How smartphones are shaping Kashmir's insurgency

In this photograph taken on July 9, 2016, Kashmiri mourners take photographs of the body of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the new-age poster boy for the rebel movement in the restive Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, ahead of his funeral in Tral, his native town, 42kms south of Srinagar. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Wani was extremely active on social media and did not hide his identity behind a mask

It is all too easy to dismiss the upsurge in violence in Indian-administered Kashmir this weekend as just another cycle in a conflict that has ebbed and flowed ever since the country's independence in 1947.

But that would be to ignore a new factor that is transforming the nature of protest in the region.

There's a clue to what is happening in the government's response to the threat of disorder.

Burhan Wani, the young militant leader whose death sparked the latest explosion of violence, was killed in a gun battle with police on Friday.

Within hours the authorities had followed what is now standard procedure and shut down mobile data services in the region, and much of the mobile telephone network too.

It is easy to understand why.

The entire world is going through a smartphone revolution.

Smartphone revolution

They are the fastest selling gadgets in history, outstripping the popularity of even the mobile phones that proceeded them. And nowhere is the revolution more pronounced than in India.

Here you can pick up a basic but perfectly functional smartphone for as little as $30 (£22).

Even these humble devices pack in more number-crunching muscle than NASA had when it put men on the moon.

Sales in India are growing exponentially: 11 million smartphones were sold here in 2011; last year it was over 100 million.

More than half a billion Indians are expected to own one by the end of the decade - nearly half of the population.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The violence this weekend is not seen as an isolated incident

But the take up of the technology has been even faster in Kashmir.

Indian newspaper The Telegraph ran a fascinating exclusive on its front page yesterday.

It obtained a copy of an investigation into Kashmiri militancy written by a top police officer in the state.

The report, which has been presented to officials at the home Ministry, argues that growing access to social media is the key to understanding the current upsurge in militancy in the region.

Just a quarter of people in Indian-administered Kashmir could access social media in 2010.

By 2014 a third of the population were connected.

Homegrown militancy

Then it really took off.

By the end of 2015, the officer finds, 70% of people in Kashmir had access to social media.

Like many Kashmiri militants Burhan Wani was tech-savvy. Every article about him mentions his adept use of social media.

The handsome young militant would post pictures of himself posing like a Bollywood star, laden with weapons on a picturesque Kashmir hillside, a few days worth of stubble on his chin.

But in truth there is nothing new in that. Think of how images of Che Guevara or Osama Bin Laden have been used over the years.

The militants in Kashmir were also quick to recognise the power of the footage they could capture with their mobile phones.

But even Wani's slick video messages exhorting Kashmiri youth to rise up against Indian oppression don't represent a new development in terms of the use of technology. Online videos and lectures are a now standard part of any revolutionary movement's arsenal.

It is one thing to have a message, quite another to have an audience.

Smartphone insurgency

What's changed in Kashmir is how many people are now able to receive the messages.

Until the rise of smartphones, accessing these kind of messages meant a trip to the local internet café - something only a tiny minority ever did.

Now they flash up on your Facebook feed as you are doing the dishes or feeding the goats.

And, with data prices plummeting - in 2005 a megabyte of data would cost you $10, now it is just a couple of cents - everyone can afford to listen in.

No surprise then that the ready audience Wani found in the now-connected valleys of Kashmir has become a key factor in the evolution of the unrest here.

It isn't good news for India.

Yesterday I spoke to MM Ansari, one of the members of a Cabinet Committee that looked at India's policy in Kashmir.

The Committee was convened after the violent uprisings in 2010, the last major disorder to grip the province when more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured.

Image copyright AFP

The death toll this time round has been lower so far, but, says Mr Ansari, the conflict is now much more dangerous.

"This time the militancy is homegrown," he told me.

"The majority of them [militants] are motivated from within, using the social media and all that. Earlier it was largely instigated from or sponsored from Pakistan."

What's more he believes the violence seen this weekend is no isolated incident.

"It is a very major event," he says "and unfortunately it is probably likely to multiply."

The growing sympathy among ordinary Kashmiris that Mr Ansari discerns for the militant message, is reflected in the experience of the security forces.

My colleague Sanjoy Majumder says that in the last few years the security forces in Kashmir have noticed that the public is now far more likely to intervene in their operations.

He reports that when they go to make an arrest or get involved in even a minor confrontation with militants, very quickly members of the public come out to protest against their action and, on occasion, even attack them.

One factor has to be that smartphone messages go out alerting people to what is going on.

As far as security personnel are concerned this represents a very serious increase in the risks they face.

Just like during the Arab Spring and indeed in the unfolding race crisis in America, it seems the contours of the conflict in Kashmir are increasingly being shaped and defined by technology.

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