It started with a phone call from a dying militant that went viral. Now angry, educated youth, inspired by social media, are demonstrating in their thousands.
The young militant would be dead in a few minutes. Indian security forces had the house surrounded. As they closed in, Muzamil Amin Dar made a phone call.
“There is nothing to worry about,” he is heard calmly telling his family on a tape of the call. “Sooner or later we all have to face death, isn’t that right?” He falls silent; the recording ends in a shrill chorus of women’s screams.
The killing of the commander from the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in October 2012 looked like any other death in the 27-year insurgency that has racked Indian-controlled Kashmir. What made it different was barely appreciated at the time. Days after Dar’s last conversation with his family, the recording of the call began to circulate online, spreading like wildfire across the Kashmir valley. Uploads to YouTube were played tens of thousands of times. Within months, copycat “last calls” from other dying militants began to surface. A trend was born.
It was one of the earliest interventions of social media in a conflict that has been transformed by technology. Unlike the shadowy militants of the 1990s, Kashmir’s new crop of anti-India fighters are WhatsApp warriors, achieving with selfies what they have struggled to do with guns. In the hands of young Kashmiris, the internet has become a weapon: images of dissent met by teargas and bullets in the street are flourishing online.
This year’s 70th anniversary of Indian independence also marks the beginning of Kashmir’s troubles. In 1947, India and Pakistan fought the first of three wars over the picturesque Himalayan valley. Since 1989, an armed insurgency has resisted Indian rule, demanding azaadi (freedom) for the former princedom, or merger with Pakistan.
After more than a decade of dirty war, with torture, sexual violence and forced disappearances, India broke the insurgency’s back in the early 2000s. But successive Indian administrations have failed to press for peace. “Once the [militancy] was contained, we sat back and were happy with the status quo,” AS Dulat, a former Indian intelligence chief, lamented in a recent memoir, “instead of taking advantage of the situation to forge a political solution.”
Alienation and anger have stewed in the 15 years since. Militant numbers remain small, roughly 210 by police estimates. But public demonstrations are growing in size and intensity. Last month an incensed crowd stripped a senior policeman outside Kashmir’s most significant mosque and stoned him to death. Young women are, for the first time, leading protests, showing they are as willing to take casualties as men. Last year, in response to the worst unrest in six years, Indian security forces killed more than 90 civilians and injured hundreds more. Still, thousands kept taking to the streets.
“Young Kashmiri minds have gone out of control,” Dulat said recently. “There is a sense of hopelessness. They aren’t afraid to die.”
The rage is most palpable in villages such as Trenz, two hours south of Srinagar, where “Indian Dogs” is painted across playground walls and children point the way to militants’ family homes. In one house, Abdul Salam Shafi is reclining on a thick carpet, leafing through school pictures of his grandson Ubaid. “He was studying for the medical entrance examination,” Abdul Salam recalls. “He told the family he was going for coaching in Srinagar and left. He never came back.”
That was about four months ago. “When pictures of him went viral on WhatsApp, we knew he had joined the mujahideen,” Ubaid’s brother, Zubair, says.
Ubaid Shafi is the latest in a new wave of militants: educated boys, from middle-class families, whose anger towards India was supposed to have been blunted by job prospects and material wealth. “He wanted a car: we bought him a car,” Abdul Salam says. “He wanted a laptop: we bought him a laptop. We gave him everything and still he preferred this.”
When he’s asked why his grandson chose to take arms, the creases in Abdul Salam’s face deepen. “There is so much injustice in Kashmir,” he says. “We don’t know when we go out in the morning if we’ll come back alive. It’s better to die like this, rather than in other ways.”
Such resentment is decades old, but the proliferation of smartphones is a critical new factor. The region’s last significant surge of protests, before last summer, was in 2010. Back then, according to a leaked police intelligence report, about a quarter of Kashmiris had access to social media. By 2015 that number had risen to 70%.
“Social media is creating havoc here in Kashmir,” says SP Vaid, director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police service. He echoes a view popular among authorities: “[It] is being used by Pakistan to brainwash the children.”
To quell new demonstrations in April, the state government announced an unprecedented suspension of social media in the valley. Facebook, Twitter and 20 other platforms suddenly fell silent. The students at Government Degree College in Pulwama, another southern town, were online again in 30 seconds. “We just used a VPN [virtual private network],” says Mir Muzaffar, showing off a Facebook feed rich with images of bearded fighters. “They banned one VPN,” the teenager adds, “but there are about 50 others.”
Other than red Converse-style shoes, and chunky metal watches worn one size too large, the leading trend among Pulwama’s students this year is for hurling rocks at the Indian forces stationed in the town – and broadcasting the ensuing violence live.
“Facebook Live is the most important app,” says Amir, a student. Protesters used the live-streaming feature in April to capture footage of security officers standing on the neck of one student, while another beat him with a metal stick. The video helped to fuel demonstrations at colleges across Kashmir that persisted for weeks.
Live broadcasting became harder during the social media suspension: connections are significantly slowed by VPNs. “Facebook is running easily, but you can’t go live,” Amir says. “But we can still send our message through images.”
In Pulwama, as elsewhere, WhatsApp has become a key tool to stunt Indian security operations. Roused by social media messages, villagers regularly run to the scene of firefights, jostling Indian soldiers, helping trapped militants to flee. “If Indian forces come and ransack something or grab somebody, we message it on WhatsApp and a big gathering of people come and stop them,” Muzaffar says.
Incidents that might have been only whispered about in the past can now make global headlines. In April, a Kashmiri man was tied to an army 4×4 as a human shield. The footage sparked condemnation from human rights groups and forced government ministers to attempt to justify an apparent violation of international law.
The students’ Facebook timelines are an endless stream of such violence: children allegedly blinded by pellet guns; the bruised bodies of those who claim they were assaulted by Indian forces; young militants cocking guns, smiling beatifically at the camera. “We are just highlighting our issues,” Amir says. “It’s the best way. It can’t be stopped.”
Among militants, the digital pioneer was a young Hizbul mujahideen commander called Burhan Wani. His rise to be the most-followed militant in Kashmir started by accident, local journalists say. Early in 2013, supporters thought the teenage Wani had been killed in a gunfight with security forces. As was traditional, pictures of the deceased militant flooded social media. Wani had actually survived the encounter, but was suddenly the best-known fighter in Kashmir.
The rebels now have a carefully cultivated digital presence. Slickly packaged videos document their life stories and journeys into militancy. Candid footage shows off their personalities, singing folk songs, eating meals, having snowball fights. Facebook and WhatsApp groups – frequently banned, quickly revived – post their pronouncements to audiences of thousands.
“We feel injustice, so we follow these guys. We support them,” says Yawir, a student in Pulwama. “They can’t use social media because they will be tracked by Indian forces. But their videos still go viral.”
Six years of uneasy order were shattered by Wani’s death at the hands of Indian troops last July. His funeral attracted an estimated 200,000 mourners, and the protests that followed led to Kashmir’s longest-ever curfew. Wani’s huge popularity, propelled by social media, seemed to catch the Indian state by surprise. “The government is clueless,” says Vinay Kaura, an insurgency specialist who has studied the use of social media in Kashmir. “They don’t know how to counter it. It is an entirely new battlefield.”
Governments everywhere are struggling to control the medium, “but it is especially difficult in India,” Kaura says, “where the government’s cyber capabilities are not very developed”.
Militarily, the rebels are hopelessly outmatched. Online, they have a direct channel to virtually every young Kashmiri. That has changed not just the way insurgents communicate but the nature of the insurgency itself, according to analysts. “The militants haven’t actually inflicted many casualties,” says Peer Suhail, director of the Centre for Research and Development Policy in Srinagar. “They aren’t primarily fighters. What they do is perception management. They create narrative.”
Ayesha Siddiqa, an author and expert on south Asian conflicts, agrees: “It’s a fight which is now being carried out by media,” she says. “What was Burhan Wani actually doing? It wasn’t firing his gun. He was basically very vocal: arousing sentiments, and encouraging people his age to come out into the street, to pelt stones and completely frustrate the security establishment.”
Trained to fight a militancy, Indian security forces instead find themselves facing young people hurling rocks. “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us,” India’s army chief, Bipin Rawat, said in April. “Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I [wanted].”
The social media ban was quietly lifted in May – but only briefly. Mobile internet services were shut down completely 24 hours later, when the killing of a prominent militant, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, ignited new demonstrations. His image, clutching by turns guns and selfie sticks, filled Facebook timelines across the region.
“Social media has become an unstoppable force now,” says Kaura. “India is not China: it cannot regulate the internet in the way the Chinese are doing. Being a democratic country, you have certain obligations.”
In Kashmir, he adds, the use of social media is not creating a generation of embittered young people, but revealing one. “The government will have to realise they need to start a political dialogue,” he says. “It’s the only way they can engage these youths in a productive and useful manner.”
By Michael Safi in southern Kashmir
Additional reporting by Azhar Farooq