Political activist Shehla Rashid is in the eye of a storm after she alleged on Twitter on August 18 that Indian Army personnel tortured four men in Shopian district of Kashmir, placing a microphone next to them “so that the entire area could hear them scream, and be terrorised”.
The allegation was made as part of a Twitter thread in which Rashid recounted what she had heard from people who had travelled out of Kashmir recently. The Valley has been under lockdown since August 5 when the central government announced its unilateral decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories.
Several political leaders, including three former chief ministers, have been arrested or detained. This includes Shah Faesal, a Kashmir bureaucrat-turned-politician, who started the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement Party, which Rashid joined in March.
Rashid’s allegations sparked a chain of reactions that started with the Indian Army refuting them as “baseless”. On August 19, a criminal complaint was filed against her by a Supreme Court lawyer in Delhi, who sought her arrest for allegedly spreading “fake news” against the government and the Army.
The same day, the news channel CNN-News18 ran a poll on their YouTube page asking if Rashid should be arrested for her tweets. The poll was deleted after outrage on social media.
Born and raised in Srinagar, Rashid studied computer engineering at National Institute of Technology in the city before pursuing postgraduate studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where she was elected as the vice president of the Students’ Union. She came into the national limelight in 2016 when her fellow student leaders were arrested for sedition.
In an interview to Scroll.in, Rashid, 31, explained why she tweeted the allegations against the Army, even though she could not verify them.
Excerpts of the interview below.
Could you please tell us more about how you gathered the information on the situation in Kashmir that you tweeted about on Sunday?
So right now Kashmir has been pushed into the 18th century era where you have to convey messages physically. You have to send someone who is travelling and convey the message through this messenger. These are testimonies of people travelling between Srinagar and Delhi. I am continuously in touch with these people. They have no reason to lie.
In my tweets I have said certain things which are also pro-administration – for instance, I wrote that officials were going to different districts to review health facilities. I have no vested interest in lying and I am not talking to idiots. These are sane Kashmiris who are giving me these details.
In the Twitter thread, you alleged the Indian Army tortured people in Shopian and amplified their voices to terrorise others. How did you come to know about this?
I got this from someone who came to Delhi from Shopian. I know the exact details of the place where this happened but I do not want to give them away in case a state agency may go there. Time will prove who is right and who is wrong. I am not lying. If anything, this should make the government more alert to avoid such abuse of human rights.
You said you gathered this information from conversations. Were you able to verify this information in any manner?
How can you verify when the government has shut down newspapers and all other communications? It is impossible to verify and that is not my fault. As an activist, it is my job to make people aware of the situation. I believe it to be the truth. These are real stories of real people. And my purpose is to highlight them without any exaggeration.
Given that you were not in a position to verify this information on the ground, nor reveal your source, why did you decide to still go ahead and release this information?
I did not hesitate much before putting out this information. [Shah] Faesal also wrote similar posts about the situation before being detained. When the government acts like a bully then this is the best we can get. There were several rumours going around, like the killing of two photojournalists. But I did not put that information out because I later checked and it was false.
Did you consider another approach to draw attention to this alleged incident? For instance, activists often tip off journalists who visit the spot to verify information.
Yes, we could have done that. But journalists are not allowed to report freely in Kashmir now. A Kashmiri journalist, whom I cannot name, had his phone confiscated by the police. Usually during curfews and war-like situations, a press card would allow you to roam freely but now it is the opposite. It is a Catch 22 like situation. There is no information available. The rules have completely changed.
Let the government open the communication channels and allow for the testimonies to pour out from Kashmir.
You have asked the Army to conduct a fair and impartial probe into the incident. Given past history in Kashmir, how confident are you of such a possibility?
I am surprised that the Army responded to my tweet. There have been several reports about such human rights violations but the Army did not respond to them. They need to go one step further and verify this information. There is just a general dismissal of what Kashmiris say because it is assumed that there is a bias.
A news organisation ran a poll on whether you should be arrested. This was deleted later. What do you think of this kind of journalism?
I do not want to comment on individual channels. There should be polls asking whether or not the government’s actions in Kashmir are justified using undemocratic and unconstitutional measures. This is not about me. The focus needs to be on Kashmir.
Along with some others, Faesal and I have filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking for a reversal in the state bifurcation, Union Territory status and abrogation of the special status. We also want an interim stay on the sale of land to non-locals. We are fighting to win even though the lead petitioner is detained.
How does the hostility from certain sections of the media affect you and how do you deal with it?
It used to affect me at one point but now it does not. The cause now is much bigger. We are being conned by the Centre. Ladakhis are asking for a tribal status and people in Jammu, including BJP leaders there are asking for a domicile status.
You had quit Twitter last year. What made you return to the platform?
I took a break and that convinced me of a life without Twitter. It was a much needed break from the monotony of abuse. I learnt to not take it too seriously.
How does your identity as a Kashmiri influence your political activism and impact your ability to intervene in public affairs in India?
I research on internet policy. This research is not necessarily linked to my identity. I studied engineering and social sciences. But when your community is suffering then it is time to speak up. Many people have the luxury of keeping quiet including those from Bollywood. But as Muslims get lynched and Kashmiri Muslims are kept like prisoners in their own homes, then I do not have the luxury to keep quiet. The government is being despotic.
When you travel around India, do you find a difference between what is said on social media and what people say in face-to-face interactions with you? Are you able to navigate real world politics with less hostility than social media encounters?
Absolutely. Social media presents a very skewed version of reality. This skewed narrative of social media is used to manipulate polls. I have always been received very warmly by people and never faced that kind of hostility that I encounter on social media.