Social media has come to Kashmir

MUMBAI, India — A Facebook user posted a video of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani giving a speech, and within 24 hours there were 300 comments.

People debated Geelani’s call for non-violence and argued how best to bring peace to a region that has seen an explosion of protests in which 50 people have been killed since June. More than 30 died in the last week or so.

Over the past few years technology has played an increasingly important role in protest movements around the world, from Myanmar (Burma) to Tibet to Iran and now to Kashmir, the largely Muslim state at the heart of the dispute between India and Pakistan.

Violence has intensified in Kashmir this summer as heavily armed police have battled with stone-throwing young protesters. The dead have included teenagers and a 9-year-old boy, triggering more protests and then more shootings, according to reports.

Tools like Facebook, Meetup and Twitter have enabled activists to quickly and cheaply gather and disseminate information, produce their own media and organize, according to Rachel Sterne, the CEO of GroundReport, a global citizen journalism outlet.

Like activists in other hot spots, Kashmiris have recently begun using new media tools to disseminate videos and information, share ideas and build up their movement. Though formal internet connection is still low in Kashmir, many use their mobile phones to access sites like Facebook, said Arjimand Talib, an online editor and columnist with Daily Greater Kashmir.

In the past, Kashmiris would meet maybe once a week and spend the whole night chatting and brainstorming, said Sanjay Kak, a filmmaker based in Delhi whose latest  documentary, "Jashn-e-Azadi" (2007), is about Kashmir.

“With the spread of the internet, that sense of isolation has been broken,” he said. “People don’t have to wait three days to share an idea with a friend.”

Many in Kashmir are also turning to new media as an outlet because they feel the state has prevented them from expressing themselves freely. In Kashmir, the government does not allow university students to form student unions, has blocked all text messages, has implemented a curfew and has targeted people who engage in street protests, Talib said.

“They’re finding the internet and Facebook an easy tool to vent their frustrations,” he said.

But unlike the protest movements in Myanmar and Iran, which used new technology to circumvent government censorship and inform the international community what was happening on their streets, the protesters in Kashmir have been mostly focused on a domestic audience, according to local journalists and social media experts.

In 2007, hundreds of thousands of monks took the streets in Myanmar's capital, Yangon, and other cities across the country protesting a fuel hike and demanding government reforms. Ordinary citizens and semi-trained local journalists snuck into the crowds with their mobile phones and video cameras to capture images of the protests and subsequent military crackdown.

They sent information to exiles living in Thailand, Britain and elsewhere. Those exiles, including some working for Burmese-affiliated news organizations like the Democratic Voice of Burma and the Irrawaddy, disseminated the information to an international audience.

With foreign journalists forbidden from entering Myanmar, the local activists and citizen journalists became a window into the protests. This marked a dramatic difference from Myanmar’s nationwide protests in 1988 when foreigner journalists were also barred from the country, but local activists did not have the tools or networks to spread the information themselves.

After the disputed election in June 2009, Iranians used new media tools like Twitter and YouTube to not only organize but also inform the international community what was happening. While global media organizations debated the value of such information because it could not be independently verified, they often had few if any other sources to go on.

In Kashmir, internet activists try to disseminate information mostly to a domestic rather than international audience.

“An overwhelming majority of Kashmiris believe that the media in India has been totally biased, misrepresenting the situation in Kashmir,” Talib said. “These youngsters are trying to say, ‘Here is what is the real story.’”

Delhi-based social media expert Gaurav Mishra said the absence of an international audience for the online debate surrounding Kashmir is due to a lack of interest from the global community. “Some things go viral,” he said, “and some things don’t go viral, and that always tells you something about the world.”

He said Americans and Europeans were more eager to engage in the spreading of information concerning protests in Myanmar, Iran and Tibet because those political situations appeared clear cut. The conflicts looked black and white, he said, pitting authoritarian regimes against seemingly innocent demonstrators. In India, he argued, the situation involves a democratic country and is therefore more nuanced.

While the activists have not penetrated a large international audience, they have affected the way the Indian media looks at the events in Kashmir, Talib and Kak said. Coverage has been more sympathetic to the plight of civilians and has focused more on the grievances being made by Kashmiris against a heavily armed police force than on allegations that Pakistani militants are stirring up dissent.

The online activity “is not just expressing ideas,” Kak said. “It’s also affecting the mainstream discourse.”