Electronic Intifada

In a small corner of a modest but well-lit room, Haseena, 45, at her spinning wheel is an archetypal image of a Kashmiri mother. She is at work by a poster-size photograph of her elder son Tanveer Ahmad Handoo who was killed in the CRPF firing last year at capital Srinagar's Safa Kadal, during the Amarnath land row.

The family remembers Tanveer with a video which is a treasured possession for them. This is a two-minute long flash video of a dying Tanveer captured on a mobile phone. The video shows images of protestors on August 14, 2008, near the Safa Kadal Bridge and gunshots followed by images of Tanveer and another injured youth Tariq Ahmad. The video not only preserves the memory of Tanveer’s martyrdom but has also become iconic of a new electronic front between the Kashmiri resistance and the Indian State.

Says Tanveer’s brother, Riyaz Ahmed Handoo, while viewing the video clip: “These are the last moments of my brother’s life after he was shot in the abdomen and before he could even make it to the hospital.” The Handoos say that the mobile clip was shot by an anonymous protester in the crowd and someone shared it with them via Bluetooth. For Riyaz, the memory of his brother’s death is the memory of his brother’s life and he wants the video to be there on his mobile phone forever. This disturbing image of a Kashmiri life fading into death has become a symbol of protest and martyrdom in the neighborhood. The video was widely circulated on the Internet and was uploaded on video sharing websites like YouTube as “Kashmir Burning” that fuelled protests across Kashmir.

The same video also shows Tariq, a worker, sustain multiple bullet injuries. But Tariq survived. “This is me,” he says heartily on being shown his video on YouTube. “That day I received two bullet hits.” Tariq feels a deep sense of gratitude for the anonymous Internet users who shot and uploaded his video immediately after the firing. But Tariq is not alone in applauding the efforts of these anonymous Internet users. Many in the diaspora feel that the Internet users have succeeded where the mainstream Kashmiri media has failed.

This phenomenon typifies an emerging trend with the Kashmiri youth disgruntled with the mainstream media: Kashmir’s own electronic intifada. The new media technology which was once perceived as the gaming tool of an indulgent youth has emerged as a weapon of resistance. In Kashmir’s Internet cafes and homes, a technologically savvy new age Kashmiri youth is offering belligerent resistance to the dogged ways of the old media. This new electronic intifada does not need anything other than a few mobile phones equipped with video recorders and fast Internet connections to help upload the videos of Kashmiri protest to video sharing websites like YouTube and Google videos.

Malik, one of the young Kashmiri Net warriors, says: “Our battle is fought on two fronts. In the streets between unarmed protestors and the troops, and on Internet by the youth.” Malik is cautious enough not to give us his full name as he is certain of reprisals by security agencies. He does not come out to protest on the streets but records the way in which protests in Kashmir are brutally and violently suppressed by the police and the Indian paramilitary forces, often leading to serious injuries which are sometimes captured live in these videos. Malik calls these videos “the struggle digitized.” He also explains what motivates him to anonymously record these protests: “Every day people in Kashmir witness brutalities. I just make sure that the truth gets out to the world outsideKashmir.”

Malik is not alone in this virtual war. The young, tech savvy netizens of Kashmir record the everyday brutality in Kashmir and upload them to provide instant updates of the developing stories in Kashmir. Some of these videos on YouTube give an idea of the political energies released by the new media in Kashmir. The videos might often appear to be amateurish but they do serve the purpose of bringing the Kashmir protest to Internet users worldwide.

Post-Amarnath land transfer row, this appears to be the beginning of an intrepid and intractable, young and mobile, uprising, an uprising which challenges the control of India’s security agencies over the flow of information from the Kashmir Valley. Does this role of the new media in Kashmiri politics suggest a new direction?  “Of course, yes. But change will take time,” says Sameer Bhat, an award-winning Kashmiri blogger. Bhat, honored with an online bloggers award in 2006, quotes a study from a public opinion research organization, Pew Research Center (PRC) that suggests that the penetration of bloggers and other alternative media in the recent flare-ups across the world has been immense.

“Regarding Kashmir, our struggle is in transition. The Kashmiri youth are yet to use alternative media as effectively as the Palestinians. But what has really changed with the new media is the difficulty to defend lies which are often privileged as the truth by our politicians,” says Bhat who is also one of Kashmir’s earliest bloggers. Bhat also observed that the urban youth have used the Internet in conflict zones to combat the pro-authority spin that often skew mainstream media accounts.

“We have an example of a non-profit online publication, Electronic Intifada, which covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective. Be it Obama’s campaigning, Hurricane Katrina, or Gaza siege, lots of people around the world rely on blogs and video sites that give them first hand accounts from ground zero,” Bhat says. As an example, he cites the assassination of Benazir Bhutto when, according to researchers, 20 percent of UK’s population relied on Pakistani blogs and video sites to know who was the actual perpetrator when conflicting media reports began to emerge.

Bhat feels that it is not merely news which is being recorded with the help of the new media but history itself. Bhat clarifies: “Kashmir’s history was either written by Kashmiri Pandits or by the Europeans colonists. We might not be writing books, but our blogs and video sites will offer alternative accounts for a new literature and history.”

The experts are skeptical however of the impact such online content can create for Kashmir. “If we compare videos or written material being uploaded by Kashmiris against their counterparts in Iran, Iraq, Palestine (or for that matter, even in India, Pakistan, US or Brazil), the result will be in fractions. It may take time to register a serious impact on world opinion,” explains Tawheed Ahmad, a Google staffer. Ahmad, however, believes that the high speed connection and cheap access could shape emerging trends for new media in Kashmir.

But perhaps an even bigger danger for this new media revolution is the security agencies. “Nobody should be under the impression that government is unaware of such activities on the web,” says a senior officer of the Intelligence. Asked if any arrests have been made so far or any content uploaded on the web, the official refused to give any further information.

Whatever the government response, people like Haseena do not want authorities to remove the video of like her dying son from YouTube. The blogger, Sameer Bhat, also feels that it would be “stupid” for the government to filter or censor online content from Kashmir. “If ever such a move is reported from the Valley, it will place India on the list of severe and repressive regimes like Iran and China which closely monitor online content,” Bhat says.

The article also appeared in the third issue of www.conveyormagazine.com (P 54-55).

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About M. Umar Baba

Mohammad Umar Baba is a Kashmir-based Journalist and blogger and was born in Srinagar in 1982. He has been covering conflict, politics, and human rights in the region for the past several years and can be reached at [email protected]

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