Wed, 18 Sep 2019

The famous red dot that marks the story of Indian-administered Kashmir on social media came much before India scrapped the Muslim-majority region of its special status.

The decision to revoke Article 370 of India's constitution on August 5 was preceded by a heavy military build-up in the Himalayan valley, followed by a crippling lockdown now in its 12th day, and arrests of hundreds of political leaders and activists.

Amid the crisis, Stand With Kashmir, a grassroots advocacy group in the United States, posted a red dot on its Instagram account they had set up only months ago.

"That's where the idea with the red began through a very informal conversation," said Hafsa Kanjwal, one of the group's volunteers.

"We decided to use it [the red dot] as a campaign [to] try to at least do some kind of an initial social media organising to make people aware."

The Instagram page started earlier this year as an online space for Kashmiris. But the latest tensions in the region turned the red dot turned into a symbol of resistance on social media against India's military control.

Kanjwal said followers of the Instagram account went from 300 to 10 000 within the first 2-3 days of India's move. It now has more than 71 000 followers.

Hundreds of Kashmiris and their supporters and Facebook also changed their profile pictures to a red dot.

Ironic turn of events

In an ironic turn of events, activists said the response caught them by surprise and helped make Kashmir a global headline, despite India's best efforts to keep Kashmiris off the grid.

"A part of me wonders if they [India] actually shot itself in the foot since they internationalised an issue that has really not been internationalised," she said.

UK-based Kashmiri Mehroosh Tak, who attended a protest against India's move in London last week, agreed.

"Some people who usually didn't come out this time felt that India had crossed a line," she said in a phone interview to Al Jazeera. "In a sense, India has united us."

Anthropologist Ather Zia from Colorado said Kashmir was always an international issue. "What's new is the denouncement," she said, referring to various newspaper editorials condemning India's policy in Kashmir.

Kanjwal said the outrage was intense since Kashmiris outside the region have not been able to contact their loved ones even during the Eid festival.

"This is very raw and personal to people," she said. "They don't know how their families are doing or whether their grandmothers are getting their medicines."

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Various social media posts by Kashmiris have gone viral in the past week, narrating their ordeals of not being able to reach their family members, of their inability to travel to the region for a festival, or of journalists not able to report.

"With such a communication clampdown, it is imperative on the Kashmiris who have some sort of connectivity to bring out information and raise awareness," said a Kashmiri, who helped organise a protest in Berlin on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"We have been using social media platforms to connect to other Kashmiris and organise protests or meetings."

Over the past week, various protests have been held in the US cities of New York, Washington, Houston, Denver and Boston, as well as around the world, including India's capital New Delhi.

Backlash

As Kashmir dominated social media conversations, Kanjwal said a number of accounts were heavily reported and even taken down.

Within a day after the Stand With Kashmir's Instagram page called on people to change their profile to the red dot, their page was disabled four times, according to an Instagram story from then.

Other similar profiles, such as @standkashmir on Instagram and @withkashmir_ were also repeatedly taken down during the first week. The Twitter account @withkashmir_ still remains unavailable.

In an email statement, Facebook, which owns Instagram, told Al Jazeera that the accounts were taken down by mistake.

"These accounts were mistakenly deleted by automated technology designed to find fake accounts. The deletion was unrelated to the situation in Kashmir," said the spokesperson.

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"These accounts do not violate our policies and were reinstated. We apologise to the account holders for the mistake."

Twitter declined to comment on individual accounts being allegedly taken down, but explained that "page doesn't exist" indicated a user voluntarily took it down.

A source known to the users of those Twitter accounts said they were taken down for security concerns since those activists were based in Srinagar.

Meanwhile, other social media accounts continue to face threats.

On Monday, police in Srinagar asked Twitter to provide information on Karachi-based reporter Wajahat S Khan after he shared accounts of people allegedly shot by the security forces.

The paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Kashmir police also linked to Khan's tweet, referring to his post as "malicious".

"The malicious content of this tweet is absolutely baseless and untrue," CRPF wrote, tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the post.

The post unleashed an army of trolls and threats against Khan, who told Al Jazeera he didn't expect a state agency to be so blatant.

"The backlash was state-led which really compounded its quantum," he said. "I have not received this amount of hate in my inbox [before]."

Khan eventually received a notice from Twitter saying his account did not violate any rules. He also refused to remove any tweet.

But there remains concerns over whether social media companies themselves target certain posts.

Tak says the companies "have some coordination" with the government. "It's difficult to prove these things but ...[people on] various forums say their accounts go missing," she said.

A 2017 report said Twitter was allegedly complicit in India's scrutiny of Kashmiri voices.

Towards a Kashmiri narrative

Nevertheless, activists said social media allowed a distinct "Kashmiri narrative" to emerge, which was beyond the usual trope of the India-Pakistan relations that define the decades-old conflict.

For far too long, they said, Kashmir crisis was presented in international media as an India-Pakistan conflict, which erased the voices of its residents.

Kanjwal said the red dot kept the movement's focus on Kashmir, without being overshadowed by the flags of either Pakistan or India.

"It [red dot] is not a flag, but our collective aspiration as a people. It represents the imminent danger to our home and existence," she said.

"Red represents the resistance of the Kashmiri people, their blood."

Rabail Sofi, another volunteer with Stand With Kashmir, said they received numerous requests from artists and influencers who wanted to contribute.

"Social media reacted to this in the most positive way social media can," said Sumaya Teli. "The simplest and easiest thing a person can do is share an image," she said, referring to an artwork by her sister Zarina Teli that went viral.

"I think the image absolved people of their guilt if they felt they could [not do] anything else," said Sumaya Teli, who commissioned her sister for the artwork.

Stand With Kashmir organisers say they are concerned their hashtags #RedForKashmir or #StandWithKashmir could fall into the wrong hands.

Kanjwal said a hashtag could be used by someone who has concerns about human rights in Kashmir but still believes it's "a part of India".

"So that's something that we're trying to work through is how do we maintain the integrity of our political ends even as the movement is expanding and other people are picking it up," she said.

Mohamad Junaid, assistant professor and Kashmiri researcher in North Adams, Massachusetts, said social media allows the creativity needed for a message to gain momentum.

"I think it's about the creative ways in which activists are using social media, how they have circumvented the obstructions of the government," he said.

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