x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cyberspace is new front for Kashmiri separatists

Facing curbs on movement and free speech in Indian-administered Kashmir, separatists turn to the internet to voice grievances and demands.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // After being placed under house arrest before a rally outside the UN's Kashmir headquarters earlier this month, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the region's chief Muslim cleric and separatist leader, turned to the internet to deliver his message. As Indian security forces fanned out across the city to enforce curfew-like restrictions to halt the march, Mr Umar circulated an online petition calling for an end to the alleged human rights abuses by the security forces and other official agencies.

Electronic copies of the petition were sent to the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (Unmogip), the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, heads of states including the US president Barack Obama, and the Organisation of Islamic Conference. As the Indian government tightens restrictions on Kashmiri separatists, Mr Umar, 36, is among the region's new generation of internet-savvy politicians who have taken their political struggle to cyberspace.

The cleric's proposed rally was to be held on February 8 and was aimed at drawing the world's attention to the "serious" human rights situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and to reiterate the demand of the separatists alliance, known as the Hurriyat Conference, for self-determination for Kashmiris. The proposed march on the Unmogip headquarters in Srinagar was in response to a recent spate of deaths of Kashmiri civilians at the hands of Indian troops, most recently the killing of two school boys two weeks ago.

"The people of Kashmir believe that the time has come that the UN should come forward and let India and Pakistan know that talks between these two countries must be accompanied by practical measures to restore an environment of non-violence," the petition read, referring to upcoming talks between the rivals who both claim Kashmir in its entirety. Shakeel Bakshi, 38, another young Kashmiri separatist politician, says he spends six to eight hours a day blogging, responding to online users and updating the Facebook page of his party, the Islamic Students League, which also has its own blog.

Politicians like Mr Shakeel and Mr Umar claim the internet has been an effective tool in both updating Kashmiris home and abroad about the situation in the region and ironing out any misconceptions about the conflict. "You can't hold peaceful demonstrations or rallies, you can't travel abroad as more than 60,000 families, including many political activists, are not allowed to acquire Indian passports," said Parvez Imroz, a Srinagar-based human rights activist and lawyer. "In this tight situation, the internet provides comfort to those who wish to vent their anger in a civilised way and be noticed as well by the outside world."

But Indian authorities are beginning to crack down on online separatist activity, according to Muhammad Yasin Malik, the chairman of the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, who also uses the internet to communicate with the outside world and put across his concerns and demands. "Absurdly, our website, which we update regularly, was first hacked by the Indian intelligence agencies and when it was finally recovered, the Bangalore-based service provider refused to help, saying pressure from the interior ministry was mounting," Mr Malik alleged.

Gautam Navlakha, a New Delhi-based author and editorial consultant for Economic and Political Weekly, said freedom of speech is not respected inside Kashmir. "No denying, India is a free country and there is freedom of speech but it stops at Lakhanpur border [the last Indian town before entering Kashmir from the south] - the rest of the country is enjoying freedom of speech but nobody seems to be bothered about the freedom of speech in Kashmir."

Indian officials reject such criticism, and say the separatists and other opponents can use the internet freely and publish things online without much difficulty. Pro-separatist groups also claim that censorship goes beyond the active involvement of the state and extends to the nationalistic Indian media, who they claim ignore their plight. Mehbooba Mufti, the leader of the People's Democratic Party, an Indian Kashmir opposition group calling for self rule rather than separation, said television stations were particularly at fault, adding that they "almost completely blacked out the people power recently witnessed on the streets of Kashmir after the gruesome killing of two innocent boys by government forces".

"I think the Indian media, with a few exceptions, is interested only in the stories from Kashmir which serve the national interests," she said. "In this hopeless situation what is the way out other than making use of the internet to be heard." foreign.desk@thenational.ae