“We know where you live” is one of the most dreaded and threatening statements a Kashmiri can hear from the state armed forces. It can mean a number of things to an ordinary Kashmiri, including “we have information on you” and “we are watching you”. It can also be perceived as an immediate threat to the life and safety of the person given the absolute impunity enjoyed by the state armed forces. Much before the introduction of advanced surveillance technology by state forces in Jammu and Kashmir, being watched was part of the human surveillance/information gathering apparatus in the region. People have been both visible and legible to the state in what is one of the world’s most militarized zones. The perpetual conflict has produced and reproduced a culture of surveillance in the region without any accountability with regard to the breach of privacy, interference in everyday ways of living, and the legality of such surveillance measures.
Ever since the beginning of the armed conflict, the military forces have enjoyed arbitrary powers under the laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990 to encroach over the lives and the property of the people living in the region. This law deprives people of their right to liberty and privacy by empowering the armed forces to shoot, kill, destroy property, run search operations of people and their holdings merely on the basis of suspicion. This law has also enabled surveillance in the region through everyday harassment of people on streets, marketplaces, and inside their homes, violating basic rights of life, liberty and privacy.
With the advancement of technology, surveillance has upgraded from human to machine form, and with it, the concerns for breach of privacy and the right to life have also grown. We argue in this blog post that surveillance functions as an essential tool of the Indian State to deprive and disintegrate the population of the region. In its pursuit of dominance and control, the state breaches the fundamental right to privacy and the right to a dignified life of the people on a daily basis. At the same time, however, it is precisely the depth and extent of surveillance that keeps people from protesting against it.
Disciplining Life in Conflict through Technological Surveillance
On 25 September this year, the Jammu & Kashmir Police posted a video on Twitter that shows high-resolution footage of a neighborhood in Srinagar. Recorded by a drone surveillance camera flying over rooftops, courtyards, streets and parks, it shows the private lives of families living in the locality. The administration claims that it will have better “area dominance” by using this advanced real-time surveillance device. Even though this form of surveillance interferes with various individual rights, the Police’s decision to deploy aerial surveillance saw little opposition from the people. The absence of visible protest, however, flows from the fear of surveillance itself and even the fear for life and liberty among journalists, bloggers, and social media users in Kashmir. Aerial surveillance is not the first or the last measure deployed by the state forces in the region. For a long time now, the state in Kashmir has used electronic surveillance to spy on and monitor the population of the region.
Similarly, surveillance through CCTV has become a common feature in Kashmir’s public spaces, with CCTV to be found in many markets and streets, enforced by the government’s orders and its armed forces.
As stated above, surveillance in Kashmir is neither new, nor discreet. However, what is new, is the overt public display of the massive use of digital technology and its proliferation into the intimate spaces of individual and familial lives. Displaying the massive use of surveillance is seen as an attempt by the state to enforce self-censorship among the masses.
This scale and method of mass surveillance operationalized publicly finds parallels in some other contested and occupied zones in the world, such as Palestine. Unsurprisingly, India serves as the largest importer of Israeli defense weaponry, and Indian police officers are being trained in “counter-terror warfare” by the Israeli Police in the State of Israel, as part of the agreement between Israel and India regarding cooperation on homeland and public security issues. The use of Israeli surveillance technology has been tested on Kashmiris as revealed by the Pegasus expose in India.
To understand where things are probably going towards in Kashmir, therefore, it might be useful to see how this technology is being used by Israel itself. In an essay on tech surveillance in Palestine, Malaka Shwaikh has described a chilling, almost science-fiction-like apparatus of Israeli surveillance of the Palestinian population. Drones and mobile phone cameras are used to keep records of each and every individual in the territory and rate them according to the perceived risk that they may or may not pose for the occupation. The Washington Post has also reported the massive use of mobile facial recognition software in the region. We can see how similarly in Kashmir, after three years of a brutal physical and communicational lockdown, and the deployment of civil, and military administration to control and punish the population on an unprecedented scale, a new phase of mass surveillance is beginning. A phase in which individuals and families are being surveilled through drones and digital technologies.
Fracturing the Community Life and Spatial-Temporal Control
Irrespective of its scale, modern surveillance, as Andrea Smith has succinctly put it in her study, has its origins in settler colonialism. The colonial settlers and plantation owners in the colonies in America constructed an architectural and organizational apparatus to observe and watch the slave workers during their work and everyday life. The certainty of being watched would make those under surveillance behave the way settlers wanted. The “goal of colonialism”, Smith reminds us, “is not just to kill colonized peoples, but to destroy their sense of being people”.
What is happening in Kashmir in the name of security, is nothing less than the destruction of the Kashmiris’ sense of being a people and a community. The continuous and invasive surveillance is not only eroding the sense of safety of the individuals’ private lives, but it also poses a threat to their social and communal relationships, which is required for the existence of any human society. From time to time, the state forces have either incentivized spying and surveillance of the population by fellow Kashmiris or forced others into spying through coercive measures.
In 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir Police put up a task force called ‘cyber volunteers’ to patrol social media and flag posts on “radicalization” and “anti-national activities” among other issues to the government. Such a move by the state forces not only meant curbing the freedom of speech of social media users but also resulted in creating distrust among social media users from the region who started doubting anyone and suspected everyone of spying on them. This step was also seen as legitimizing denunciation, reminding people of fascist and authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century. Consequently, Kashmiri voices on social media have gone silent over the fear of retribution by the state.
By targeting the individuals for what they write, how they live, and behave in the public and the intimate spaces of the people of the region with its invading and occupying gaze, surveillance by the state threatens not just the relationship that Kashmiris have with their own family and social structures, but also with their physical and their imaginative landscape.
This spatial-temporal expansion of surveillance forces the Kashmiri people to hold back, watch their own steps, and their body language – and makes them assess and question their presence in any given space, lest they will be held accountable for being present at any given time and place, in their own land.
Note that this surveillance, human and technological, has a significant gendered effect. As a gendered gaze, surveillance in neighborhoods, commercial and public spaces, and over family houses invades the family relationships, activities, lives and dignity of women. The use of surveillance complicates the pre-existing patriarchal social structures for women; hence women choose to self-censor themselves lest the state will leverage the private information about them. Kashmiri female social media users who were summoned to police stations for being vocal on human rights abuses in the region have found themselves traumatized and live under the fear of being watched. Similarly, the continued army presence on the streets in Kashmir and their power to search anyone further restricts the mobility of women who experience eve-teasing and harassment by the military forces.
Given such a state of affairs in Kashmir, no space and no moment is beyond the reach of the administrative surveillance, everything can be and is being watched by the state armed and intelligence forces, who do not belong to the community or to the land.
It is very crucial to understand the role privacy plays in securing the civil and democratic freedoms of any community. Discussing surveillance and self-determination, Lizzie O’Shea rightly asserts that privacy and freedom are twin concepts and argues to see privacy as a right to self-determination of the people. In Kashmir we see the micro-managing consequences of such surveillance: it not only invades individual privacy, it threatens the people’s freedom and their right to self-determination. It denies them their rights to being people.
Impunity and Not-seeing
While the Indian state, on the one side, brings everything under the scope of its surveillance, its strength, on the other side, lies, as Smith has pointed out, in the inversal of seeing in certain areas, which means deliberately making invisible what is crucial to the people of the region. This has destructive consequences. For Example, the Indian state has attempted to bring every aspect of the life of Kashmiris under surveillance and militarization and hence making it available to be seen by itself and Indians. But at the same time, the Indian state has also deliberately invested in making the inviolable relationship between the Kashmiri people and their land indivisible through the political and cultural discourse of Kashmir being a paradise on earth. And hence what is supposed to be an ordinary home and safe space for Kashmiris is denied to them through continuous surveillance of their lives yet at the same time made available for be experienced by outsiders. In the same way, the criminality of the state has often been made invisible and those who dare to speak about it and try to make it visible, are continuously being targeted. It is through rigorous surveillance the reality of this region and its people is kept embargoed in the name of national security, integrity and confidentiality.
As the conflict has produced a culture of surveillance and watching, it has jeopardized a healthy and free social life according to the constitutional guarantees of the people in the region. The surveillance facilitates punishment of the slightest deviation from the behavior that the state expects, while no comprehensive legal framework exists to regulate the surveillance. This culture of surveillance has, since 2019, enforced total silence of the people in the region while the state has resorted to anti-terror and detention laws to create deterrence among the people.
While surveillance, both human and technological, has historically served as a tool of dominance by the state, the state continues to create the illusion of constitutional governance in the region and argues that surveillance should not bother those who have nothing to hide. But the fact remains that surveillance violates the people’s right to privacy and anything about their private lives can be manipulated and used against them.
Therefore, we argue that in the context of Kashmir, privacy must be considered an essential component in the constitution of the people and the community, and violating privacy by the Indian state be taken as violating the Kashmiri people’s right to exist. By doing this, one can politically contextualize the question of privacy in the region.