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Kashmir protests go digital

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This summer as Kashmiris took to the streets, pelting rocks, holding sit-ins, and chanting slogans during demonstrations in the moments between eerily empty streets where haartal (strikes) and military-enforced curfews, closed the city, a Facebook campaign went viral. The campaign was a simple two words “I protest.” For a people without a national flag, let alone consensus on what a solution for Kashmir would look like, there are no simple symbols for an expression of nationalism. Yet overnight on Facebook, Kashmiris in the valley, across the Line of Control, and in the diaspora urged their friends and family to change their profile pictures to a single simple message of solidarity: “I protest.”

But what exactly is it that Kashmiris are protesting? The Indian presence in Kashmir is nothing new, and this summer’s violence did not match that of 1989 when Kashmiris took up arms in an effort to be rid of Indian control over the region. The summer of 2010 was marked by calls for trilateral talks as protests seeking azadi (independence), curfews, and strikes spread from the capital of Srinagar throughout the valley of Indian-administered Kashmir. Tensions had been mounting since the summer of 2009 when the May 30 alleged rape and murder of two young women, Nilofer Shakeel and Asiya Jan from the apple orchard village of Shopian by Indian security forces sparked protests throughout Kashmir. The case came to represent several injustices: rape as a weapon of war, a Delhi-based effort to cover up the crime, and the immunity that shields the allegedly criminal behavior of Indian security forces in Kashmir. Though protests and demonstrations against India’s policies in Kashmir continued throughout the year, popular discontent was catalyzed on June 11 when local police in Kashmir killed 17-year-old high school student Tufail Ahmad Matoo, who had been walking, backpack in hand, close to a demonstration.

His death marked the fourth time in 2010 where police and CRFP (India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force) killed teenagers through the use of excessive force. The ensuing demonstrations opened the floodgates of popular expression against India’s heavy-handed military rule and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (applied to Kashmir since 1990), which gives the Indian army and paramilitary forces sweeping powers to shoot and kill, search homes and people, detain civilians indefinitely without charges, and confiscate property. Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have decried the Armed Forces Special Powers Act because it shields soldiers from prosecution while opening the door to rampant human rights violations.

A few years ago mainstream Kashmiri separatists consciously began to turn away from violent methods towards peaceful civil disobedience. Yet even these efforts, with sit-down demonstrations, rallies, frequent strikes and stone-pelting, have been met with disproportionate excessive force by Indian security forces including bullets and tear gas. Approximately 245 teenage stone throwers have been held in indefinite custody since June.

These abuses face scant media attention, both from the Indian and international media. This is largely due to India’s policies blocking journalists from entering Kashmir, making media coverage of Kashmir a near impossibility in times of unrest. However, Kashmiris are slowly harnessing the power of the internet to create a communal digital protest and to forge a voice for themselves in the democratic realm of cyberspace. In 2010 Kashmir’s Generation Next, those who were born or young during the turbulence of the 1990s, found their voices. Unlike Kashmiri youth of the 1990s who were silenced given India’s media, U.N. and NGO blackout of Kashmir, new technologies and social media have made it possible for Kashmiris to begin to tell their own stories, to have a voice and a narrative that can reach beyond the Valley and into international consciousness. Facebook and You Tube have been transformative, creating a cadre of citizen-journalists and more artistic expressions in which Kashmiris create video montages set to music and images, providing a voice whether in Kashmiri or English, such as Kashmiri-American Mubashir Mohi-u-Din’s take on the Steven Van Zandt song Patriot.

This summer Kashmir’s youth have learned two lessons from other international struggles for justice: Iran and Palestine. In 2009 Iranian youth and social activists harnessed the power of social media as young Iranians took to the internet and street in the face of state suppression. Iranians demanded “where is my vote?” — the slogan, appearing curiously and ubiquitously in English, was meant for an international audience, to raise attention to the struggles occurring within the Islamic Republic of Iran after the results of the presidential election were called into question. Similarly, “I protest” cries out in a language that is not native to Kashmir but has united Kashmiris globally as they seek an international audience.

The second lesson has come from the first Palestinian intifada of 1987, which started shortly before Kashmiris began to protest in earnest on a cold January day in 1989 against rigged election results. Unlike the “children of the stone,” the moniker given to the stone wielding youths who sought a way to express their discontent with Israeli occupation, the Kashmiris of the early 1990s soon turned to violent means to oppose India’s acute military presence and perceived human rights violations. Since that time both documented human rights violations and a strong military presence of 700,000 continues; there is one Indian security personnel for every 20 Kashmiris. In 1995, Yasin Malik, the head of the populist Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), publicly renounced violence as a means of liberation. While this tactic created divisions within the JKLF, Kashmiris are turning away from weapons to adopt less violent means. Last year Malik continued his efforts to encourage a passive resistance marked by sit-ins, strikes, and the lesson from the intifada, throwing stones instead of exchanging bullets.

Kashmiris have made a critical move from guns to stones. They have largely moved from militancy to civil demonstrations and protests. Despite this shift, India has failed to recognize how the shift to less violent tactics has opened a space for dialogue and continued its heavy-handed policies, which only stir resentment towards India. Just recently, acclaimed novelist Arundhati Roy faced possible sedition charges for criticizing India’s military occupation and for suggesting that force may not be the best means to keep India a cohesive nation. She cast her support for the Azadi movement, which she characterized as a struggle for justice.

Yet, despite tactics meant to invoke international sympathy and raise attention for the people of Kashmir, Kashmiris remain outsiders to a process that will decide their fate. As U.S. President Barack Obama heads to India this weekend, Kashmiris hope that Kashmir will be more than a talking point regarding Indian and Pakistani security, more than a discussion of jihadi movements from Afghanistan into India, and more than a focal point of Indian-Pakistani tension. Perhaps what they protest most is their invisibility, the refusal to see Kashmiris as part of a solution. The iProtest refuses the bilateral assumption of India-Pakistan negotiations that leave Kashmiris silenced.

Remarking on the political nature of current unrest in Kashmir and India’s refusal to seek productive dialogue with separatists, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a leader of All Parties Hurriyat Conference, remarked: “It is the youth of Kashmir agitating. Why are they throwing stones and risking their lives? No one wants to hear their story.” Indeed, the e-protest of this summer remains a real protest on the ground, with flesh and blood casualties. The iProtest has moved beyond Facebook and Blogspot; it has sparked hope in a young generation while renewing the hopes of an older generation, that maybe the critical moment has come when someone will look to the “I” who protests to ask exactly what is it that they want, and perhaps, we should listen in.

Yousra Y. Fazili is a Kashmiri-American attorney based in Washington DC where she works on South Asian and Middle East policy. A Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Brown University and Harvard Divinity School, she has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and the United Nations.

Categories: Politics Tags: , ,
  1. Muhammad Elijah
    December 8, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    Assalaamu ‘Alaikum waRahmatu(A)llaahi waBarakaatuh
    From one of the pictures in newspaper, I read the following web adress Kashmiri brothers and sisters wanted to convey.


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