This is the third research note from Gowhar Farooq, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
The protests in June 2008 saw a marked change from the Kashmir’s armed uprising of 1990s. The fact that thousands of lives were lost in the armed struggle and the post 9/11 scenario — that changed the dynamics of the resistance — made Kashmiris realize that peaceful protests might work for them.
And, in they did work for some time. Peaceful protests across the Valley returned the zeal lost in the years of turmoil and suppression. Most importantly, with these protests, the generation which was too young to remember the scenario in 1990s, thought they could pressurize the state with peaceful protests.
It was in this backdrop that some youth began filming these protests. Shot with consumer cameras and cellphones, these videos were easy to upload on YouTube. Their low data size made it possible for youngsters to share them from their cellphones. Perhaps, this was the first step to the rise of an alternative media in the Valley.
Azaan Javaid, now a journalist, was a student in 2008. With a handicam at home, Azaan began recording videos of protests along with his cousin, who had recently come from the US. It was his cousin’s idea that these videos be uploaded on YouTube. The duo started one of the earliest YouTube channels from Kashmir regarding the protests. And, as these videos spread, the confidence of the protesters grew.
At the same time, a few ‘communities’ had sprung up in the Google-owned Orkut. Facebook was still not very popular with masses and the Twitter, just born, was still in its nascent stages. These videos and pictures — most of which were downloaded from the websites of newspapers and wire agencies — could be linked to the social media.
There was always a perception among the people of the Valley that they were misrepresented or underrepresented in the mainstream media of India and that the information in media outlets was served to suit the taste buds of masses in India. The observation was not wrong. Kashmiri for centuries was far less important for the rulers than the land – Kashmir. It reinforced when events in Kashmir were through the lens of ‘integral part’ by India and ‘jugular vein’ by Pakistan.
Thus the idea of providing a counterview to the information that was perceived as biased towards the Jammu and Kashmir, to mobilize the support for their struggle and to make the global viewer aware about the ground reality had made the root in the minds of youth.
According to Azaan, the activists needed an interface, something that could take content to the viewer, rather than waiting for a reader/viewer to explore and reach the content, which came in the form of social media. It not only helped spread the data, but in a sense also archived the data for the use of masses. Anyone could access the data and use it according to his/her needs. Azaan says this could have never been possible, had not Kashmir exploded into protests in 2008. He says for him these protests were life-changing. “The way I percieved things on the ground changed forever.” Azaan later became closely associated with youngsters who would launch the first e-magazine of the Valley almost two years later in 2010.
Similarly, for Muhammad Faisal, a student and an active blogger and micro-blogger, whose blog is one of the most known within Valley and outside, these protests were life-changing.
Also, these videos acted as the agent for instilling confidence in people to coming out on streets. It did what Twitter would do almost four years later in Egypt: tell an individual — who otherwise might be apprehensive in joining the protest — that there is someone on the street. Someone whom I can identify with and join!
Thus number swelled with each day. The state was caught unprepared. Perhaps, years of calm and the focus on counter-insurgency and crackdowns, had caught the government unwary for mass protests.
On August 11, 2008, almost two months after the first protests broke out, a senior pro-azaadi leader from south Kashmir’s Anantnag district – Sheikh Abdul Aziz, along with four others, was shot by the soldiers in Baramulla district of north Kashmir. Aziz was leading a rally of thousands who intended to cross Line of Control (LoC) after an economic blockade was enforced by Jammu on the Valley. The marchers wanted that the traditional route of trade and commerce through Pakistan administered Kashmir be opened to end the years of economic dependence on the route via Jammu. Aziz’s end moments were captured on cellphones and portable cameras. Shot in the stomach, the videos shows him conscious for a few minutes and later closing his eyes forever.
The videos of Aziz’s death reached Srinagar before his body. For months these videos and that of the march spread from one cellphone to the other, from one hard-disk to the other and from there to the Internet. Later, these videos were added together with the pictures of several other killings and embedded with text and music and uploaded on the Internet.
With Aziz’s death, the events took a major turn. Though curfew was already in place, several thousands gathered for his funeral.
In days to come, protests and rallies, like never seen before in Kashmir, erupted. Millions poured out on the streets. Later, dozens were shot in protests. Killed. However, the spark lit in 2008 did turn into flames again in 2009 and 2010, when protests — more organized than those in 2008 — broke out. In 2009 and 2010 not only the way of protesting had evolved, the means to take them to larger audience and to document them had evolved too. Kashmiri youth had found means to take their voice to the world – it was Internet!