Alternative Media: An Agent and of Change in Kashmir
This is the second research note from Gowhar Farooq, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
When I met the 12-year-old, sixth standard student, Faizan Sofi at his home in Eidgah area of old Srinagar in Kashmir, he was reluctant to speak. He resembled a paler and thinner version of the Faizan we had seen in photographs on social media in February 2011.
These pictures — in which a policeman held Faizan by hand while his sister, crying helplessly, followed — were taken when he produced before a court in Srinagar. Though a minor, the court sent him to 15 days of police remand. Faizan was charged under Sections 435, 147 and 149 of Ranbir Penal Code (J&K state’s penal code), which pertain to mischief by fire or any explosive substance with the intention to cause damage to property, rioting, unlawful activities and unlawful assembly. He was also charged with attempt to murder and for waging war against the state.
His father, Bashir Ahmed Sofi, who sells second-hand clothes on a roadside cart in Srinagar, was concerned. “He (Faizan) no more wants to study. He says police have ruined his career.” As his father spoke, Faizan was fiddling with a curtain — his gaze down.
Later, when Faizan opened up, he described how police used to keep an eye on him and sometimes follow him. These incidents have also made his schoolmates behave with him in a different way. Though not hostile, they treated Faizan differently.
Bashir Sofi recounts the terror of the days when police had come to take away Faizan. “We did not want him to be held. So we asked him to stay at relative’s place. When the police came to know that Faizan was in hiding, they tried to arrest me. They opened up a case against me that was closed decades ago. They wanted to pressurize us.”
He concedes that Faizan took part in some protests; however, he argues who in Kashmir did not. Bashir’s argument is not baseless.
In 2008 protests — termed as Kashmir’s second Intifada by many – broke and millions took to the streets. A heavy clampdown by the authorities followed. That year, almost 67 people lost their lives in demonstrations. The protests, more intensified, broke out again in 2009 and 2010.
Semi-literate, Bashir does not how police came under pressure to release Faizan just day after he produced was in the court. He seems to have little idea about the pictures that spread on social media and created a huge uproar, forcing administration to act.
Unknown to Bashir, within minutes of emergence, people from all over the Valley and outside had started sharing these photographs. A Facebook campaign ‘Free Faizan Sofi’ was created, where the administrator of the page called upon the international human rights organisations to intervene to secure Faizan’s release.
Many on Twitter were galvanizing people. A student Sheila Rashid Shora signed an online petition routed to the chief minister on Change.org. Hundreds had signed the petition and many more were circulating it on social media.
Shortly, the Amnesty International intervened. This turned out to be an important factor in the case.
Bashir thinks that journalists had pressured the police. Though the picture was taken by a vigilant photojournalist, the uproar it created would not have been possible had the hundreds of unknown and unorganized Internet users created the wave.
In conflicts like one in Kashmir, news and information gets buried due to the pressure from conflicting parties, collusion of the news sources with the various agencies or simply because of the lack of will to explore.
With the social media, the chances of the burial of the information reduce. Here, the power of releasing the information does not lie with an organisation or an individual. And, once the news breaks, it spreads like a ray of light trapped in a diamond. The internal reflection ensures that information reaches to a larger audience and with longer retention rate.
Before the 2008 protests, it was said that in Kashmir, everybody knows the reality. It is open out on the streets, in gossip of barbershops and pavements; it is there on every tongue, but no one dares to speak. The hunt for the dissenters by forces and intelligence agencies and by militants had made people numb. The protests in 2008 and subsequent use social media gave the much-needed confidence to people of Kashmir, who otherwise had turned quiet due the spiral of silence and surveillance.
In Kashmir, there are many stories like that of Faizan. My aim would be to explore more of them and reveal how people, both commoner and activists, used the social media to force the change.