On Kashmir’s communication lockdown, Home Minister Amit Shah is as mistaken as India’s celebrity commentariat.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra 19 August, 2019
The level of policy cluelessness and national security ignorance that infect Indian celebrity commentariat is nothing short of astounding. In a recent tweet, a certain ‘legal luminary‘ compared the communications blackout in Kashmir to a medieval siege “starving out the population and poisoning wells”. There is actually a solid case to be made against a communications blackout, but when people resort to hyperbole — confusing modernity and the provision of public services to the denial of essentials — to get publicity rather than understanding the problem, one can be assured that the valid criticisms will get drowned out. That is exactly what has been happening with the Kashmir issue after the Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370.
In fact, the communications blackout is the surest sign of an un-industrialised state, which despite its alleged IT prowess understands nothing about information and its use in security, leave alone crowd control or the psychology of population control.
How Israel dealt with the Second Intifada
To understand this, we need to look at how the Israelis dealt with the Second Intifada and aborted the Third Intifada even before it started. The Second Intifada was a period of great violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli reaction to the Second Intifada (2000 -2005) was exactly how India has acted in Kashmir — curfews to prevent mass gatherings, communications blackouts to prevent organisation of gatherings, shutting down of schools and workplaces to prevent it being used as a ruse for gatherings, and the use of pellet guns and teargas to disperse violent gatherings. Note the common factor in all four actions is ‘gatherings’ — with everything being geared to just prevent these, but causing enormous public hardship and bloating the ranks of miscreants.
Now move on to the Third Intifada (2014 onwards). Have you ever heard of it? No. Guess why the so-called silent intifada never took off? Because the Israelis learnt to get in before gatherings happened and, in doing so, avoided inconveniencing the Palestinian population as a whole. The root of this was not cutting down on communications but allowing communications to flow freely.
When you have illegality being coordinated through mobile networks and internet messaging, then you want these to flow freely so that you can, through computer algorithms, understand what is happening, where it is about to start, who the organisers are, who their controllers are, and what exactly they plan to do. Since the 2010s, when face recognition technology became viable, you can narrow down punishments to individual rioters rather than locking down an entire area affecting people who were probably just as inconvenienced by the rioters. The Israelis found that these kinds of measures, essentially the ability to fine-tune carrots and sticks produced a remarkably effective crowd control strategy.
It is from this that we understand how obsolete Indian security forces are, with a continuing inability to either understand the basics of crowd control, or exploit modern technologies.
Security failures in Kashmir
For starters, none of our security forces deployed in Kashmir are given helmet cameras. These cameras act as a disciplinary device on the soldier and ensure he/she follows procedure, using force only under provocation. More importantly, in terms of morale, it prevents incompetent and corrupt officers from scapegoating their soldiers. It gives the soldier both fear from following an illegal order or acting illegally, but also the confidence to take appropriate action and refuse to follow illegal orders.
Second, there is an absence of security cameras — cameras that either face detect a miscreant, or if his/her face is covered, detect which house they came out of, enabling action to be taken later. Lately, pelters have taken to hiding in houses and throwing stones from there. These cameras help identify such houses.
Third, we lack the software and programmes that use people’s own mobile phones against them. Normally, like during the 2011 London riots, social media posts can add significantly to the confusion — but tracking something as simple as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) can point to patterns. These programmes track where messages are being sent from, where social media posts and WhatsApp messages are originating and pinpoint where gatherings are happening — turning an attempt to confuse into clarity. Finally, instead of demolishing the houses of terrorists and seizing bank accounts, we allow public funerals to act as rallying calls and allow the families of terrorists to reap the financial rewards of their terrorism.
What about law-abiding Kashmiris?
Now imagine if you’re a law-abiding Kashmiri — not necessarily one that likes India, but follows the law. To start, you’re at the mercy of a possibly incompetent officer or indisciplined soldier. Second, your business suffers when stone-pelting starts in the area. Third, far from the stone pelter being caught and punished post facto, he/she or his/her relative gets a government job. Fourth, the same incentivised stone pelter, automatically becomes the local ‘dada’ telling you when to shut shop and whom to provide refuge to, and you have to listen to him/her, because he/she has both riot organisers on their side and no fear of consequences. Fifth, because a minuscule minority of miscreants is using WhatsApp and mobile phones to organise riots, you suffer when it is blocked and wonder “what did I do”, even though mobile communications is a critical factor in identifying and punishing rioters and their organisers. Finally, you see stone pelters become terrorists, be hero-worshipped, be given semi-state funeral, and their family looked after through financial infusions from the community and overseas funders.
In such circumstances, which normal Kashmiri sees any benefit in being law-abiding? Our incompetent security managers have never understood carrots and sticks, and seem hell-bent on pursuing a course that punishes law-abiding citizens or throws them into the clutches of miscreants and terrorists. Terrorists, for their part, have never had it better. Under the A.S. Dulat doctrine, they are not punished when they start off as stone pelters, and, worse still, get generous government ‘confidential informant’ funds and prime land to construct malls when they graduate to full-fledged terrorists.
Article 370 is gone, but if Home Minister Amit Shah thinks he can pacify Kashmir using rotten security policies that incentivise terrorism and illegality and actively punish Kashmiris for being law-abiding, he’s sadly mistaken. What is worse is that our security establishment doesn’t understand this. And the final ignominy is that those opposing these policies don’t understand head or tail of security and resort to infantile, shockingly unresearched and semiliterate explanations.
This means the choices one sees in public discourse are two mutually exclusive binaries — force or no force. In short, if the establishment has let down Kashmir, so have the pro-Kashmir activists who are just as much the root of the problem despite their delusions to the contrary.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.