One morning last February, Kashmiri peacebuilder Ashima Kaul awoke to news that would send the province into turmoil. Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant, had been sentenced to death in Delhi for his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament back in 2001. On the streets of Kashmir, people were already demonstrating in his favour. Messages glorifying his death sprang up on social network sites. The Government of Jammu and Kashmir had imposed a curfew and locked down public areas. Newspapers were banned for a time and internet services were blocked. “People were literally cut off from all communication. They had no ways or means to express themselves,” says Ashima.
Her organisation, Yakjah, which means ‘together’ in Kashmiri, have worked in Kashmir for 11 years to stop violence and save lives. Afzal Guru’s hanging was a set back to the process of peacebuilding. It had severely impacted the psyche of the people, especially Yakjah youth based in the Kashmir Valley. Yakjah had to deal with the huge problem of angry protests involving hundreds of young people.
The hanging of Azfal Guru unleashed anger, shock and social network outrage. The fact that he had been executed hurriedly and without warning provoked people in the Valley to declare him a martyr. He became the face of a ‘resistance movement’. Social network sites became ablaze with stories and slogans of his martyrdom. The government’s response fuelled this fire further.
What followed was to rock the Kashmir Valley and present Yakjah with a real challenge. Curfews, shutdowns and protests were spreading and youths were being killed in gunfire. Tensions were increased by the unexplained death of a young Kashmiri man, who protestors suspected had been murdered by their political opponents. Rumours started to circulate. Meanwhile a driver who had ignored strike calls was pelted with stones and killed.
Then in March a suicide attack killed five unarmed police, whose weapons had been withdrawn by the authorities to avoid further violence. On national television the police openly accused the government of making them vulnerable to attack.
In a bid to calm tensions, Yakjah reached out to young people with the best tool they had – social network sites. They have a Facebook page where members interact and share their views. It was through this space that they reached out to young people to persuade them towards peace. “If social network sites can be used for inflaming passions,” explains Ashima, “they can also be used for promoting rationality and peace.” While stories of Azfal Guru’s martyrdom and aggressive posts about execution and revenge dominated Facebook, Yakjah sent out alternative messages of peace.
They immediately faced the problem of followers who wanted to celebrate Azfal Guru as a martyr. But as a neutral peacebuilding organisation, they refused to take sides or politicise the dead.
Yakjah’s group had a direct impact on one young member of the organisation. He had posted a slogan glorifying Azfal Guru, which Yakjah could not approve. This created a dilemma, because the student wrote that if his post was not valued, he would leave the group. This move would remove him from their influence and heighten his susceptibility to engage in violence and radicalisation. Ashima decided to persuade him of his valued place in Yakjah as a volunteer for peacebuilding. As a consequence, the boy returned to the group, even sharing his poetry. He is now being encouraged to use his talent to write peace poems.
Yakjah have shown how, in times of extreme chaos, social media and technology can be used to bring people together. In the emotional disorder of Kashmir, they saved one young person who could easily have been influenced by the extremism on other social network sites. Instead, he emerged stronger and more determined to fight for peace. Yakjah proves that, together, people can do more for peace.
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