-Abha Khanna in Srinagar-
Going by the headlines of last few days, the entire state of Jammu-Kashmir appears to be on the boil, with anti-India protests everywhere, stone-pelting, police firing, terrorist encounters… And that’s exactly what they want us to think. 'Us' the people outside the state in India and abroad. After all, their survival depends on it!
The Separatist-cum-terrorist elements in Jammu & Kashmir state have been active for too long to let go of their ‘movement’ easily. As they say, a snake is most ferocious when it feels threatened. The Separatist ‘leadership’ has been fast losing relevance in the Valley, with their local support base dwindling steadily. Their influence has been reduced to just a few mohallas, and even their bandh calls are going unheeded. They simply had to create an atmosphere of unrest to get noticed again. They have always managed their media well, and now have learnt social media skills too.
The interesting thing is that Kashmir is only 15% of the state’s land area. Jammu and Ladakh constitute 85% of the state. Both Jammu and Ladakh are completely peaceful regions, with a sizeable Muslim population where there are no incidents of anti-India or pro-Pakistan sloganeering. And yet whenever disturbances get triggered in small localities of Kashmir, the media makes it look like the entire state is burning and every Muslim is shouting pro-Pak slogans and demanding ‘azaadi’. The role of media in Kashmir region is crucial to this game of perception management, but that’s a story in itself.
The majority in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, including the Kashmir valley, is peace-loving and totally Indian at heart. The tragedy is that no one is talking to them. The historical blunders of political leadership during and after the Partition era are being compounded today. Pro-India voices have always been in a majority in the state but unfortunately Delhi has always negotiated with Separatists working at the behest of anti-India forces.
The youth is critical to players of ideological mind-games. Their typical ploy is to infiltrate educational institutes to capture young minds and develop cadres. The NIT Srinagar issue is a typical case in point. Why would engineering students go to such extreme lengths to antagonize and provoke ‘non-local’ students as to bang on their doors in the middle of the night and shout obscenities? After all, these students cleared an all-India exam to take admission at the institute with the dream of becoming professionals and getting good placements somewhere in India. So ‘azaadi' from India’ is obviously not their mission in life. Isn’t it evident there were certain forces working behind the scenes throughout – right from the anti-India antics of ‘local’ students to the unimaginable police lathicharge on students peacefully and proudly marching with the Tricolor in their hands?
It was in Separatists’ interest to develop a discourse on the lines of Kashmiri versus non-Kashmiri sentiment. They would have succeeded in the game plan, given that gullible media houses in Delhi had started parroting the language deliberately used by Separatist leaders in their reactions to NIT issue.
Then, the Handwara incident was virtually created out of thin air. The flare-up was almost entirely fanned by the social media managers of Separatist groups – it went viral within minutes of the initial argument. It was a strange case of ‘molestation’ indeed since the girl herself strongly denied, right from the beginning, any attempt to molest her. There were allegations that she was forced to refute allegations of molestation in the video that went viral on social media. But the girl stood by her earlier statement before the chief judicial magistrate too. She reiterated that she was not molested by any army soldier, but was in fact confronted, assaulted and dragged by two local boys and her bag was snatched among whom one boy was in school uniform. It was clear there was something sinister behind the entire episode. Who were the local boys, and who was giving them orders?
A watch on the social media activities of some radical Kashmiris, who regularly share Separatist agenda, gives an interesting insight. Their reactions to the girl’s statement range from death threats to vicious character assassination and filthy language. Instead of sympathizing with the 16-year-old girl’s plight, there seems to be anger at why she has exonerated the imaginary armyman. There is no concern at the loss of lives in the ensuing violence. It was almost as if they were frustrated at a plan gone wrong.
It was again in Handwara and Kupwara, known Separatist strongholds, where protests turned violent leading to the death of four civilians.
Youth soft target
Have you ever wondered why it is always the youth that is shown as the face of ‘militancy’? Whether it be ‘anti-India’ protests, stone-pelting at security forces or terrorist encounters, the perpetrators are almost always teenagers!
Separatists have, over the past decades, perfected their hand at the game of perceptions. It is clearly in their interest to create the notion that ‘militancy’ is returning to Kashmir because the people are unhappy. If the issues before the local population are so serious, why aren’t the adults out on the streets as well?
Unfortunately, the mainstream media plays into the hands of Separatist strategists, whether wittingly or unwittingly. In any case there are certain media houses which would rather play the devil’s advocate than do positive journalism. As a case in point, I refer to a recent article that talks of how today’s “young Kashmiri militant is brazenly releasing his pictures and videos on social media” in contrast to the militants of yore. The same article admits there’s “an attempt to glamourise militancy and attract more youth in the manner that ISIS does”. While seeming to justify local youth for taking to ‘militancy’, the writer fails to grasp the crucial point that there’s an obvious institutional support behind this exercise.
Youngsters, especially teenage boys, are always easy prey. It is normal for teenagers to rebel, to defy authority. In fact, psychologists go to the extent of saying that ‘all children rebel”. “Problematic teenager” is a common phenomenon with which the adult society has struggled across the world, since times immemorial. Just search the phrase on the net, and you’ll come across hundreds (maybe thousands) of pages discussing and debating the issue. So, obviously the tendency to defy is not unique to the Kashmiri youth. It’s just that in Kashmir there are too many predators scouting around for youngsters who can be instigated to rebel.
Local Kashmiris are themselves unhappy with this situation. In fact those who can afford it prefer to send their children out of the state to study, with the express purpose of keeping them away from such disruptive influences. In each and every case where a youth has left home to join a terrorist group, he has not done it with his parent’s approval. He just leaves the house without telling anyone, sometimes leaving behind a letter. The family tries its best to trace their son and bring him back, but he’s already in dangerous territory and there is no coming back.
On the other hand, stone pelting had been consciously developed into a profession during the 2008-10 unrest. Youngsters were known to get paid as much as 500 rupees per day for pelting stones. Even today youngsters of certain areas, such as Pattan, are known for their ‘expertise’ in stone-pelting.
While there is still some money to be made in this ‘profession’, it has also turned into a favorite pastime for restive youth. All it needs is a small trigger for them to come out to throw stones at market places, at security convoys etc.
It speaks volumes for the restraint exercised by security forces that when unarmed boys throw stones at their vehicles, the armed forces personnel quietly suffer the assault and drive away. The social media and internet are full of such videos – clearly nailing the lie behind the effort to project security forces as ‘trigger happy brutes’.
The key issue here is the complete lack of constructive avenues for today’s youth in the Kashmir valley, added with the easy access to separatist/terrorist elements. There’s an imperative need to keep the youth positively engaged.
Sacrifice of lives is not a big issue for Separatists, who have done this for decades now. The lives at stake, of course, are always of other children, never their own. The children of top Separatist leaders themselves are conveniently out of the so-called ‘azaadi’ movement, cozily settled or studying out of station and even abroad.
Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Sayeed Salahuddin’s five sons are drawing comfortable salaries from their state government jobs. His youngest Syed Mueed was among the 100 people rescued by security forces when terrorists attacked the Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) complex in Pampore in February this year. He works in the EDI as IT manager.
Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s elder son Nayeem is a doctor in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His second son, Zahoor, lives in New Delhi, while his daughter Farhat is a teacher in Jeddah. All Hurriyat leaders and their family members own prime properties in other states too, even abroad.
In March last year, a policeman named Naseer Ahmed Pandit of 11 Battalion, J&K Police, decamped with two service (AK) rifles and two loaded magazines. He was a trusted officer, given the duty of guarding the house of a state cabinet minister. Locals recount how he was highly regarded in his native village in Karimabad, of southern Pulwama district, as an upright policeman. He openly cheered for India during India-Pakistan matches and went out of his way to support paramilitary forces during election days. His father proudly recalls him as a ‘crusader’ and is still at a loss as to why his 29-year-old son left his coveted police uniform to don the garb of a terrorist. It seems he developed enemies within the ranks when he took action against drug-peddlers. Angry and frustrated at the corruption within, he joined the terrorist group of Hizb commander Burhan Wani. Earlier this year he was killed in anti-terrorist operations.
The stories of all ‘local terrorists’ are similar – bright youngsters fallen prey to negative forces during moments of anger, frustration or rebellion.
Economy of terrorism
In actual terms, the economy of terrorism is more important than the idea of ‘azaadi’ in Kashmir. Steady and robust inflow of funds over decades has created powerful lobbies there that would never want Separatism-terrorism to come to an end in the valley. From government sponsored developmental packages to terror funds to narco money from across the border, it is easy money all the way.
“Demand azaadi, get package” is a successful formula for the Kashmiri leadership. Thousands of crores are sanctioned to Jammu Kashmir state every year as special packages by the Centre. These crores flow into mysterious black holes, as there is simply no development that one can see across the Kashmir Valley.
My latest visit to Srinagar was an eye opener. Last time I was there in 2002, ahead of the crucial assembly elections, at the fag end of the darkest phase of ‘militancy’. After 14 years of elected governance, the capital city of Srinagar seems to have spiraled down on all parameters of development. What immediately strikes you as you come out of the airport is the ill-managed traffic and high level of air pollution. There’s hardly any new infrastructure in place and roads across the valley are in tatters, dust spiraling up as one drives through the capital city and beyond.
Lack of development is certainly a big issue here, but surprisingly no one is talking about it. Needless to say, the Separatist groups also get huge amount of funds from across the borders to keep the pot boiling. Their political as well as monetary survival depends on it.
The most dangerous of all is the drug money, which has come to play a big role in Jammu Kashmir in the past few years, especially in the valley. The region has developed a thriving drug smuggling system controlled from across the border and resultantly, drugs like opium and cannabis etc. are freely available. The system functions like a well oiled industry with support from a large number of smuggling gangs operating on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC).
Drugs are also carried by infiltrating terrorists, who are known to use innovative methods like passing the drugs in PVC pipes from under the fence. These are more prevalent in the Jammu sector since electronic vigilance along the LoC is of a higher degree. New age terrorists, both local and foreigners, are mostly drug addicts. Young boys are first channeled into addiction and then forced on to the path of terrorism.
According to a report published in 2015, United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) sponsored survey reported that the Kashmir Division alone had 70,000 drug addicts. Inputs suggested the actual number was more than two lakhs.
Most terrorists who infiltrate from Pakistan, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, are on some sort of substance abuse or the other. They also take shots of steroids to give them energy to brave extreme cold climates and other hardships. Fidayeen (suicide attackers) are invariably heavily drugged before they go in for the attack.
Drugs are a source of income for Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) for carrying out terror activities in Jammu Kashmir. Money earned from the narcotics trade, extending from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the Kashmir Valley, is invariably used to fund terror activities.
Radicalisation in Kashmir
The religious extension of separatist mindset is the attempt to radicalize the Valley people, especially the youth. Originally, Kashmiri Muslims have been believers of Sufism. Muslim rishis and peers of the Valley have always preached pluralism and tolerance for other religions.
The concerted effort to replace Sufism with the radical Salaafi/Wahaabi thought can be discerned by the free-flow of Wahaabi literature. It is a known fact that the local maulvis of many mosques in the valley have been replaced by non-local clerics, sometimes from across the border.
Yet, you don’t see much radical influence on the common man on the streets. Burqas and skullcaps are a rare sight, despite the ferocious efforts of the likes of pro-Pakistan separatists such as Geelani and Asiya Andrabi.
The Sufi influence actually is still strong in most regions. Most Kashmiris still revere their Sufi shrines and living saints and consider them to be part of their cultural heritage. However, since Sufi saints have a quiet presence, unlike the loud and disruptive Separatists, they are not seen or heard by the outer world that depends on media coverage.
The majority of Kashmiri Muslim is still not radicalised. To prevent any further erosion, the government needs to address the socio-political and economic concerns of the Kashmiris.
Governance nil at ground level
Governance seems to be completely missing at ground level in the Jammu Kashmir, the valley included. The institutions of democratic functioning that have been effectively developed elsewhere in the country – for example Panchayati Raj – are totally missing in this state. A lot of public frustration stems from this reason.
The core issues of development and corruption need to addressed seriously. That’s the only way to do away with misunderstandings of the past and disenchantment with the governments of the day.
Viral tactics through Social Media
The virtual world has virtually overtaken the real world this time. Social media platforms have become effective tool in the hands of the anti-India lobby – spreading lopsided version of ‘news’ and creating perceptions that suit their purpose. With a handful of social media players working on their computers and another handful engaged in stone-pelting and anti-India banner protests, the Separatists are again trying hard to foment trouble in the Kashmir valley. It’s, after all, their fight for survival.
The strategy is to focus on small pockets within the valley where they still have some influence left, create an issue as an excuse to spark street violence and then use social media handlers to spread the incident like wildfire to the world.
The Handwara issue is a perfect case study of how these people are training themselves to coordinate their efforts. Here’s how the Handwara ‘incident’ was blown out of proportion with the effective use of social media tools:
Kashmir Dispatch (KD), a valley-based ‘news agency’, broke the ‘news’ at 4.10 p.m. with the following headline “Kashmir youth shot dead as protests spur after trooper molests student”. Note that this headline and the accompanying article violated standard journalistic and legal principles by declaring the ‘trooper’ guilty of molestation at the very outset. It read: A youth who was shot at during protests after an army trooper molested a girl student in Handwara town has passed away, medical sources in the police district told Kashmir Dispatch.
An accused can be declared guilty only after a procedural inquiry finds due evidence against him. Till then, responsible media always uses words like ‘alleged’, ‘accused’ and ‘reported’. Also note that in this particular case, the victim herself had been denying right from the beginning that she was NOT molested by anyone. There was no mention of this fact anywhere in the ‘news’ story. Obviously, no one was listening to the ‘victim’.
Another purported news agency ‘J&K News Service’ (JKNS) immediately picked up this ‘news’ and put it up on its website verbatim, quoting KD. The JKNS is a clearly pro-Separatist ‘news agency’ which refers to anti-India protestors as ‘pro-freedom protestors’ and refers to Anantnag as ‘Islamabad’ (a typical separatist terminology that has no official sanction whatsoever). Interestingly, when reporting about local boys named by the ‘victim’ for manhandling her, the agency is careful to use the word ‘accused’.
Now this ‘breaking news’ was immediately picked up by over 50 Facebook pages, which then actively kept spreading content on the Handwara issue. Of these, 15 pages have a following of more than 10,000 users. Out of these 15 pages, there are 9 pages with likes ranging from 50,000 to 1,10,0000.
Greater Kashmir (local newspaper with clear Separatist leanings), J&K News Service, Kashmir Life, JandK Headlines, Fast Kashmir, Srinagar News Agency, Green Team Pakistan were most shared pages on Handwara issue.
Most of the pages broke this ‘news’ between 4:15 to 4:30 p.m. Then it was published by Greater Kashmir at 4:38 p.m. and within few minutes it was shared by hundreds of net users.
During the next two hours, internet was full of news stories and videos related to Handwara. All the pages started sharing graphic images of boys killed and injured. Images of dead bodies, people mourning over dead bodies, blood splattered on the ground and police men firing tear gas shells were constantly uploaded on the net and frequently shared by all the pages mentioned above. Many pages used the term “Indian Army (or troopers) killed two Kashmiris”.
Nefarious media-nexus in Kashmir Valley
Every Friday evening, a scene is played out at Jamia Millia Masjid in Nowhata, downtown Srinagar. After the namaaz is over, the gates are closed. Just inside the gates, there are some 20-30 youths with their faces covered and anti-India or pro-Pakistan banners in their hands. Jammu Kashmir police and CRPF personnel are standing at one end, wearing combat gear that protects their head, face, torso and knees. At the other end, some 50-60 cameramen from electronic and print media are ready with their still and video cameras trained on the ‘protestors’ and security forces.
The action starts when the set is ready. ‘Protestors’ start raising anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans, and after some time begin throwing stones at the waiting security forces personnel. The personnel fend off the stone-pelters in the usual manner. The mediamen are busy capturing the ‘protests’ on cameras at a safe distance.
Most interestingly, this scene is clearly visible from outside the gate. As stones are pelted and police take action to contain the ‘protesting mob’ in the open ground within the mosque, life on the street right outside the gates is completely normal. Women are walking past comfortably on their routine chores, vehicles pass by and street vendors sell their wares.
It’s obvious that the local population is so used to this action-reaction happening safely within the gated premises, that not even a child bats an eyelid.
Welcome to the media mafia of Kashmir Valley!
This is just a glimpse of the manner in which news is manufactured and presented from within the Kashmir valley. It’s an unwritten rule that in Kashmir, media persons can only be Kashmiris – that too a few chosen ones.
The headquarters of every established media house has bureaus and correspondents in major cities, including Srinagar. The editorial team operating at the headquarters, say in Delhi, considers reports filed by its own correspondent as most authentic. Correspondents/bureaus are always given preference over other writers and news agencies. This is actually a healthy practice, giving due credibility and accountability to the in-house staff. However, in the case of Kashmir, there’s nothing healthy about this.
Over the last few decades, Kashmir’s mediapersons have been strategically woven into a clever and tight-knit nexus. This ensures that only a certain type of news is released to the world – that which serves a particular ideological purpose. The other news is either played down or not reported at all. Recently, a coordinator working at the headquarters of an electronic news channel noticed that every time there’s a bandh call in the valley, only one particular shutter was shown in the feed sent in by their video-journalist. This shutter was always downed to prove the efficacy of the bandh call, with some protests happening in the foreground. When questioned about this, the journalist gave some lame excuse and made sure there were some other shots next time.
The security forces, especially the Army, have been facing this for decades now. The good work undertaken by the armed forces across Jammu Kashmir state under the aegis of projects such as Operation Sadbhavna are almost never highlighted, neither in local nor mainstream media. The issues that local correspondents don’t write about, never get highlighted in mainstream media. Convenient, isn’t it? Especially for separatists and anti-India lobbies.
Mainstream media houses have almost given up trying to send in non-Kashmiri journalists for Srinagar posting. The reason: non-Kashmiri journos invariably get death threats and are denied access to the normal bureaucratic machinery which is crucial to reporting.