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A Kashmiri family in Srinagar talks to relatives on a landline phone on 17 August.
A Kashmiri family in Srinagar talks to relatives on a landline phone on 17 August.

When Kashmir speaks: The other side of a lockdown

Amidst conflicting reports and a breakdown in communication, Kashmiris outside the valley are raising their voices on social media, helping each other and letting the world know what it is being unable to access—their own truth

Landlines are working in Buchpora, but we have to dial 10-15 times as it says ‘sorry it’s not connecting’," reads a message on the secret Gyawun Group, on the instant messaging app Telegram. “Hi guys I am not a Kashmiri but I’m here on this group because my boyfriend is Kashmiri. For already 25 days no contact with him and his family. Thank god two days ago one of his neighbours came to Delhi and called me to say they are alive," reads another. Yet another member asks desperately if anyone has managed to contact someone in Soura, where his family lives and where protests have reportedly been taking place over the last month.

The group, which now has over 3,700 members, was set up on 5 August, in the face of a complete communication shutdown in the Kashmir valley after the Union government’s move to revoke the application of provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) its special status. The state will also be bifurcated into two Union territories—J&K and Ladakh.

Created by Manan Mushtaq, 32, a Kashmiri who works as a marketing professional in New Delhi, and runs a website by the same name, the group reads like a catalogue of pleas and updates from Kashmiris outside the valley–a refuge for those who were unable to reach families and friends. For over a month, nothing was working in the valley—be it landlines, mobile phones or internet and data services.

“There was an incident where a fire broke out in Delhi’s Zakir Nagar and a Kashmiri woman died. Her family couldn’t know or be informed because of the communication blackout. So we shared this on the group in case anyone was travelling to Kashmir and could get the information across," says Mushtaq’s wife Talia Asmi, 30, a lawyer in Delhi. “Then, there was one girl whose mother was in Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, and her father had just gone to Kashmir to organize financial help. He couldn’t be told that his wife had been shifted to the ventilator because there was no communication. She was in need of money, we arranged things. Then, via the group, we got someone to visit his place in Kashmir and convey the information."

As the couple speaks to me over cold coffee in Delhi, they continue coordinating these efforts—though they themselves have had trouble contacting their families in Srinagar. “If someone manages to connect to anyone back home, they record the call and post the voice note on the group, so that people feel some sense of relief on hearing a voice from the valley at least," says Mushtaq. Asmi adds, “Imagine, in 2019 we are still relying on one audio note which is being shared by some stranger and people are saying ‘we are fine’. It’s horrible."

****

On 4 August, in Srinagar, 25-year-old social activist and photographer Nawal Ali posted a barrage of “Insta-stories" on her Instagram page, @peaceandpyjamas. Panic had gripped the valley—tourists and students were being evacuated, troops in tens of thousands were being deployed, mainstream leaders had been detained and there were rumours of an imminent threat at the border. Ali was posting the information she received from journalist friends and credible sources—news of cross-fire in villages along the Line of Control, pictures of the paramilitary taking over the high court premises. She even informed her followers that all lines of communication were about to be shut down.

And then, for 20 days thereafter, the stories stopped.

“At around 9.30pm, my mobile internet was shut. When I woke up, my phone said ‘emergency calls only’. Police vehicles were doing the rounds outside our house, announcing a complete curfew," she told me on the phone after she left the valley for a few weeks on 24 August. “The build-up was terrifying, we knew something was happening, but we had no idea what."

When she watched the news unravel on TV on the morning of 5 August, she found the government’s move so surreal that she couldn’t help but laugh. “These guys did it so smoothly, it was like a comedy of errors." For her, frustration and anger became the foundations for dark humour. She watched the mainstream TV channels talk about the valley in a manner that was so different from the ground reality (“they were showing traffic on a street in Jammu and passing it off as Srinagar"), but there was nothing she could do about it.

Kashmiri students break down during an Eid-ul-Adha event in Delhi on 12 August.
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Kashmiri students break down during an Eid-ul-Adha event in Delhi on 12 August.

So she spent the next few weeks furiously noting down her thoughts on her phone, hoping to could share them later. “Whatever was on my mind, my opinions, my rants, the facts—there were so many facts that the media was lying through their teeth about—I was saving them on my phone. It was so frustrating," she says.

Ali, who has now returned to Kashmir, had a ticket booked for Hyderabad and Uzbekistan before the shutdown took place, so she left the valley and spent the next three weeks trying to give an accurate picture through her Instagram handle. “I only posted my first story 4 or 5 hours after I landed in Hyderabad," she says. “Because when I landed, I started receiving messages from people. And I started crying in the plane itself."

The Gyawun Group and Ali’s Instagram account are two significant examples of ways in which Kashmiris outside the valley are using their social media platforms—to help each other, relieve anxieties and challenge the mainstream media’s Kashmir narrative.

Battle of narratives

The city from where no news can come / Is now so visible in its curfewed nights / that the worst is precise, wrote Agha Shahid Ali in his poem I See Kashmir From New Delhi At Midnight (1997). These lines ring as true today, when a Kashmir under lockdown is conspicuous in the fogged truths being disseminated from the ground.

For over a month, the valley has been a communication blackhole. According to a 10 September report in the Hindustan Times, most shops and businesses remain shut as a sign of protest, and attendance in schools is thin. Kashmiris say that even though some landlines in the valley were restored last week, getting through entails multiple attempts—with a pre-recorded message saying, “The number you have dialled does not exist, please check it and redial."

There are some who are prepared to be hopeful. Amitabh Mattoo, professor of disarmament studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Mint in an interview published on 12 August: “We are at a tipping point. This could lead to a new Kashmir which will demonstrate the tremendous reservoir of strengths that India and the Indian society has to offer or we could succumb to a situation where it becomes a permanent source, much, much bigger source of grief." He added, “Ultimately, we are a democracy that values the opinions of our people, that wants stakeholders to take responsibility."

Across social media, however, Kashmiris are expressing a sense of disenfranchisement, exclusion and humiliation. Others on the internet who are announcing plans to purchase land in the valley, or making misogynistic remarks about marrying Kashmiri women, have only hardened these feelings of betrayal.

Another result of the restrictions has been that reportage from Indian and foreign media outlets is providing conflicting “truths". While several Indian news outlets suggest peace and “normalcy" in Kashmir, digital and foreign portals are reporting a very grim, and different, reality—that of human rights violations, unease and violence. The international press has also reported on a number of issues largely passed over by the national media—a doctor detained for speaking out about a shortage of medicines, hospitals admitting victims of clashes between protesters and the forces, more than 4,000 arrests, even custodial torture and nocturnal raids.

Photographs of the families and friends of Kashmiri students at an “Eid Away from Home” event at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, on 12 August.
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Photographs of the families and friends of Kashmiri students at an “Eid Away from Home” event at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, on 12 August. (Hindustan Times)

“If you look at the past two years of reportage in the Indian television media, you will see they worked at creating a consensus across India on the revocation of Article 370," says Manisha Pande, executive editor, Newslaundry, a news media outlet. “You had prime time after prime time questioning why Kashmir should get to have this special status, they even went on to say we should not care about collateral damage or that this needs to be handled with a strict hand. So TV has worked to help the government go through with this, create a consensus in the country, dehumanize Kashmiris and delegitimize mainstream leaders there," she adds. Pande says language papers have also reported this from the perspective of the government, “instead of acquainting their readers with the Kashmiri voice".

So, even as the Union government and J&K administration maintain there have been no casualties, and no bullets fired by the forces, visuals from the BBC, Al Jazeera and some Indian portals show bloodied faces, blinded men and weeping mothers.

Among the first of these discrepancies was when a video was released by the BBC on 9 August showed a large-scale protest in Soura, in which one can hear live rounds being fired in the background, as unarmed protestors disperse. The government and Indian media initially rejected this report as being fabricated but on 13 August, the official Twitter account of the Union ministry of home affairs spokesperson(@PIBHomeAffairs) partially accepted the veracity of this video: “miscreants...resorted to unprovoked stone pelting against law enforcement forces to cause widespread unrest", they tweeted, while reiterating the official stand that no bullets were fired.

Kashmiris at the event.
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Kashmiris at the event.

In the midst of this, Kashmiris outside the valley are trying to let the world know what is really happening. So whether it is diaspora voices who manage the organization and pages Stand With Kashmir across platforms (with over 41,000 followers on Facebook) or With Kashmir, run by people from the valley living across India (with more than 85,000 followers on Instagram), many groups are working to post verified information. And simultaneously, social media handles run by Kashmiris are addressing the other very real outcome of the siege—the need to deliver both medicines and messages across in any way they can.

“Internet shutdowns are a pan-India problem but are the most severe in Kashmir in their frequency, length and extent. They completely disrupt life and this goes much beyond streaming YouTube videos to core areas of human life such as healthcare," says Apar Gupta, a lawyer and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). “It has a psychological impact; a fear psychosis is developing among family members and friends who are not even being able to organize help in a proper manner. The internet plays a huge emotive role in terms of calming anxiety and ensuring people are safe."

Raising the voice

It was on 24 August, after she landed in Hyderabad, that Ali began posting what she observed in Kashmir during the lead up to, and after, 5 August. She also used her Instagram account to write explainers on reservations in Kashmir and the J&K Public Safety Act, which forms the basis for several arrests. She highlighted articles from news platforms she trusts, battled the “all Kashmiris want Pakistan" narrative, and provided a historical and contemporary insight into Kashmiri politics, human rights violations, corruption and insurgency. Ali even patiently addressed a live Q&A on Article 370 on her friend’s Instagram page, navigating abuse, personal attacks and trolls to answer politically and historically relevant questions on the special status. Interspersed with expressions of rage and jibes about “making a joke of (the country’s) own ‘sacred’ Constitution", her efforts were directed at countering commonly peddled myths about her home.

Other handles like @withkashmir have also been tirelessly posting what they believe to be trusted reports, mostly from international news outlets or certain Indian media portals. Since most of the reports of deaths, medical-related difficulties and protests come from digital platforms, the reach of this information remains limited.

“There is a bombardment of statist narratives that—just like the Hutu journalism of genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, or Goebbels’ propaganda in Nazi Germany—enables the hatred against Kashmiris," the With Kashmir team, whose members wanted to remain anonymous, told me on email. “There’s an echo chamber that does not believe in anything other than what the state and its allies are talking about. We do not have any resources except that we have access to the internet and a voice."

A Kashmiri youth speaking at the event.
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A Kashmiri youth speaking at the event. (Getty Images)

At a global level, the website Stand With Kashmir was started in February after the Pulwama attack, largely by people based in the US. Since 5 August, they have been coordinating protests in New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Atlanta and elsewhere in the US, hosting film screenings and getting their members to speak on panels, so that more voices on Kashmir emerge. “The impact of the page was to spread awareness about Kashmir, keep people in the loop, share resources, share calls to action. And it has been really incredible to see that we went from 300 followers on our Facebook page on 4 August to beyond 38,000 now," says New Jersey-based Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of South Asian history at Lafayette College, and a volunteer with Stand With Kashmir, which is “demanding the right to self-determination for the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir".

While these handles spread awareness, and question the dominant narrative, they are often faced with questions about their own credibility and verification processes. “A lot of us have worked on Kashmir, been to Kashmir, we only follow reputable people. Our position is one of ending the occupation and standing for the right of self-determination. So what we sift through is things that represent that," says Kanjwal. She provides an example—the page would not, for instance, share posts by Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) members Shehla Rashid or Shah Faesal, even though they might speak out about what’s going on in Kashmir and against the Union government’s actions, because they believe the JKPM’s political position doesn’t go far enough.

Ali also says Kashmiris posting on social media are now more careful of what they put out there, making sure their sources are verified, and actively combating rumour-mongering. “One thing I have noticed this time around is that a lot of people are doing a fact-check before posting," she says. “As for me, I never used to post so many articles, I just used to post what I heard from the local source. But now I am also posting reports and using them as source material. A lot of the stuff I get from local sources is later confirmed by reports in certain sections of the press."

However, Kashmiris say that even as they do this, there is a very real risk to them and their families. Take the example of a photojournalist from the valley and who is presently in the National Capital Region. He runs the Instagram handle @hashmography, where he posts pictures of clashes, injured Kashmiris, updates on restrictions and curbs on the religious freedom of both the Shia and Sunni communities, as well as other information given by visiting journalist friends from Kashmir.

He tells me he received a warning call from a friend back home. “My friend told me not to say or post anything that could land them in trouble there. My father also said not to say anything outside for which they may have to bear the brunt back home. In Kashmir, journalists never really have any real freedom to report, we are always worried about getting arrested, threatened or having our photographs deleted or being thrashed by mobs. And now here, I have been getting calls from random numbers, threatening me and asking me to go to Pakistan."

This is also why the team of With Kashmir prefers anonymity. “We have been censored, slandered and continuously subjected to threats and abuse. Anonymity allows us to protect our friends and family from retribution," they say.

Apart from this kind of intimidation, Gupta of the IFF says that censorship is also a result of digital policies and data privacy issues. “The terms of service of large internet platforms and the way they are implemented do suffer from a transparency and accountability problem," he says. “People who utilize them quite often for what is called social justice are facing high degrees of censorship. Annual reports of big social media organizations reveal that countries make two types of requests—one asking them to take down information and the other to provide user information. In those areas, India ranks very high. And this is as per the reports of Google, Facebook and Twitter," adds Gupta.

Some pages run by Kashmiris have also had their accounts suspended as a result of platform policies. Stand With Kashmir, for instance, had its page blocked by Instagram. “Our Instagram was frozen and blocked in the initial days. We knew this was because these pages are getting heavily reported by Indians or Indian Americans who aren’t happy with what we are saying," says Kanjwal.

Helping handles

It is in this atmosphere that Javid Parsa, 31, a restaurateur from Bandipora in north Kashmir, is working overtime to use his follower count of over 26,000 on Instagram to help Kashmiris who are away from home. When we meet at the Delhi outlet of his eponymous restaurant chain Parsa's, he is constantly distracted by requests for coordinating delivery of medicines, documents, messages, connecting Hajis or students to their relatives in Kashmir via conference on his phone. He posts updates and calls for help on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #KashmirSOS.

“My work itself is a statement right now. They are saying everything is fine, but if I have to send basic medicines from Delhi, that means nothing is all right. I am putting it up on the internet and people are watching," he says. So far, Parsa has connected 600-700 Hajis who were in Saudi Arabia with their families. “Most important was the medical help. I have a small fridge in my hotel in which I keep medicines which need to be frozen and sent over," he says.

After the news of landlines being activated started coming in, Parsa crowdsourced four lists of functional phones in different parts of the valley for those outside to reach their loved ones, and posted them on his social media accounts. He also helped raise funds for a family whose home reportedly burnt down in Alochibagh, a village in south Kashmir, because they couldn’t call the fire department owing to the communication shutdown. So far, the contributions are nearing 5 lakh.

Similarly, actor Ashwath Bhatt is providing monetary and emotional support to Kashmiri students who may not be able to pay their hostel or examination fees since they have no way of reaching their parents. Through his trust—the Theatre Garage Project—he has helped get extensions for students on payments, transferred funds after verifying their ID cards and other details, and helped rehabilitate those who have been asked to leave their hostels. Bhatt, who is a Kashmiri Pandit, a community that was forced to leave Kashmir in large numbers amidst threats and violence in 1990, says his identity has been weaponized to justify the human rights violations of Kashmiri Muslims in the valley.

“I haven’t forgotten the pain, our struggle, the brutal massacres. My house was burnt on 19 September 1990. And completely looted. But today, does it make me happy if someone is brutally killed in Kashmir? I have suffered violence. Aaj bhi rooh kaapti hai jab 1990 ki violence yaad aati hai (Remembering the violence we faced in 1990 still shatters my soul). You think I will propagate the same violence against someone else? Absolutely not," he says.

Bhatt believes it is important for people to come together right now and help Kashmiri students who have no access to their homes and loved ones. “They are not actually poor kids, this isn’t charity, they feel humiliated even asking for financial support, but I say to them I am one of their own and I have also seen difficult times. And no one came to help then."

Besides medical and monetary help, Kashmiris across India are also providing safe spaces for young people to talk to each other and express themselves. Parsa’s space in New Friends Colony has been serving as one such place. “This place has acted as an important hub for Kashmiris to connect. They are missing home right now, so they come here, they get to talk in Kashmiri, they meet fellow students. They build a community and help each other," says Parsa. “A lot of students have told me stories, they were almost crying in front of me."

*****

Already one of the most militarized zones in the world, Kashmir has now seen three decades of militancy. It has witnessed elections being rigged, it has lived through the exodus of an entire community, it has endured uprisings and curfews, and seen civilian deaths reduced to a statistic.

This time around, it’s even worse. The death of Asrar Ahmad Khan is being deployed in the battle of perception–security officials say he died because of a stone thrown by protesters, while the certificate from the hospital cites cause of death as injuries from pellets and a tear gas shell, as reported in foreign news outlets. His death itself is now a casualty of the competing truths coming from the Valley.

So the struggle to cut through the smokescreens and provide clarity continues. Earlier this week, Ali returned to Kashmir. “While I am there, I will try my best to document the ground situation in Srinagar, if the circumstances allow," read her post on 9 September. “I’ll try to gather and send as many messages as possible. And any urgent delivery!" she wrote in her last post, before there was silence once again from @peaceandpyjamas.

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