By Manan Shah

With Pegasus Spyware becoming a vocal point that violates the basic right to privacy and expression, the world is rather startled and so are the potential targets; politicians, activists, members of the judiciary or Journalists. However, Kashmiris saw this as a matter of day to day and therefore relived their concerns.

Though Pegasus is news for many, the people of Kashmir are not as surprised. Certainly not because they appreciate the potential hacking and invasion of privacy rather because they have been used to the treatment for years now.

People of Kashmir for decades have lived with fear and threat of the Indian government spying and hacking on their phones. They have always acted carefully while talking on their phones, fearing a breach of privacy. They hold their thoughts and refrain from speaking on matters like politics, the resistance movement, their support or affiliation for a particular group or ideology or anything anti-establishment, which they think might lead them into trouble.

Whereas spyware and hacking into someone’s personal space are unethical by any means, Pegasus hacks into the device and invades the privacy of an individual with potential targets being completely unaware of, unlike what happens in Kashmir. After the abrogation of Article 370, electronic devices were confiscated and labelled with their passcodes on their back and held under custody for an indefinite period of time.

Journalists were not the only ones who were subjected to this, the same was done to common people as well. On certain occasions, the many devices were destroyed and broken into pieces, with or without anything against the “National Interest” of the country.

The cries of surveillance do not end here. A person can further get into trouble with a social media post he/she uploads that challenges false or government narratives. It was in this regard, the government asked common people to register themselves as Cyber Crime Volunteers. They launched a project to seek help from volunteers to report anti-national posts.

An article by the First post mentioned, “The volunteers are asked to keep an eye on posts that are against the sovereignty and integrity of India, against the defence of India, against the security of the State, against friendly relations with foreign States, content aimed at disturbing public order, disturbing communal harmony and child sex abuse material”.

Ironically, the volunteers were also suggested to read Article 19 of the Indian Constitution which deals with Freedom of Expression. A Kashmiri Photojournalist, Masarat Zahra was booked in a similar fashion under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in 2020.

An Al-Jazeera report says, the FIR against her reads “Cyber police received information through reliable sources that one Facebook user namely Masrat Zahra is uploading anti-national posts with criminal intention to induce the youth and to promote offences against public tranquillity.”

The acts of surveillance in Kashmir have shaped into different ways and instruments and are not hidden from the masses anymore. A circular was issued by J&K’s General Administration Department asking employees to provide details of their social media accounts. The employees were also asked to get security clearance from J&K Police’s Criminal Investigation Department.

People used to surveillance in different forms has given rise to alleged conclusions. Tapping of phones has become a cemented belief among the people, who often in their own humorous way acknowledge the listener’s effort. For instance, whenever a phone is answered people say, “Speak loud and clear, in case the phone is being tapped, the listener should get a clear sound bite.”

Even a technical glitch gives rise to suspicion. Assuming the third and unwanted person is listening to the conversation, people often talk nonsense as an act of mockery.

Such beliefs and assumptions were reinforced in 2011 when the Army’s Technical Service Division was supposedly accused of tapping the ex-Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah’s phone along with his close associates.

Under the constant threat of surveillance, people have become more conscious of the phrases they use. The meaning of some Kashmiri phrases can be misinterpreted and misunderstood which further creates trouble. ‘Dis taas’ which loosely translated to ‘nail it’ can be often misinterpreted as to execute someone, which reminds me of an incident, mentioned by a friend, Two people were on call and said, “Pagah Dimvos Aakhri Taas” (we will strike it for the final time tomorrow).

In no time the police took them into custody. Turned out, both of them were carpenters and were talking about finishing the job of fixing the roof they were assigned.

‘Phonas peth pazan ne yem kathe krne’ (One should not talk about so-and-so things on call) is another common phrase used by Kashmiris. The fear that someone must be listening and would get them in trouble for no reason at all is a norm.

Though Pegasus spyware has been widely criticised, we have heard a little less of what happens in Kashmir. For surveillance and human right violation, there are no potential targets here, rather everyone is being targeted and being watched. For acts like these, I leave you with an African proverb, “If cops are watching us then who is watching the cops”.

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