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India clamps down on Kashmir’s online dissenters


In 2010 activists turned to the internet after a government crushing of dissent in Kashmir.
Photo: Kashmir Global, reproduced under a CC license.

Eyes cast down, hands in pockets, he speaks slowly with long pauses. I can hardly see his face as the evening light begins to fade. He tells me stories of his childhood in the Indian administered Kashmir. Memories flood his mind.

A teen internet activist, he remains anonymous in the ‘virtual’ world.

But the government is after him so we meet in a city outside Kashmir - he can’t go back there this year. He divulges his online activity in a hushed voice, as if on guard.

It started two years ago. He says he used the internet excessively in 2010. ‘I would sleep at 3.00am those days. Kashmir used to be seen through borrowed prisms but because of the internet, people’s narratives came to the fore and this has embarrassed the Indian state.’

At the turn of the decade in this conflict-torn region, a people’s movement seeking liberation from India resulted in massive civil uprisings and the government resorted to military power to crush the dissent.

This teenager is part of a new generation of tech-savvy online activists driven to the internet by the continuous crackdown. They saw cyberspace as an alternative territory for expression, particularly in 2010.

Since then, an unrelenting curfew, gag on local media, a ban on text messaging and the cutting of telephone services in many areas has made the internet an important place to engage in political discourse.

In the absense of physical spaces, the web has facilitated an alternative turf for people to come together, communicate, disseminate information and register protest.

Kashmir people have found a space to express their discontent through visual arts, literature, music, photographs, videos, alternate news media and blogs. This borderless virtual mobilization bypassed the government’s free speech shutdown and left India red-faced. They have responded with a slew of restrictive measures and repressive surveillance.

‘Telecom authority blocked our forums. We lost a huge user base. Now only two to three pages are active. State surveillance drastically increased after 2010,’ the young activist explains.

From bringing down weblinks, to removing videos, from blocking and deleting user profiles, to threatening messages and ‘virtual honey traps’, the state left no stone unturned to try and stifle the voices of Kashmir people.

‘Posing as girls, the police sends friend requests and messages asking about the whereabouts of the dissenters,’ the activist remarks.

When it no longer could tackle the dissent in the ‘virtual world’, the government furthered the clampdown by arresting the dissenters most of whom were harassed and tortured. The teenager tells me his cousin, who administered a popular Facebook page was arrested. ‘He was hung upside down naked and beaten,’ he says.

The government today is keeping a hawk-eyed vigil. To bring its close scrutiny and clampdown to effect, it has established a separate cyber police station to ensure that no dissenting voice is allowed space.

‘If an international media organization or a human rights watchdog says something about Kashmir and we share the web links, or express the same views, the state harasses us, arrests us. The internet has now become a ‘shitty’ place. Let alone [losing] the right to protest, there is no freedom of expression,’ he says emphatically.

The police use fake accounts to carry their vigil in the cyber world and are working on advanced strategies. Reportedly, police roped in IT companies to train its men for cyber activity.

‘Police use key loggers and protocol analyzers, or ‘packet sniffers’, to track down the users. I have formatted my system about 10 times in two years,’ he said.

The internet, owing to its decentralized structure, facilitates a free flow of information and is often perceived as a ‘free’ medium: a basis for democratic process. However, today, even the most robust democracies like India are censoring online content.

The activist’s phone rings as a car pulls up on the other side of the road. His parents are calling him. He empties his pockets of the cigarette packet, which he hands to his friend, and crosses the street.

Before he leaves he remarks, ‘I can’t go home. Sometimes, I still can’t believe that I am on the run.’

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