Viral videos reignite violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir

The clashes on Monday began in Srinagar when hundreds of college students took to the streets to protest a police raid in a college in southern Pulwama town over the weekend, in which at least 50 students were injured. (Credit: Sipa USA via AP)

Unrest has once again boiled over to violence in the Indian-ruled state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In just four days of restored mobile internet over the weekend, a number of videos depicting violence against civilians went viral on social media. Large crowds of protestors are back on the streets, militant groups have stepped up their attacks and security officers are being warned not to go home. In response, the state shut down mobile internet service again on Monday, and it remains suspended.

One video in particular captured even the attention of western media outlets. Uploaded last Friday, it showed a man, later identified as 24-year-old shawl weaver Farooq Ahmad Dar, tied to the front of a moving army vehicle, while soldiers shouted over a loudspeaker, “Look at the fate of the stone-pelter.” An unnamed army official later said they were using him as a “human shield” to deter protestors from throwing rocks at their envoy.

Dar told reporters he was taken on April 9 after a botched by-election for a parliamentary seat. Soldiers detained him on his way to a relative’s funeral, beat him with guns and sticks, tied him to the front of the jeep, then paraded him around at least nine villages.

Divided between India and Pakistan, the Kashmir region is claimed in full by both. Though violence has declined since the early 2000s when thousands died every year, tensions remain high and flare-ups are especially prevalent during the hot summer months. Separatists called for a boycott of the April 9 election, and only 7 percent of qualified voters participated.

“I voted, and this is what I got in return,” Dar said, according to the New York Times. “Do you think it will help India in Kashmir? No. It will give Kashmiris another reason to hate India.”

But the video of Dar was only one of several that went viral over the weekend. Another showed 17-year-old Akeel Ahmad Wani being shot in the face and killed by members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police near a polling station the same day. Yet at least two other videos uploaded Sunday show suspected members of armed groups forcing political workers to renounce and apologize for their political associations at gunpoint.

While some have called it a “video war,” retaliation has extended far beyond digital screens. The state’s director general of police told officers on Sunday to avoid going home after militants stormed the homes of at least four officers and political activists and killed a number of political opponents.

State authorities responded on Monday by suspending 3G and 4G service in the region once again. According to local media reports, they are considering banning social media so they do not have to repeatedly shut down mobile internet as they have been doing.

However, rights advocates and others said the state is missing the point – that blocking social media will not quell the violence as attempts to suppress the voice of the people will only anger them further.

“Mobile technology and accessibility of social media means that people will use these technology to document human rights abuses,” Amnesty International India’s Media and Advocacy Manager Raghu Menon wrote in an email to Humanosphere. “This is an essential part of free speech.”

Although the army is conducting an investigation into the “human shield” incident, Amnesty and other civil society groups are calling for a swift and independent investigation in civilian courts.

“Authorities would do well to investigate and prosecute these violations rather than shutting down internet in Jammu and Kashmir as they have done frequently in recent years,” Menon said. “Impunity for such violations will only embolden perpetrators.”

However, an Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has granted immunity from prosecution to armed forces in the “disturbed area” of Jammu and Kashmir for 27 years. Despite a supreme court ruling last year that ended immunity under the act, it remains firmly in place in Kashmir.

“We know from experiences across the world that impunity for human rights abuses is linked to alienation and anger,” Menon said. “Authorities need to ensure they take immediate steps to send a strong message.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.