On February 13, a day after an encounter between militants and security forces in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district left eight dead, the local police station filed a first information report against those allegedly spreading rumours about more civilian deaths.
Two civilians, in addition to four militants and two soldiers, were killed during or after the encounter on Sunday. Several more civilians were injured in clashes. On Monday, local newspapers reported that a third civilian had succumbed to injuries. The Jammu and Kashmir police responded with a press note warning against “false updates” on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. “It is clarified that all injured persons are stable and there is no report of any injured person succumbing,” read the press note.
Later in the day, the Kulgam police followed up on the warning. “An FIR has been lodged against rumour mongers who have posted fake news on social and print media,” said Shridhar Patil, senior superintendent of police, Kulgam. Charges were filed, he said, under Section 153 and Section 505 of the Ranbir Penal Code, the body of criminal laws applicable to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
While Section 153 deals with “provocation to cause riots”, Section 505 of the RPC is aimed at restraining the publication or circulation of information that may cause fear or alarm to the public.
Reports and rumours
Individuals with “vested interests”, Patil said, were spreading rumours on social media. Indeed, the state administration has frequently identified rumours on social media as the source of panic or unrest in the Valley.
In April, the district magistrate of Kupwara became the first to issue a circular asking that WhatsApp news groups register themselves at the local administrative headquarters. The additional district informatics officer of Kupwara was to “keep vigil” on the activities of such groups and government employees were told not to comment on official policies and decisions on such groups.
Reports linked the circular to two rumours. First, that a soldier had molested a girl in Handwara town in Kupwara district, which set off widespread protests where five civilians were killed. Second, that polio drops were killing children in the state, which sent thousands of people flocking to the hospitals. But the order was never seriously followed, said Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir Images, and hardly any groups got themselves registered.
As unrest spread in the Valley after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter in July, the government suspended mobile internet for months and the police issued warnings against rumour mongering.
Kamran Yousuf, a photojournalist with Greater Kashmir in the southern district of Pulwama, believes such bans are not aimed at the media. “The police issue these press releases to scare those on social media, not journalists,” he said. “Journalists will not post updates without confirmation.”
But the distinction between news and social media can get blurred, explains Manzar. “I don’t think newspapers spread rumours,” he said. “But it is unfortunate that they sometimes follow social media without verifying [information].”
He mentions rumours, spread during the thick of the unrest, of a Central Reserve Police Force officer molesting a girl. “Some newspapers picked it up and put it on their portals and then there was trouble,” he said.
Of course, in the Valley, it is a fine line between rumours and contested versions of the same story. During the unrest last year, the state explicitly acted against news outlets, raiding printing presses, banning the Valley-based daily, Kashmir Reader, apparently for inciting violence and booking one of its reporters for allegedly filing “fake news” about security forces. It sparked off a debate on the freedom of the press in Kashmir.
“Every story has two versions,” explained Manzar. “My job as a journalist is to report both versions and let the reader decide what the truth is.” This applies particularly to encounters, where spot reporting becomes difficult and journalists have to depend on the clashing accounts of security forces and crowds of local residents present at the site.
But state action against the press, he said, had put in place an “unwritten kind of censor” on the media.
“It is not another state, it is Kashmir,” said Manzar. “Any rumour can get people killed. It can trigger more agitation, which will mean more reaction from government forces, which leads to more deaths.”
Monday’s episode shines a light on the growing unease in Kashmir. After last year’s unrest, the Valley settled into a tense calm. “When it cooled, there was no effort from the government to reach out to people, find out why they are angry,” said Manzar. Any incident, in such a situation, could set off fresh protests.
Now that the snows are melting, rumours have started swirling again. “The situation is very fragile,” said Manzar. “People are very worried, there are rumours that something is going to happen. Even mainstream politicians are talking about it.”