Amid the dramatic focus on encounters, explosions and death tolls, the role of social media narratives in shaping the unfolding scenario in Kashmir tends to go unnoticed. SP Vaid, the state’s director-general of police, is one of the few who acknowledges its importance. Even at a time when his force is under extraordinary pressure — with lethal ambushes on the roads, attacks on homes and threats to families, Vaid’s insight into this most dangerous aspect of the challenge is crystal clear. “It is a cyber war,” he says, cutting to the chase.
That is a refreshing change, because the police top brass has at times been a bumbling apology for leadership in the past. At other times, grandstanding, jockeying, and internecine sniping within the force have actually strengthened opponents of the State.
Vaid reveals that the Pakistan-based Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), led by Hafiz Saeed, has put out advertisements calling on people to join the fight in Kashmir as ‘cyber mujahids’. He adds that Pakistan and the JuD have declared 2017 as ‘The Year of Kashmir’. Vaid says that 250 to 300 Facebook and Twitter accounts functioning from Pakistan lead the cyber war. These and a host of others within Kashmir have been “demonising everything to do with India” and “mixing religion with politics and politics with religion”, he says.
Vaid adds that the dictum of these cyber warriors is that “if anyone speaks in favour of India, bully him or her”.
He claims that, before this effort, the “vast majority is neutral”. That may be an exaggeration, but it is true that the majority in Kashmir was at best ambivalent until four or five years ago. Indeed, apart from teenagers, it is true again now, only the shrillness of the cyber war is an effective silencer in combination with the firepower of militant guns.
The cyber war of which Vaid speaks has been vital for the mobilisation of the teenagers who have been at the forefront of agitations and the new militancy since last year. However, Vaid adds —correctly — that countering it is not the task of the police. Indeed, many of those charged with handling things within the state are keenly aware of the challenge, but do not know who should respond, or how. They know equally well that the hyper-nationalist discourses on some shrill television channels don’t help. Rather, they confirm the polarised ‘they-want-to-kill-us’ narratives.
A senior figure in the intelligence establishment points out that no intelligence agency has the manpower to effectively counter the exaggerated or false narratives. “How many could we hire? Fifty? Hundred? Thousand?” he asks. Additionally, he rightly points out that no matter how many workers an agency of the government might hire for this task, those workers would treat it as a job — they would stop work after hours. Those who engage in the cyber war against the State have a mission: “They are missionaries! They have commitment. They are at it night and day,” he says.
Clearly though, there are counter-arguments if one looks for them. Vaid convincingly answers some of the points that have become a vital part of the narrative among young Kashmiris over the past year. For instance, responding to the narrative that the Indian State only uses pellet guns in Kashmir, and water cannons in other states, Vaid insists that pellet guns were used during agitations in Darjeeling over the past few days, and against agitations over reservations in states like Haryana too.
Asked why water cannons can’t be used in Kashmir, his response is passionate: “I would love to use water cannons!” But the water finishes in five minutes, he explains, and the boys might then burn the truck. They would climb on to the truck and chuck a Molotov cocktail into the cabin, he adds.
Bans don’t work
Vaid, who took over the force at the beginning of this year, claims, “I have brought the use of pellets (down) from 100 percent to five percent.”
That is good, but is unlikely to become part of the social media narrative. The cyber battle remains almost entirely one-sided. The firepower deployed has biting intensity, and the manpower reserves are endless. The State’s only response is to ban. Neither the police chief nor the intelligence officer disagrees when one points out that banning internet access did not work — whether in 2010 or 2016, or in April-May this year. However, given their inability to engage, they will probably fall back on bans again.
Either way, their opponents win on this most effective war-front.