On 6 November 2014, two teenagers were killed by the armed forces while they were on their way to see a Muharram procession in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The killings, that the military later stated were a “mistake” led to a series of clashes between the armed forces and civilians in the area. Among those who were protesting, was a 22-year-old student who is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Science in Kashmir. When I met him in Srinagar in February this year, the twenty-two-year-old science student recalled finding out about the killings and spending his entire day on the streets to participate in the agitations that took place. At around midnight, exhausted but restless after the events that transpired, he called a childhood friend—a student from Kashmir who was pursuing his higher studies in New Delhi—and began an eager narration of his triumphs and tribulations from the day. However, the exchange struck him as a little odd as his friend kept disconnecting the phone repeatedly. Once his initial confusion dissipated, the student realised that his friend was trying to avoid the omnipresent third entity in the conversation. The student felt increasingly exasperated with this presence once he registered the strange beeps and echoes during the phone call. In the next call he made, he defiantly mocked and swore at the “third person,” a covert listener. The two friends laughed.
The panopticon that has been encircling Kashmir is a construction of the Indian state, which has been intensifying its mass-surveillance architecture in the region for over a decade. Although surveillance has always been a vital constituent of the ruling apparatus in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), electronic snooping underwent a marked increase from 2008 to 2010, with a surge in mass civil uprisings in the state.
Apart from the presence of more than 600,000 Indian troops and other visible markers of a military occupation, various surveillance units dot Kashmir’s landscape. A 29-year-old businessman from south Kashmir, told me, over the phone, of four cameras that were positioned on specially erected towers in the main marketplaces of Lalchowk, Khanabal, Janglat Mandi and Reshi bazaar. He told me that he commutes through these routes every day: “It (the cameras) makes me nervous. Sometimes, I avoid these routes. Mostly, there is no choice,” he said.
The businessman told me that he has had a history of cyclic detentions, including a detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA). According to his estimate, at least 42 First Investigation Reports (FIRs) have been filed against him over the past eight years. “In June 2009, police showed me footage of a protest that I had led over the Shopian double rape and murder of 2009. They record HD [high definition] videos, filming protests even from half-a-kilometre’s range with clarity,” he told me, sounding anxious.
The businessman’s PSA dossier reads: “You threatened shopkeepers to replace word Anantnag with Islamabad on their sign boards and that too written with green colour.” Laws such as the PSA and what Amnesty International refers to as “vague” grounds of detention, when combined with intense surveillance, catalyse the social exclusion of people such as this businessman, thereby keeping them “out of circulation.”