After years of fighting armed militants with bullets and brickbats, security agencies in Jammu and Kashmir are now facing a new enemy – "bedroom jihadis" who manipulate social media from the comfort of their homes to spread rumours and influence youths.
It's a new battleground and a new battle, say senior officers. Far removed from conventional weaponry and the conventional fighting zones of the warren of narrow streets and forests, these new age jehadis use computers and smartphones to wage war from just about anywhere – in Kashmir or outside, safe inside their homes or out on the streets, from a nearby café or even just a convenient roadside.
An immediate worry for security agencies is the Amarnath Yatra that starts June 29. Armed with access to platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, there are fears that the new band of jehadis could instigate communal riots in the Valley ahead of the 40-day pilgrimage to the high altitude shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva.
"It is a virtual battleground where a bloody war is fought, but with words. However, this has an impact on the young minds," said a senior police officer.
Many officers felt that false rumours could be floated in Jammu in the coming days, leaving authorities with little time to react.
"Anyone, while sitting on his bed or sofa, can plant this news in one of the thousand chat groups and the entire state can plunge into communal divide," said a police officer.
The social chat groups are active not just in Jammu and Kashmir. They are seeing participation from youngsters in the national capital, rest of the country and abroad as well.
Officers cite the recent example of a constable from the Kashmiri Pandit community to explain how difficult it is to tackle the unseen enemy. The constable went missing and his body was found in north Kashmir's Kupwara, about 90 km from here, after a thorough search.
But even before the investigations began, people in the Pandit community posted stories that he had been kidnapped by militants and had died a martyr's death.
The impact of social media on the case was so profound that it began to be probed as a militancy-related case. However, a Special Investigating Team (SIT), constituted by Director General of Police S P Vaid, later found that the constable had been murdered by a fellow policeman whom he had allegedly sodomised and threatened to make it public.
Another instance of trouble being engineered was a fake picture of a pond around the shrine of Goddess Ragnya Devi, also known as Kheer Bhawani, being shared on WhatsApp groups ahead of the annual Kheer Bhawani mela being celebrated today.
According to the post, the water of the pond had turned black, which according to folklore indicates inauspicious times for Kashmir. The government stepped in and released official photographs in an attempt to quell the rumours. They also tried to find those responsible.
"But it is like finding a needle in a haystack. Millions of people are on social networking sites and is too difficult to locate that one person," a police officer said.
In the Valley, social media access had been controlled to a large extent after authorities clamped down on 22 websites.
While many users in the Valley found a way out through virtual private networks (VPN), they found it difficult to share pictures or videos because of the clamp down on 3G and 4G networks.
A police officer recalled that many 'hartal' calls attributed to separatist leaders last year actually came from students or employees who did not want to attend work.
"The hartal calls used to spread like a jungle fire even leaving separatists wondering at times whether they actually had given them," he said. Most youngsters picked up for questioning were let go with a warning.
Given the government’s push for Digital India in other parts of the country and the rapid strides in technology, the state government has received severe flak for its ban on the world wide web.
Security agency officers feel it is necessary to keep bedroom jihadis at bay so that they can concentrate on nabbing or eliminating terrorists with real guns.
The government has warned administrators of these chatting groups or social networking sites against hosting any incriminating material on their platform.
However, officers felt that a few more curbs and punitive action would help in reining in such bedroom jihadis.