How Indian Surveillance Disrupts Ordinary Life and Lives in Kashmir

The government of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), along with the central government, has been intensifying its mass-surveillance architecture in the state for over a decade. Although surveillance has always been a vital constituent of the ruling apparatus in J&K, electronic snooping underwent a marked increase from 2008 to 2010. Mir Suhail
18 June, 2015

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.”

The business man also told me that his phone is regularly monitored. “It is difficult to evade the police dragnet after one falls into it. I changed my number multiple times and each time police would track my new number and call me to show off their power,” he said. As his account seemed to underline, surveillance is a measure of socio-political control and the equation of disproportionally distributed power between the watcher and those being watched, aids this process.

In November 2014, Vasundhara Sirnate, the chief coordinator of research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy wrote in an article in The Hindu: “An Intelligence Bureau official stationed in Kashmir told me that they were tapping 10 lakh phones in Kashmir alone by 2014.” Mobile telephony was introduced in India in 1995 and, owing to security concerns, was permitted in Jammu and Kashmir only in 2003. For the state, the arrival of cellular phones proved to be beneficial in tracking down militants. However, since 2008, a surge in mass civil uprisings and the use of technology for information dissemination, protests and mobilisation in the state have led to major curbs on mobile services and the internet.

The Indian state and the regime in Jammu and Kashmir have also been conducting mass surveys for the “demographic and psychographic profiling” of the people in the state through various intelligence agency sleuths and surveyors from a number of Indian think tanks.” These in-depth surveys ask the surveyed families and individuals for details on their “mental” states, their political orientation and information on family members who may be linked to a militant organisation. While the police and army expressed ignorance over this covert operation, activists and resistance leaders have termed it “illegal” and “dangerous.”

The state’s sleuthing also focuses on social sorting and profiling by creating “flowcharts.” An engineering graduate who had been recruited as a police wireless operator and additionally deputed for collating records told me that, “For each individual, a flowchart detailing their linkages and networks is created. Certain coded categories are used to group people.” A 25-year-old MBA (Masters of Business Administration) graduate from the University of Kashmir was picked up from Old City in 2012 for his pro-freedom posts on social media. He was tracked by the police’s cyber unit, which seized his laptop and phone. “The police asked me names of my neighbourhood and college friends. They asked me specific questions about my social circle,” he told me when I met him in February this year.

The government also relies heavily on human intelligence or “agents” embedded within the population. “Surveillance aided by technology is only a supplement and not a replacement to the human interface,” K Rajendra Kumar, the director general of police in Jammu and Kashmir told me over the phone in April.

“Technologies become obsolete. We are trying to upgrade systems with a futuristic vision. Right now the focus is to modernise police control rooms, CCTV networks and have mobile squads. I would like to have the entire area under the camera eye,” he added. When I asked him about the cost of such projects, he said, “There are various agencies functional here and we work together for stronger and cost-effective surveillance.”

Snooping has become elemental to the state’s socio-cultural atmosphere, leading to fear and its internalisation. SAR Geelani, a professor from Kashmir who teaches Arabic in Delhi University, believes that the state aims to socially alienate people through such projects. Geelani, who was given the death sentence in the 2001 Parliament attack case, but was later acquitted of all charges, told me, “This is part of their social engineering project. They fear togetherness. It is a psychological war.”

When I spoke to Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist based in Kashmir, in December over email last year, he said, “It makes an individual hyper vigilant, gives rise to mistrust and suspicion and can lead to paranoia.” Muzammil Karim, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist, agreed with this prognosis. During a phone conversation, Karim told me that he believes increased surveillance can lead to behavioural changes. “Surveillance may lead people to mask real identities in everyday lives, affecting personal and professional relationships and can cause anxiety. Two of the patients I attend to in Kashmir, sought counselling from me due to these issues. One of them, a journalist, was on the brink of psychosis. Such people think that any information may be used against them,” he said.

Societies that are under surveillance of this kind have a fractured social atmosphere that can, in turn, fracture one’s view of oneself and of others. Saiba Varma, a cultural anthropologist, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, told me in April over email that state surveillance, which also includes people on government payrolls, contributes to a sense of mistrust and fear and pervades social relations. “In this sense there is a way that state logics of surveillance have trickled down into the everyday, and into everyday relations between people. Is designed to further erode the social fabric,” she explained.

Contesting the “nothing-to-hide” argument used by champions of state surveillance, she said, “This is not how surveillance works; anything can be manipulated or turned against you.”

During Varma’s stay in Kashmir for her 20-month-long ethnographic research, “Medicalisation of the Conflict-Mental Health, Trauma and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)", conducted between 2009 and 2010, she said that people frequently asked her, “Oh, you met so-and-so? You don't know who this person actually is.” Varma told me, “To me, this statement signifies a destabilisation of a person's identity, despite living in a society that still functions largely on face-to-face relations.”

Kumar, the director general of the Jammu and Kashmir police, did not seem to find these concerns relevant, “Anything can be compromised when it comes to national security,” he told me when I attempted to bring up the issue with him. Apart from snooping on specific individuals, the state’s mass surveillance is aided through CCTV installation projects, which have flourished in public places such as markets, malls, educational institutions, under various pretexts that include traffic control and eve-teasing.

In 2013, owners of various business establishments in Srinagar’s Karanagar received a written directive from police, a copy of which is available with The Caravan, ordering them to “install the CCTV cameras within a fortnight.”

The owner of a shopping complex in Karanagar, told me that it cost him Rs 20,000 to install the camera. He added that the system ceased to function after the floods in September.

AG Mir, Jammu and Kashmir’s former police chief, who now heads the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the state, told me that, “We requested the businesses to make use of CCTVs.” Mir added that surveillance is an “intense and tedious process” and has been “increased to curb militancy, crimes and to maintain law and order.”

Ahead of the local elections in 2014, the Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU)—a student organisation that has been banned by Kashmir University—had organised a talk critiquing the election process in Jammu and Kashmir. A 24-year-old member of the union told me that one of his friends was caught on the CCTV camera inside the campus of an engineering college in North Kashmir while he was distributing flyers to promote the event. “The authorities questioned and harassed him. He was asked to bring his parents and they threatened to bar him from sitting in exams,” recalled the union member. “Whether or not you are being watched, there is always a sense of unease. One is constantly thinking about it,” he added.

“We aim to upgrade and expand the surveillance mechanisms. There are more than 40 cameras in Srinagar alone which have been installed from the point of view of requirements. I can’t tell you exactly where,” Mir told me. He said that software such as Call Detail Record analysis—designed to capture huge volumes of call data and events in real time—have become integral to policing.

The government also uses Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to curb the new wave of quality militancy.” Ahead of the state polls in the region in 2014, Israeli-built Heron UAVs and Indian built mini-drones were heavily deployed for surveillance in various districts and their use was “carefully planned.”’

Om Shankar Jha, a counter-insurgency expert, explained in his paper for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, that was published in December 2009, that major surveillance projects such as Night Vision Devices, GPS for patrol cars, surveillance camera systems, CCTV systems, security equipment like portable x-ray machines, vehicle scanners, cyber patrol and communication monitoring systems, fall under the Modernisation of Police Force (MPF) scheme which was modified to enhance counter-insurgency mechanisms. The annual central budget allocation for the MPF scheme, according to Jha, was enhanced to Rs 1000 crore from 2000–2001 for 10 years. Under this scheme, the central government has put Jammu and Kashmir in category ‘A’ along with 8 north-eastern states, entitling them to 90 per cent central assistance.

In May this year, a series of attacks were targeted at telecom infrastructure in north Kashmir, killing two people and injuring at least three, after which the communication lines were snapped and services remained shut for few days. The state ascribed these attacks to militants, branding them as an attempt to thwart technology-dependent counter-insurgency measures. A few reports suggested that militants had used the attacks to react to the loss of their communication equipment—thar helped them evade state surveillance—from a mobile tower in Sopore of north Kashmir.

While some reports say that the attacks have been strategised by the militants to paralyse intellegence agencies that have been using technology to eliminate militant commanders in recent years, other reports argue that the insurgents are just as dependent on telecom infrastructure for their operations. In 2012, for instance, the Jammu and Kashmir police discovered the use of a smartphone application among a prominent militant group for Voice over Internet Protocol calls, which are difficult to intercept. Following this line of thought, militant groups and the resistance leadership have asserted that such attacks are a tactic by Indian agencies to tarnish the freedom movement in the state.

I was unable to arrive at a definitive conclusion regarding which of these versions was true. However, what I was able to ascertain was that the state appeared to be using its resources to deploy a strategic and comprehensive surveillance program as an instrument in its counter-insurgency mechanism. In response, the insurgents seem to have retaliated by using these tools to their benefit as well.

The experiential reality of this surveillance for those who are affected by it, works in strange ways. A student from Kashmir who is currently pursuing his PhD in Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia, a public central university in  Delhi, told me, “You oscillate between two ends—whether to share important information or withhold it. The burden is huge and one is constantly pre-occupied with this.” This preoccupation with surveillance on an everyday basis also creates some possibilities of subversion and camaraderie, embarking into territories of humour and the absurd. “Sometimes, it gets hilarious. We use certain codes over the phone, knowing little about our success. One of my friends would speak words backwards and the most serious of conversations would provoke laughter,” the student told me, laughing.

Uzma Falak Uzma Falak is a poet and writer from Kashmir. She also blogs for New Internationalist, London.