- In recent years, militants in J&K have used social media for propaganda and to garner ground support
- As a counter, army and police have stepped up surveillance and blocks, with a new wing to be set up in army HQ
On the night of August 19, when the special operations group of J&K Police and the army laid a cordon around Muniward village of south Kashmir’s Anantnag district to trap a long surviving Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Altaf Kachru, police first blocked the internet in the volatile district.
In practice, the inspector-general of police writes to the service providers, asking the internet to be shut down in a specific area. In this case, the data was cut off on the main towers of the district.
In the early morning encounter on August 20 in Muniward, two militants, including Kachru, were killed. In what is now a regular practice, the militants and their supporters tried to spread the message about the encounter through WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, exhorting people to rush toward the site, making it necessary to shut the internet, says police.
Since 2014, when 22-year-old militant Burhan Wani posted his pictures on Facebook, popularising local militancy by infusing rockstar glamour, the game of wits between militants and security forces, hitherto confined to ground operations, spread to the domain of social media. Now, along with ‘coming out’ photos of militants, the internet is being put to cunning use with a view to garner support, especially during gunfights with security forces.
As a counter-measure, recently removed DGP S.P. Vaid had ensured that every police officer at the sub-division level and each police station should have Facebook pages that update information about police activity. Vaid believed that “militant and separatist propaganda” could be met with “positive overflow of information” from the police. However, wary police officers point out the dangers of the exercise, complaining now they’re open to scrutiny by citizens.
Now, the army has proposed to set up a Directorate General of Information Warfare (DGIW), an independent unit within the army HQ. Like Vaid, army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat believes it is a useful counter-measure: “Our adversary uses it (social media) for proxy war and militancy. We need an organisation to counter it.” The proposed DGIW will focus on J&K.
Siddiq Wahid, former VC, Islamic University of Science and Technology, says the keywords in the army’s proposal are ‘information’, ‘warfare’, ‘militants who use internet’ and ‘intellectuals who...propagate secessionism’. “The word ‘warfare’ permits the state to use it vis-a-vis the internet. It also justifies physical assault against those opposing their views on the net. It is only a matter of time now before they refer to ‘intellectual terrorists’ to fight anyone who oppose their views in any way,” he says.
“Most active militants have live social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp,” says a police official. In July, Hizb commander Manan Wani wrote an article rejecting the narrative that youths of Kashmir see dignity in death, saying “they feel dignity in fighting Indian forces”. The article was widely shared on FB. Then there was Hizb’s Riyaz Naikoo, who imitated Vaid by tweeting his trademark “well done boys”, when militants killed four policemen. Scores from across the border have also entered local WhatsApp groups secretly, while overground workers use WhatsApp and Facebook to engineer protests. ‘Admins’ from across the border, like Hamza Hizbi, whose watermark is in almost all Hizb videos, run information cells where people work, monitor and disseminate information. It came to the fore in 2017, when police seized some phones from workers, says police.
A youth from Anantnag, Zubair Ahmad, was questioned by the police’s intelligence wing last year after he and his friends exchanged rumours on WhatsApp about the killing of a businessman. A photojournalist from Baramulla says he was questioned about his Facebook posts. “I have my political views; here I am being asked not even to have them,” he says.
It remains to be seen how the army plans to use information as a weapon. “We might see more Twitter handles and Facebook profiles defending the Indian position on Kashmir, or IB- and RAW- sponsored videos on militant atrocities,” says a civil officer. Information, he says, will be used to nullify information. “This might reduce bloodshed, because the war could now shift to the virtual space.”
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar