On April 28, Arshad Hussain, a lanky 22-year-old with a shock of wild hair, was in Chadoora town in Kashmir’s Budgam district. Security forces had surrounded a house where a militant was hiding. Protestors had gathered, pelting stones at the security personnel in an attempt to help the besieged militant escape. Stones flying behind him and bullets before, Hussain pulled out his cell phone to film the encounter.
Not far from Hussain, 23-year-old Zahid Rashid Ganaie joined the protesting crowd. He was soon shot dead, hit by a bullet in the neck. Later, his cousin said he had been streaming the encounter on Facebook Live when he was killed.
On April 9, when Farooq Ahmed Dar was tied to the front of a military jeep and driven through Gundipora village in Budgam, there were about five cameras at the ready. It was out of habit. Boys in the village showed how they screen the phone with their hands to take videos of government forces committing excesses as discreetly as possible.
At almost every encounter, every bout of stone-pelting, every face off with the security forces, from remote villages in Budgam to the towns of Srinagar and Pulwama, they are there – young men armed with mobile cameras. The Kashmir conflict is being filmed and photographed like never before.
What motivates them to do it, to step back from the heat of protest and start filming, often at considerable risk to life and limb? “I just wanted to show the bravery of the stone-pelters,” began Hussain, who studied political science at Amar Singh College in Srinagar. But then a tangle of reasons emerge. A new awareness of what social media can do, Hussain continued. A desire to tell their own story, cutting through the noise of a “biased” mainstream media. To keep a record, to make up for all that was lost in the 1990s. To help in the “glorification of victimhood”.
Throwing off the mask
After the killing of Tuffail Mattoo, a 17-year-old student from Srinagar city, set off mass protests across Kashmir in 2010, a few raw videos shot on mobile phones started doing the rounds. That is when it started, the documentation of the conflict in real time. But it was not until 2013 that a video showing abuse by the security forces – two teenagers being stripped and beaten at Baramulla police station – went viral. At the time, the Srinagar police had said they would identify those who had uploaded the video and probe whether it had been circulated with “criminal intent”.
Four years later, the police are wiser about how videos work. “There can be no investigation,” said a police officer in Srinagar. “You will never know who has uploaded a video. Even with the best technology, you cannot find out the source of the video.”
Social media afforded the Kashmiri youth a platform where words and images could be released with near perfect anonymity to a wide audience in no time. Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani harnessed the power of this medium to great effect. Reams have been written about how he used videos to popularise the new ongoing phase of militancy in Kashmir before he was killed by the security forces in July 2016.
Militants of the previous generation had been masked elusive gunmen. Wani removed the mask and addressed viewers directly. The militant leader and his cohort became well-known faces in the Valley, even though they had gone underground. Wani’s successor, Zakir Musa, now puts videos to similar use. Indeed, it was the footage of 30 militants brandishing assault rifles in South Kashmir that triggered, last week, the largest cordon and search operation in the Valley in 15 years.
It is not just the militancy that is thriving on videos, though. Some of the boys who film protests and encounters said Wani’s use of the medium created a new awareness about its possibilities.
The arrival of cell phone cameras and the spread of social media have opened up information in two ways. One, it has democratised control over information. Two, while the impulse during the militancy of the 1990s was to bury and hide, the instinct now is to publish and share.
Grainy footage does survive from the 1990s, taped on analogue cassettes, some of it uploaded online years later. “Every event was recorded – rallies, human rights violations,” said Shakeel Bakshi, one of the founding members of the pro-Azadi Islamic Students League.
A YouTube search reveals sepia-tinted videos of speeches made by Bakshi himself at rallies in 1990. It also throws up a black-and-white video of the funeral of Ishfaq Majeed Wani, one of the first people to take up arms in Kashmir. It is a grim precursor to Burhan Wani’s funeral, which drew thousands of mourners, and pictures and videos of went viral.
Back then, documentation lay mostly in the hands of photojournalists or people affiliated with pro-freedom organisations. Bakshi talked about the Kashmir Press Agency, which was active in the early 1990s. It was a “private” group, he said, which compiled videotapes. “The aim of the agency was just to document,” he continued. “There was no dubbing, just raw material.”
By the middle of the decade, the agency had given way to the Institute of Kashmir Studies, run by the politico-religious orgnaisation Jamaat-e-Islami and flush with funds. “Between 1990 and 1996, they compiled 23 reports,” said Mushtaq ul Haq Sikandar, a resident of Srinagar.
According to Rameez Makhdoomi, a Srinagar-based journalist, the institute recorded excesses on both sides: “They documented not only what the state did but also what non-state actors –militants – did. Even though they were pro-freedom.”
The Hurriyat Conference, the main political representative of the pro-Azadi sentiment, kept its own records: about 2,50,000 documents on human rights cases, according to a Srinagar-based activist.
Today, young men on the street have broken the monopoly of these organisations on the documentation. They are the new chroniclers, and record keepers, of the conflict.
Schoolboys in Attina, a village in the hills of Budgam district, keep their cell phones handy whenever there is a clash or action by security forces. “Kashmir mai bahut zulm chalta hai,” one gangly Class 10 student explained. “There is a lot of oppression in Kashmir.” He added, “No one in India sees what is going on. We put it on our phones, save it and pass it on.”
And just as the militant has removed his mask, the videographer has grown bold in the face of danger. “Death, for people here, has become a kind of heroism, a sacrifice,” said Hussain. While some take up guns, others risk their lives to film encounters, beatings and stone-pelting. Pictures of militant funerals show cell phone screens glittering in the foreground.
In contrast, the previous generation remembers desperately burying all evidence that could link them to militancy. It left gaps in family albums. “People were very frightened,” recalled Sikandar. “I have relatives in Pakistan. We destroyed all their photos fearing that if they [state authorities] found out, they would brand us Pakistanis.”
A government teacher in Srinagar had relatives who joined the militancy in the 1990s. “We buried them, the family photographs in which they were present,” she said. “There used to be raids.” The photographs were buried in the compound of her own house. They did dig up the stash years later but by then it was all damaged.
Struggling against forgetting
In many ways, the new breed of videographers are struggling against this erasure of memory. Hussain talked about friends and neighbours who were eyewitnesses to rape and torture, but who had nothing beyond stories. Much of the material gathered in the 1990s was lost or given up for fear of army crackdowns. “If they found such material they would torture people,” said Bakshi. “So it was buried and lost or foreign journalists took it and gave it to agencies.” Even people who witnessed excesses were shot, he claimed.
The Kashmir Press Agency faded away. The Institute of Kashmir Studies, Sikandar said, was raided and the police took away its reports, though some of them survive in personal libraries. The Hurriyat’s documents, according to the Srinagar-based activist, were also destroyed.
Bakshi started collecting old photographs and newspaper clippings in 2004. Some had remained with former members of the Kashmir Press Agency, some were old negatives that were redeveloped, others were personal photographs.
“The biggest problem was that people’s confidence was shaken,” Bakshi recounted. “Earlier, if someone’s son died, people would come and ask for his photograph. Then they would take bank loans in his name. It became a business so people wouldn’t give the photographs.”
Slowly, he built up a collection. At his house in Srinagar, Bakshi brought out three old albums. One has the words, “Kashmir Press Agency, news agency of the Islamic Student’s League”, printed on the front page. The pages are pasted with pictures that are difficult to look at.
Occasionally, Bakshi had a comment about a photograph. They burnt the bodies so that they could not be recognised, he said, pointing at one photo. That is a bride, killed on the day after her wedding, he said about another. That is mother and child, both dead, he pointed out after a few pages. Another picture bears the label, “Chanapora rape, 1990”.
Every Friday, Bakshi takes his album of horrors to Batamaloo, a central area in Srinagar, to display to the public. The mainstream histories that survive about those years, he believes, are not true to their subjects. “They were victims but propaganda said they were oppressors, they were cruel,” said Bakshi.
Hussain is moved by similar sentiment. The videos and pictures tell a story blotted out by the so-called national media, he said. But the new generation of chroniclers is acutely self-aware about the story they tell.
“In the 1990s, people did not know about human rights organisations, Kashmiris did not know that others can do something for us,” Hussain explained. “Now people are educated. They know the power of highlighting our victimhood.”
The sense of being victims, of being subjugated, is a powerful political idea in the Valley, invoked in that oft-repeated word, “zulm”, or oppression. A historical sense of being wronged draws from popular, mostly oral, histories that speak of 500 years of “zulm” under successive regimes. The sense has been only sharpened by three decades of militancy and the Indian state’s reaction to it.
“As most Kashmiris see it, there is zulm on us,” Hussain said, “that is why we want Azadi.”
Photographs and videos of victims tell this political story.