On the evening of July 8, as news of 21-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s death spread, the streets of Kashmir erupted in violent clashes between government forces and protesters. The violence ceased only late at night. The next morning, Kashmir witnessed one of the largest funerals of a militant in the recent past. As the rest of the Valley was taken over by mobs of young men and children, all signs of governance seemed to have disappeared.

Returning from Wani’s funeral, a group of journalists was stopped by a mob that had blocked the road in Pampore. One of the journalists immediately declared that the group was returning from the funeral – as the youth who had stopped him looked on in disbelief, the journalist showed them video clippings of the funeral and the sea of people that had gathered to bid Wani adieu. The journalist shouted a few slogans and the mob, awestruck by the masses of people they had just seen on the screen, cleared the way for him and his colleagues to pass.

Elsewhere, another journalist who had attended the same funeral had the misfortune of running into members of the security forces: less than impressed by the videos on his phone, they assaulted him.

In Kashmir, 2016 was the year of Burhan Wani. For months after his death, Wani’s name appeared across the Valley, on closed shop shutters and echoed in slogans. But Wani had been the talk of the town even before his death, especially for the manner in which he used social media to reach out to thousands of Kashmiris online. Breaking convention, Wani and his group of militants would frequently appear in videos shot from mobile phones, with no effort to conceal their identities. These videos would then be circulated on platforms like Facebook and countless WhatsApp groups.

Burhan Wani's funeral.

The videos contained direct political messages. But they were also a subtle depiction of what life was like in the face of imminent death. Often seen dressed in combat fatigues and wearing broad smiles, groups of young men could be seen training in the orchards, offering prayers, playing cricket, trekking or simply lounging around bonfires and eating.

Wani had found a way to bridge the gap between ordinary Kashmiris and militants through these videos. Police officials later pointed to this use of social media becoming a long-term strategy, akin to advertising. “(The) reaction to Burhan’s death naturally is because of his videos,” said a senior police official, who asked to remain unidentified. “It should be safe to assume that the directions for such videos to be made and circulated have come from higher organisational levels.”

Online militancy

More than six months after Wani’s death, militants continued to release new videos online. Over Ground Workers – the term used to describe civilians tasked with organising logistical support for militants – have been accused by the security forces for being responsible for publishing and disseminating these videos online. Often, they are circulated using SIM cards that have been obtained under false identities.

Videos of militants cropped up during periods of unrest too, when old videos were re-circulated to create confusion. Shared by those connected to broadband internet, or among friends using the popular file sharing app ShareIt, these videos reached far and wide even as mobile telephony and internet remained suspended.

In a video released during this time, Hizbul Mujahideen militant Riyaz Naikoo is seen sitting behind a desk on which a pistol, grenades, a book and a laptop are placed neatly. In the Hizbul Mujahideen’s latest video message, released a few days before Republic Day, a 40-year-old militant named Yasin Yatoo asserted: “The only solution to Kashmir is jihad.”

He also dissuaded young people from being part of the Indian Army’s Operation Sadbhavana and the sports tournaments organised by it. Yatoo is the third militant since Wani to have appeared in a video statement. Other videos, without direct messages, show a militant commander making chapatis, militants huddled under a tarpaulin sheet eating their food out in the cold, and three militants praying in a snow-laden orchard.

Students from Kashmir meet President Pratibha Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi in 2011, as part of the Indian Army's Operation Sadbhavana educational tour. Credit: Raveendran/AFP

This is all relatively new, said Meraj ud Din Dar, a senior journalist who has captured images of militants since the 1990s. In previous times, when militants would transport journalists to press conferences, pictures were taken with caution, he said. “Militants would avoid being photographed at press conferences or their parades,” said Dar. “Sometimes, they would have their own cameras and instruct journalists on how to take pictures, to avoid problems.”

Only occasionally would militants with uncovered faces agree to be photographed. Dar recalls covering a parade by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front where no militant had his face covered. Today, he said, there were no apprehensions about revealing identities. But the role of the press as disseminators of information had diminished, owing to social media. “Earlier newspapers would decide whether to publish these images or not,” said Dar. “Today that problem no longer exists.”

The senior police official who spoke to Scroll.in said the videos showed aspects of militants’ lives to sell an the underdog’s story. “It is a propaganda video where they are just trying to advertise how they live, people who watch it should feel as though the ‘whole might of Indian state’ is against these few fellows and look how they are trying to fight it out,” he said.

The exposure comes at a cost: recently a video which showed militants trekking in the snow-covered hills was allegedly used by security agencies to track down and kill three militants from the group. In the last video before their deaths, one of the militants rued the fact that his phone was active and could be used to find their location.

At a press conference in Anantnag, the 1-Sector Commander of Rashtriya Rifles Brigadier R Chakraborty described the killing of the three militants as a triumph for the security forces. “It is a major success as their moving freely and preparing a video, in which they were playing with snow, appeared that they were challenging us,” he said.

Obsession with vengeance

A consistent theme in almost all the video statements circulating in Kashmir are the invariable threats and warnings issued to members of the local police, who are largely drawn from Kashmir. Invoking religion and a higher moral ground, the militants repeatedly ask policemen to shun their jobs and join the mujahideen, or dispense their duty away from the streets.

One such video addressing the Jammu and Kashmir Police surfaced late last year – its soundtrack was lifted from a propaganda video released by the Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent, disparaging the Pakistan army and documenting attacks on it.

The local five-minute version depicted police excesses, lathi charges and firing on protesters to the tune of the song Kitney Badnaseeb Tum, or how unfortunate are you – and carried footage of a daring militant attack in Anantnag in broad daylight, which left two policemen dead. The video also displayed pictures of the Parliament in Delhi and the Prophet’s mosque in Madina, Saudi Arabia, side by side. Immediately after that, pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi drawing a sword and Burhan Wani carrying a weapon with the Islamic kalima in the backdrop are displayed simultaneously – perhaps giving policemen a subtle ultimatum to choose their side.

A screen grab from an anti-police video.

Yatoo warned the Jammu and Kashmir Police not to act as instruments of oppression against their own people and that the Indian establishment was using them for their own gains.

“We want to tell the families of those serving in the Jammu and Kashmir police, that they make the policemen understand,” he said. “Don’t let them destroy their lives now and thereafter, for petty interests. Leave the Indian establishment’s side and support your own nation and mujahideen.”

Apart from warning viewers of attacks anywhere in the country, Yatoo also threatened those close to police officers, saying “revenge will be taken against them, for every act of oppression”. In another video, prior to Yatoo’s, Hizb militant Zakir Moosa too had threatened the families of policemen in retaliation for the harassment of militants’ families. Moosa asserted that the Quran teaches its followers to take an eye for an eye. “[Even] If your families are in Kanyakumari, we have the capability to bury them there,” he warned.

Director of the Centre for International Security at Gateway House, Mumbai, Sameer Patil said that during his tenure at the J&K desk at the National Security Council in 2012-’13, he regularly received inputs about militants planning to target families of police officers. “The inputs themselves spread some kind of discontent among police officials, who were reluctant to join any counterinsurgency operations,” he said.

Patil added that though the militants were unlikely to act against the police force, the discourse invoking religion to dissuade policemen from performing their duties could create a dilemma for some officers. “If a policeman has doubts about his duties, then you have obviously sown some kind of seeds in his mind, because of which you know he is forced to think about what he is doing – that dilemma is enough to thwart the momentum of any counterinsurgency operation,” he said.

The senior police who spoke to this reporter, however, clarified that there was no reaction to the videos in the ranks of the force. “Policemen who are already in the operations are used to this and know that most of these claims and threats are really hollow,” he said, adding that while some policemen may get perturbed due to the movement or presence of militants in his area of residence, “Most policemen are very well equipped to take this kind of pressure.”

Propaganda or over-sharing?

While militants on Facebook or WhatsApp may not have led to an increase in young Kashmiris becoming militants, it has certainly led to greater empathy. A media student at the University of Kashmir, who did not wish to be identified, said that the presence of these videos on social media had opened up a space for support. “They are no longer anonymous, so the [ordinary person’s] aversion to acknowledging them is not as strong,” he said. “The people who watch these videos, feel encouraged to talk about it openly.” He added that the videos no longer seemed like the work of amateur filmmakers either: “It feels like they [militants] have learnt how to tap people’s emotions where it hurts.”

Mehmood Ur Rashid, a columnist with the local daily Greater Kashmir, said the phenomenon of militants spreading propaganda online was no different from the 1990s. “[Today] you have social networking sites, those days you had social spaces, like mosques, mohalla meetings, gossip groups and guests meeting at leisure at people’s homes, because there was not as much militarisation of physical spaces then,” he said.

Rashid added: “Whenever you look towards a very young guy who speaks for a political cause that has a greater resonance among people, it definitely creates an emotional constituency for these people.” Militancy is seen differently by older generations who have seen young boys die in the past, he said. But for the young, these videos hold a different charge: “It hits them straight in their hearts and minds and makes an impact on them.”

Rashid dismissed any element of a long-term strategy in the videos. This is how young people behave today, he said, whether they are on a cricket ground or a training camp. Reading a well-thought-out strategy into the posts was giving young minds too much credit.

Since the unrest which began on the evening of July 8, 2016, at least 51 young people have become militants. However, police officials say the number is not very significant – the police anticipated that more young Kashmiris would pick up guns.

“One has to see this in a larger perspective,” he said. “There are lakhs and lakhs of people here and we say that many people are going to militancy but a very minuscule section of people are actually going towards it.” The officer said that, in fact, it was actually the pictures and videos of stone pelting that attracted young people.

“Picking up a stone is much easier,” he said.