J&K: State, separatists move the battle online
- Constant crackdown on separatist leaders by government has made them move the battle online
- Most separatist leaders are very active online and have 1,000s of followers
- Sermons are being live streamed
- These leaders are also active on Twitter
- How effective is the reach?
- Has it worked at all?
After fighting the constant Government curbs on their political activities for far too long, separatist leaders have taken to technology to restore their connection with the people.
Though Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani was the first to experiment with the social media by putting the videos of his speeches on Facebook, Hurriyat dove leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is re-inventing technology to further expand the reach of his message.
On the night of Shab-i-Qadr on 3 July, Mirwaiz's sermon at Srinagar's Grand Mosque was streamed live on the Internet. The video racked up over 10,000 views, most of them the Kashmiris from across the globe.
Similarly, his sermon on Eid-ul-Fitr to the nimazis at Eidgah, Srinagar's largest prayer ground, too was put online.
But this time Mirwaiz was not physically present - he was under house arrest. He telephonically addressed the congregation from his residence at Nigeen. And social media helped him side-step the government curbs.
Delivering the message
Both of his sermons were deeply tinged with political messages. He severely criticised the state government for its anti-Kashmir policies and called for a resolution for Kashmir.
In fact, in his sermon on the last Friday of the holy month, Mirwaiz got people to endorse a 10-point resolution which, among other things, opposed the establishment of the Sainik and Kashmiri Pandit colonies and demanded the right to self-determination for Kashmir.
Other major separatist leaders like Geelani and Yasin Malik did the same in their respective addresses delivered on the same day.
Technology is thus helping the Kashmiri separatists pre-empt government measures that limit their movement.
Mirwaiz has scores of Facebook pages, so has Geelani and Malik and between them, they have thousands of followers. Separatists have also been quite active on Twitter.
Their videos make a quick impact on the ground. Hartals are observed, protests are organised. In the recent past, most of the separatist campaigns against the Sainik and Pandit colonies was led online after the government refused permission for the public rallies.
The government confined Geelani and Mirwaiz to their houses, even disallowing them to attend Friday prayers. But through their online messages, the leaders along with JKLF supremo Yasin Malik, generated enough political uncertainty on ground to force the government on the defensive.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti ruled out allotment of land for the Sainik colony and assured that the separate Pandit enclaves were, in fact, composite colonies where communities other than Pandits would also live.
However, Mirwaiz's re-invention of his public contact through Facebook Live has come as a new useful addition to the separatists' social media arsenal.
The live streaming of the night-long sermon on Shab-e-Qadr went beyond the delivery of the religious message. It connected Mirwaiz, also the Chief Preacher of the Valley, with a far larger audience than the thousands he addresses at Grand Mosque.
For many Kashmiris in the Valley who were unable to attend the nightlong worship, the live stream offered an opportunity to become a part of the Valley's biggest religious congregation.
Similarly, videos of Mirwaiz's telephonic address at Eidgah across his many Facebook pages received hundreds of instant views.
Though mainstream leaders have also been using the social media to complement their political message, for separatists the technology has become the sole means to continue their political activity in the wake of the increased government crackdowns.
Not long ago, when the state government denied Mirwaiz the permission to hold a seminar on the wisdom of the frequent call for hartals, he held a Twitter discussion. People tweeted their suggestions at #AskMirwaiz. One suggestion he got was that Hurriyat should set up a YouTube channel.
Good & bad
With a steady increase in the use of smart phones and the arrival of the high-speed internet with 4G technology, social media has become a hunting ground for both the separatist political groups and the militants.
According to the figures of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the number of the internet subscribers in J&K was 35.3 lakh by June 2015. Of them, 23.7 lakh used narrow band, and 11.5 lakh broadband.
Unlike in rest of the country where a bulk of internet subscribers are concentrated in urban areas, J&K has more internet subscribers in rural areas. Against the 17.2 lakh internet users in urban areas there are 18.1 lakh subscribers in rural areas.
The internet users thus make around one-fourth of the state's thirteen million population. And since last year, the number of users have only grown further.
Denied space for their physical mass contact activities, the tech-savvy separatist leaders like Mirwaiz are honing in on and gearing their message for a virtual connection with the people.
And if Mirwaiz's recent Facebook Live sermons are anything to go by, the ideological battleground between the government and the separatists may have already moved from street to the digital platform.