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Distrust Breeds Disinformation in Kashmir

Distrust Breeds Disinformation in Kashmir

Late on June 23, hours before the Indian Prime Minister was scheduled to meet politicians from Jammu and Kashmir, a local food delivery app sent out a message to its users. 

The message came in the wake of rumors about an internet lockdown that had begun circulating earlier in the day. A local news website had sent out alerts about a possible internet shutdown. It was not until later that night that the local police chief said there were no plans for such a shutdown.

images: Twitter/Muhammad Zahid

Internet shutdowns are common in the disputed Himalayan territory, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

From August 2019 to March 2020, the Indian government put the region under a seven-month-long communication blockade, after using a series of legal maneuvers and its overwhelming majority to revise down the region's limited semi-autonomous status and divide it into two centrally administered territories. To most people in the region, an internet shutdown on the eve of the resumption of a deadlocked political process seemed inevitable.

But, the latest internet blockade rumor was just the latest among a series of rumors and misinformation circulating in the region after decades of political uncertainty. 

Kashmir’s troubled past

Kashmir has been a site of conflict since India’s inception, starting from the manner in which the former Maharaja of Kashmir gave power to the Indian state. The Maharaja signed a conditional and controversial instrument of accession at the time of partition, and later Pakistan captured a sizable chunk of the state, backed by solid local support. Strong separatist sentiment (also fanned by Pakistan) fueling an armed insurgency decades later in 1989 further led to the Indian state tightening its grip by pumping in vast contingents of army and money antagonizing a fledgling militant movement – described as cross-border terrorism – which still remains. 

India’s earlier attempts at providing autonomy by giving Kashmir the right to its own separate constitution, flag, and extended guarantees under the now-repealed Article 370 of the constitution, were largely unfruitful. Not only did the powers of the state fade over time, it also made Hindu nationalists see the separate constitution for India's only Muslim majority state as inimical to their dream of a Unified Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu state.

Centuries of political turmoil in the region have ensured that forms of misinformation have always enjoyed certain credibility.

Rumors are not a new phenomenon in the region. As Kashmir is surrounded by the Himalayas on all sides – which, until modern times, ensured that news was always late – centuries of political turmoil in the region have ensured that forms of misinformation have always enjoyed certain credibility.

"Rumors have always been a potent political force and have helped build personality cults in Kashmir. In the late 1940s and 50s, there was a rumor that leaves had appeared with the name of Sheikh Abdullah – who was at the time the biggest political force in Kashmir - written on them. Ultimately it turned out someone had used acid to write on leaves, but this was used to shore up support from the masses for him,” historian Dr. Abdul Ahad says.

The perpetual political uncertainty in the region has the rumor mill in a constant churn. In early 2016, false rumors of child deaths due to polio vaccination in the valley caused panic. In late 2017, a mysterious spate of "braid chopping" incidents led to mass hysteria and protests.

Rumors and misinformation have always been rife in conflict zones, and while Kashmir is no exception, their grip on the people of the region has never been firmer. This can largely be traced to the events leading up to the scrapping of the state's special status and the erosion of public trust in the government and local administration since 2019. 

Escalating tensions

In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into a paramilitary bus in the Pulwama district, killing 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. The subsequent outrage led to India ordering a surgical strike on alleged militant camps in Pakistan, and a wave of nationalism ran through the entire country. The BJP capitalized on this sentiment. With the help of the press, it set up a narrative that it was the only party and Narendra Modi the only person capable of defending the nation from terrorism and external threats (namely Pakistan). A highly charged campaign focused on national security ultimately helped sweep Modi’s BJP to power with a majority not seen since the 1980s.

The overwhelming majority helped the Hindu Nationalist party clear a path to one of its oldest manifesto promises – the abrogation of Article 370 –viewed as a dangerous aberration of its vision of one India, despite its strongly diluted significance. Initially, Article 370 conferred what was known as a “special status” on the region, allowing for some measures of autonomy without full independence.

Legally speaking, the Indian Parliament did not have the authority to rescind the article. It was generally agreed that the state legislature had the power. But, in 2019, the state was without an elected government as the previous coalition (of which the BJP was a major partner) had collapsed under its own contradictions. The state was under a BJP appointed governor Satya Pal Malik, a former minister in the BJP government, who was acting as a stand-in for the state legislature. Using a series of dubious legal arguments and defections in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, the government was ultimately able to undercut the state's powers.

The revocation was challenged in the Indian Supreme Court, where the case remains in judicial limbo. 

While the government was working in the background to set up the field to revoke the state's autonomous powers, a concentrated disinformation campaign was underway. In March, the government had ordered hospitals throughout the valley to paint Red Crosses on top of their roofs, fueling speculation of an impending war with Pakistan.

On August 3, the government canceled the Amarnath Yatra – a major Hindu pilgrimage where pilgrims trek to a holy mountain cave – and asked tourists to leave, citing an imminent terror strike. It also simultaneously rushed additional companies of the army to the state, citing intelligence inputs about heightened terrorist activity.  

While the pilgrimage had a history of being a target of militant attacks, it was for the first time that it was canceled outright. Considered a crucial event for the Hindu right to assert control of the valley, the pilgrimage’s cancellation set alarm bells ringing in Srinagar and elsewhere in the valley. All the while, the governor claimed that there was no need to panic and no significant moves were in the offing.

The rumor mill in Kashmir is overactive, if someone sneezes at Lal Chowk, it transforms into news of a bomb blast.

"The rumor mill in Kashmir is overactive, and if somebody sneezes at Lal Chowk (Srinagar’s main market), it transforms into the news of a bomb blast till it reaches the governor house,” Malik told reporters in the run-up to the August 5 decision.

Former chief ministers also warned the central government against meddling with Article 370 amid strong rumors.

On August 5, 2019, the state was put under a complete communication lockdown. All phones, including landlines and mobile phones, were disconnected, the internet was banned, political leaders, including three former chief ministers (including Omar and Farooq Abdullah), were arrested, and a strict curfew was enforced. By 11 AM, The Indian Home Minister had introduced two bills in the Parliament and gotten them passed, bifurcating the state into two centrally administered divisions with all democratic institutions put in effective suspension. 

The communication blockade ensured that no rumors were spreading through WhatsApp and social media in the valley, the usual route for misinformation in the internet age. But on the ground, wild theories about battles being fought in mountains and scores of people being killed were rife. 

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, a phalanx of armed military men stood along every major road and small neighborhood squares to prevent any form of public gathering. Major mosques, the epicenters of the social life of the largely conservative populace, were shut down. And, while smaller neighborhood mosques were still open, everyone assumed they were being watched.

Eid under lockdown

Authorities did not allow any sort of gatherings or religious rituals on Eid, the most prominent Muslim festival of the year, which fell days after the article was rescinded. The sudden communication breakdown was severe. Even those who lived in the same city had no idea how relatives mere miles away were doing. Stories of people walking long distances through the city interiors to procure medicines for ailing relatives were commonplace. Many Kashmiris who lived outside the state had no means of finding out what was happening at home. The only sources of communication were landlines placed at district headquarters, where you could be waiting for an entire day for a two-minute call.

Neighborhood conversations held behind shuttered shops whispered about Pakistan getting ready for war or hundreds of boys joining militant ranks. Hundreds of army trucks whizzing past on highways gave further impetus to rumors of an impending war. In the end, no war was declared, hundreds of boys turned out to a selected few, and most of them were dead within the year.

With no access to WhatsApp, Facebook, or even basic landlines – and Indian TV news churning out endless propaganda – Kashmiris only had access to rumors.

The following year, in June of 2020, the Indian government announced its intention to invite political leaders, including many who had been jailed in 2019, for talks to Delhi for furthering "political engagement." But, in the run-up to the invite, a wide variety of rumors started circulating about the further division of the state. These rumors started when the central government in New Delhi moved more troops into the region. 

The buzz in the valley was strong enough for the usually subdued pro-India politicians to seek clarification from the Government of India. 

Muzamil Jaleel, a journalist who has reported from Kashmir for more than 25 years, put out a long post discussing these rumors and analyzed how likely these rumors were to be true on June 7.

"Generally, when there is disinformation from the state side, people in important positions tend to stay silent. In this case, everyone from the Governor, who holds a constitutional post, to everyone else; they all lied and created an alibi. That is very much alive in the memories of the people of Kashmir. That is why every time something happens, people start speculating," Jaleel says. 

Across India, the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and Kashmir was no exception. Distrust of the government and rumors about the virus’ origin spiraled, later translating into vaccine skepticism so severe that villagers attacked health officials. 

Getting the full picture

Disinformation did not emanate exclusively from the Indian state. Other major stakeholders in the region – Pakistan and China were also identified as sources of different misinformation campaigns.

Rumors ranged from Pakistani Ministers claiming helicopter gunships were used in the immediate aftermath of August 5, 2019, to a turf war between the state police and central paramilitary forces. A deluge of fake news and repurposed old videos also surfaced when Indian and Chinese troops clashed in Galwan Valley in Ladakh in June 2020. 

But the impact of Chinese and Pakistani misinformation campaigns in Kashmir remains limited, and they have not created ripples at a level close to those emanating from within the valley. The state retains control over the flow of information on the internet through shutdowns, blocking access to certain websites, and keeping a close eye on Kashmir’s internet users.

Marginalized over decades, Kashmiris do not randomly believe rumors but tend to critically analyze any piece of information and judge how likely it is to be true. Still, if the rumors align with an individual's pre-existing worldview and further their security-related anxieties, they tend to stick. So, while news and rumors about wild leopards provoke anxiety, they tend to fade after a week – but rumors about the plans of the Indian government for the former state keep cropping up every couple of months. But why do these rumors feel increasingly threatening?

In this case, there are two significant reasons. One, the events of August 5, 2019, and two, the way people in power lied before August 5, 2019. To ordinary people in Kashmir, rumors are further fueled by a spate of new orders affecting land ownership and job security.

A recent order made it mandatory for any new government employees to submit details of all their social media accounts and obtain security clearances from the police, leading to anxiety that rules are meant as a barrier for locals to get government jobs. A separate order has banned government employees from posting "anti-national" or "anti-government" posts on social media. 

The information environment in Kashmir is such that, for Kashmiris, all manner of troubling political developments seem worryingly possible. All rumors about further actions by the Indian government are accepted as basically plausible, even if the source of these rumors is not always clear.

 

Muhammad Zahid has been working as a journalist for the last 13 years and has previously worked with Reuters, MSN and various British newspapers.

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