooper is seen firing directly at one of them. He falls down and dies instantly. A person shooting the videos is heard saying, “he is dead.”

The next day, the video of a man tied to the bonnet of an army jeep went viral. Later identified as Farooq Ahmad Dar, was on his way to attend a funeral ceremony at his sister’s house when he was captured and tied to the bonnet of a jeep and used as “human shield” to dissuade locals from pelting stones.

Dar, a resident of Sitaharaan village in Budgam district, was later taken to the 53 Rashtriya Rifles headquarters.

The video, shot by a local, showed Dar tied helplessly in the front of the first vehicle of the convoy.

Once uploaded these videos were shared by thousands of people on popular social media platforms. In no time Dar’s image, tied on the Jeep bonnet, found space on major newspapers across world. Also there were at least four videos purportedly showing CRPF and army personnel beating locals mercilessly. In one of the video three soldiers can be seen pinning a young boy down and kick him with his jackboots. His cries resonate in the deserted streets.

Another clip was shot inside army’s bulletproof vehicle Casper. The video shows army personnel forcing a group of boys shout profanities against Pakistan. They are beaten ruthlessly as well. One of the boys face is bleeding in the video.

In the third video three youth are held together. A soldier, whose face is covered, points his gun on his chest and threatens him that he will shot him and nobody will ask him anything. In the background another one is being slapped.

Apparently, all these videos were shot by the forces.

“The virtual world has taken over centre stage in Kashmir,” says a senior Srinagar-based journalist, “It is virtual war and forces have not been able to stop this trend. So instead they are using the same platform to create fear and terrorize people.”

The videos started circulating right after 2008, but it was a low-key affair then, the journalist says. “The clips then used were from the media covered by journalists at the front row. But with the passage of nine years, where technology has completely changed, virtual world has reached to new heights.”

This new trend of using videos to tell stories can be attributed to Hizb commander, Burhan Wani, who was killed in an encounter in July last year. His pictures, of wielding guns and videos with messages went viral.

Since then hundreds of videos of militants came out on the social media. This trend was followed by the youth while protesting or pelting stones near encounter sites.

In an overnight encounter in Frisal area of Kulgam district, when youth clashed with forces, number of videos begun surfacing later. The videos shot by the protesting youth on their mobile phone put in public the scene of bullets and stones. In the encounter, later, one civilian and three militants were killed.

Amid these changes, Internet clampdown became a regular feature in Kashmir. According to data provided by the internet shutdowns.in, a project by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), Jammu and Kashmir has recorded 29 instances of internet shutdowns since 2012. The figures are highest for any state, with 10 instances in 2016 alone.

The year 2016 witnessed longest period of mobile internet blackout. After the killing of Burhan Wani post-paid mobile internet services were restored in mid-November, while pre-paid services returned on January 30 this year. But the videos and photos of these blackout months didn’t remain confined.

“This has changed a lot, mostly in the news gathering process,” says another journalist, “Earlier what newspapers would write would lead to public decision but now what appears on the web is put on the front pages.”

News organizations can’t afford to overlook these changes.

“These protesters, equipped with mobile phones have turned as first line reporters and they come up with such images and videos that their reach leaves news organizations puzzled,” he says.

News organizations have set reporters now to monitor social media. With the upgrade of speed and mobile companies offering free data, uploading situation has turned into live mode. When encounter turned bloody in Chadoora in late March, the episodes that followed went live on Facebook.

After ambulance carrying body of Zahid Rashid was intercepted by police, his friend, in the ambulance started reporting the scenes live.

He starts saying you can see how much “zulm” (oppression) is happening with Kashmiris. In the backdrop a woman is heard shrieking and urging the cops to allow them to go. The cops parked many vehicles in front of the ambulance, the video shows. The other attendants are seen arguing with the cops who seem adamant in their approach. As the attendant tries to take driver’s seat, cops storm the window to stop him which leads to brief fist fight between the two sides.

This whole episode was watched by hundreds of people live and then shared.

“The new generation in Kashmir is full of anger and defiance,” says a scholar at Kashmir University. “One of the prime reasons is that they are witnessing atrocities and developments of the streets on their phone screens.”

There is parallel media running and control over situation on these protesters who have turned as citizen journalists.

“The internet ban is less about the worry of mobilisation but it is more about curbing the humiliation that the state face through the evidencing which happens through social media,” human rights defender Khurram Parvez, told a Delhi based news organization recently.

“People have started documenting situations around them and putting these up on social media. They have become citizen journalists and there has been a democratisation of media through social media. And this is a huge challenge for the state because they feel they cannot control this space easily,” Parvez said.

“Social media is a weapon and people are using it to mobilise opinion and deepen the divide,” a ruling party leader recently said. He said that government systems to deal with this, on the other side are very conventional.

While government might react by banning the social media, Kashmir is developing its own IT experts. Youth have started accessing internet during ban as well.

“Till more powerful medium hits the market, I will start collecting videos of the new incidents,” says Ashraf zooming off his truck.

“I usually keep the images and videos and then share on his phone once he is back. I would have forwarded him just now but he is still learning how to use internet,” says Ashraf’s son Aazan, who is going to show group image of around 19 militants.

At the time this report was being filed mobile 3G and 4G services were blocked across Kashmir valley and authorities are discussing , how to tackle this ‘out of control situation.’

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