In Whatsapp Defence

By Masood Hussain


(Moments before he could address a presser, cops whisking away Mushtaq Ul Islam in Srinagar. A Kashmir Life Image)

In run-up to the assembly elections in 1996, governor’s administration created a sort of terror to counter the fear that ruled the streets. Following strictly the style that paramilitary BSF had evolved during early years of militancy, Kashmir’s Fleet Street, the Partap Park was the principle theatre of power play. With boycott emerging the only available option for Kashmir’s freedom seekers, Raj Bhawan decided to crackdown the media. Kul Bushan Jandial was state’s media manager.

Unlike newspaper owners, my stakes were restricted to that of a reporter. Then working for the Kashmir Times, I had visited almost all the constituencies of Kashmir. These included some areas where people told me they had not seen a taxi car driving solo on their deserted, bumpy, and frightening roads for many years. I had a clear feel of the ground. One fine afternoon, I visited Jandial. I told him that his clampdown would get him live the accusation of being media hangman.

I had two simple arguments. Firstly, media in Kashmir has marginal penetration in the society because no newspaper has impressive print runs. Secondly, Kashmir rarely decides after going through what news-mundi reports from Partap Parak.

Centuries of political domination have triggered rudimentary shifts in how Kashmir thinks, decides, talks and communicates. When leaders exhibit a dichotomy in their communications with people in Srinagar and the governance set-up in Delhi, they are trying to strike some sort of balance in the expectations from the two sides. This helps them achieve their individual or party targets. It is exactly what Kashmir does when it communicates within and with the ‘system’ that manages them. It is an old survival instinct endemic to Kashmir.

Jandial, the experienced image-maker of Raj Bhawan, did not oblige. Kashmir newspapers had a long holiday. Their Jammu counterparts would print but were not permitted to circulate in Kashmir. The so called national interest apart, it took some time for me to understand that election was just beyond democracy, a major economic event. Every single activity was paid – from thousands of non-local employees who were flown from the mainland to the hundreds of youth who played rented audiences for contesting men and women. Some daredevils got government jobs. Results were not different: most of the voters boycotted the polls. They were dragged to polling booths. At Awantipore, I caught a CRPF inspector stamping a bundle of ballot papers. BJP got historic high votes from Islamabad. Elections were over and a government replaced governor.

By early 2003, two top IAS officers invited the new Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed to formally launch their book on 1996 elections. He did the honours but insisted that the “authors” should have been slightly sensitive to ground realities in their book.

A girl showing voting mark on her finger after she casted her vote in south kashmiris hiller village.

(A girl showing voting mark on her finger after she cast her vote in south Kashmir’s Hiller village. (KL Images: Bilal Bahadur)

Exactly two decades have eclipsed since then. Three elections and five Chief Ministers’ later, we have had a huge technology quantum jump. By the end of March 2016, J&K has more than eight million cell phones in operation at a whopping yearly outgo of more than Rs 1000 crore as tariff alone. The more things change, as the English say, the more things stay the same. Things have the tendency of staying around the basics: that is why Lilliput’s of the Empire have not changed their mindset. They continue exhibiting the same old Partap Singhi priorities: ‘love it or hate it, I do not like to see your face in the morning!’

They are used to ordering disruption of services and monitoring of the scrap that shifts hands since the entry of internet telephony in Kashmir. Last week, they did it again and it was sort of a bizarre decision-making: to get the whatsapp groups operating in Kashmir registered. Whatsapp is a cross-platform mobile messaging application allowing users to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. The idea, apparently baked on the conflagration of Handwara’s Terror Square, eventually became an April 18 circular that designated Additional District Informatics Officer as registrar of Whatsapp groups with an additional responsibility to “keep vigil” on activities of these groups. Apart from making the administrators of these groups responsible for their activities, which they are otherwise under the law, the order forbade government employees from making comments or opposing any government decision. Within a few days, the order took the shape of a model application form in which the government wants to know many basics about the group and its admins.

What is the government keen to achieve and how is an interesting story that I leave for techie-historians to investigate.

I am not suggesting the government against eavesdropping its subjects either. It has remained government’s ‘legitimate routine’ for decades to profile the population making India’s only Muslim majority state. My concern is why I had to write the requiem of their competence for seeking things from their subjects that they otherwise know as the master switch controllers! They ration the bandwidth. They run the cyber patrols.

Representational Picture

This is not for the first time the government is taking technology head-on! They have their own story of church versus the science. They opposed the cell phone tooth and nail. In the follow up, they did away with SMS. Later they made a distinction between pre-paid and post-paid. Then blocked bulk SMS. Finally reduced bandwidth on sensitive day and blocked it altogether on critical days. In their Jehad 2.0, they were seen fighting the Facebook and then Twitter. Whatsapp is newest on their radar.

Whatsapp is an SMS / MMS for free and it does not recognize political borders. Now a group can have 256 members. I am aware of interestingly diverse groups on Whatsapp: a friend is a member of a group that connects him with his cousins living in different corners of the world. Another part of a group that keeps its members informed about the latest happenings in medical research. Even patients suffering from same disease have created a group. Youth have their own engagements, priorities and interests, some getting more in extracurricular scrap than the academics. They all are news groups in their own sense.

The operation might have changed the targets, the motive is unchanged: block information and interaction. Various officials at various levels even mislead different regimes to achieve this target. Ghulam Nabi Azad once told the assembly that the house would be shocked if I tell you what our boys and girls are talking about on the phone! It was clear that the sleuths from police would routinely drop a CD at his residence to get him into the maze of ethics of technology. Then Omar Abdullah was suggested to ban desi new channels and the bulk SMS. Stung by 2009 and critically hit by 2010, he even banned newspapers and internet on occasions he thought were dangerously critical.

Abused, Omar initially stopped blogging. Later, he felt encouraged and took to twitter: now he is in touch with 1450000 twitter users which is 350000 more than the number of votes his party polled in 2014 assembly elections.

SocialMediaI do not want to get into the debate of right to freedom of opinion and expression that includes “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. I am concerned that shoddy interventions at the local level should not prevent people from understanding the immense worth that internet is bestowing on mankind in areas like Kashmir which falls on the wrong side of digital divide. I am a firm believer in the fact that internet is the main democratic toll that exists in Kashmir.

The fact is that the virtual world is less unreal than the physical, real world. Unlike the physical space making people responsible for lying, setting rumours, threatening people or committing crimes is insistent and easy. With a Rs 10,000 handset in hand and a monthly outgo of Rs 1000 as tariff, why should not I use the device to do what I do in real life – to spread lies, to discuss, to react and to comment. There are red lines not different from traffic red lights – both observed in breach.

The only thing, you need to have is competence. Did not police eventually arrest the person who set the polio rumour? Did not the force befriend most of the virtual world activists of 2010 unrest and baptized them into the system? Didn’t they solve dozens of blind murders using the cell phone? J&K Police that spends Rs 3400 crore a year has already converted its counter-militancy epicenter into a cyber monitor. But how many Altaf Dar’s have it created?

Tons of data shifts hands daily in Kashmir’s virtual world. Everybody does data-mining. We as journalists do it the same way we collect information in physical world. Police also knows it but they follow the ‘thread’ once the mess splashes itself on the road, exactly the way they handle Srinagar roads.

I regret why J&K Bank had not invited J&K’s cyber-mangers to the daylong Banclave where Ganesh Kumar, the Chief Technology Officer of the RBI gave an impressive presentation of the technology’s opportunities and challenges. He said the next battle in banking might be fought between the telcos and the banks as telcos controlling the cell phone will take most of the banking activities reducing banks to risk managers.

But what was relevant for J&K’s cyber sepoys was the fraud that involved draining Rs 860 crore from a government fund by cheats. “We were in a meeting when we were told that the fraud has taken place and the Home Ministry has ordered closure to mobile telephony,” Kumar said. “We opposed the ban on mobiles saying that let it continue so that entire chain will get exposed.” Eventually, he said every single rupee excepting Rs 14 crore was recovered. “Technology helps track crimes faster,” Kumar said. “There are rumours but the rumour monger can be taken care of anytime.”

For Kashmir, IT is still evolving and a sunrise sector. Vested interests will always try to use this but that makes no argument for converting bandwidth into an Annapurna food sack. Policymakers must understand that IT in J&K is not only a Rs 4000 crore direct business but a lifeline for all the businesses, academics and health – banks, hospitality and the governance set-up. RBIs Kumar even suggested a Whatsapp type application that all banks will jointly fund to reduce costs for staying in touch with clients. J&K bank has already signed a deal with a local app-maker pipe for staying in touch with its clients at almost no-costs if compared to the SMS.

I understand the compulsion for the reflex action that an Azaadi slogan on the street triggers in power corridors. But there is no panic required if people wish to avail and enjoy the small little freedoms that constitutions in Delhi and Srinagar permit. Before investigating the “molestation rumours” of Handawara, why nobody visited the school to unlock the campus washroom? Had they not been locked, why should the little girl get into a public washroom on the main road? Is it not aiding in murders?

Grow up for God’s sake. Start Swachh system first.

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