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Journey to south: Better leave your smartphone or sense of privacy at home

Army 4

Srinagar, Jun 21: Since April, the daily travel of over a 100 kilometres to and fro south Kashmir has taught me one thing: scroll through my phone’s picture gallery and delete those ‘questionable’ auto-downloaded pictures and videos before setting off.
After every few kilometres on the newly-constructed highway, one comes across a common sight of the government forces clad in olive green or pitch black dungarees and carrying AK 47 rifles.
They randomly choose a vehicle, beckon its driver to halt, frisk it, check the identities of those aboard, and, at times, ask for one’s smart-phone.
Last Monday, the cab I was travelling in was stopped by one such posse patrolling near Sangam (the name derives from the confluence of tributaries forming Jhelum from here).
It was a bunch of men comprising of army, paramilitary and police’s special operations group.
Two of them signalled the driver to pull over, and he did, making sure it halted exactly where he was commanded to.
Knowing the routine, we, the seven males of the 10 aboard, pulled out our identity cards.
It is the Aadhaar card they are fond of, an identity that sounds more genuine to them.
It, probably, has to do with the Hindi inscriptions on it, or the fact that those carrying it are all bio-metrically traceable.
Among us was a ruffled man clad in a kurta-pyjama, seemingly in his mid-20s.
While we were ready with our cards, it is he who was asked to show his Aadhaar. He, too, had it ready.
A trooper then commanded him to show his phone as well. He promptly pulled it out and handed it over.
Seconds later, he was dragged out. Slapped twice, kicked many more times. We knew it was something to do with his phone.
In those few seconds, many of the commuters were scrambling through theirs, looking for any ‘questionable’ matter and deleting it.
The man’s fault: the phone gallery carried the viral video of militants questioning the Army trooper, who was abducted and killed by militants last week.
The roughed-up man vainly tried to explain to the troopers how he did not even remember saving that video on his phone.
But it was hard to describe it to the gun-wielding forces that photos and videos on WhatsApp, a common online messenger, at times are automatically downloaded on one’s phone.
A few elderly men intervened and rescued him, but not before that man was left red-faced, and certainly not before a barrage of expletives they uttered.
Harassed and blushed-up, he, later, tried explain to us too how he remembered seeing that video but not saving it.
“Yeti chune kahn yezti insaanas….ye gaya zindagi? (There is no respect for a human being here, what kind of life is this?),” he murmured. We all nodded in agreement.
At least in south of Kashmir, forces personnel demanding to look into one’s smartphone gallery is fast becoming a new addition to frisking civilians.
With least care for a person’s privacy or rights, they ask a person to show his phone and he has to oblige. A denial means a thrashing.
Worst can happen if they find a photo or a video of a militant in the gallery. It does not matter if the stuff had automatically downloaded on the phone.
Nor does it matter, whether or not one knows the source of it.
Militant photos and videos, gory incidents of blasts ripping apart houses, images of disfigured corpses, videos of confessions on gunpoint– all of this and more amounts to hundreds of gigabytes of data that is shared on social media in Kashmir almost every other day.
Courtesy Ambani’s Jio 4G coupled with widespread use of smartphones, it, as such, is almost impossible for people to remain immune to such information.
But that justification hardly works on the ground.
A colleague at my workplace tells me that his cousin too became a victim of the new way of harassment employed by the forces.
“Last year, he (his cousin) had gone out to buy something from the market where he was stopped by the forces and asked to show his phone. He had some photos and videos on it. The troopers thrashed him badly, detained him. He was let go after three days. He couldn’t walk for weeks after that,” says the colleague, who hails from Shopian.
The cab incident reminded me of a viral video from 2017 Ramadan. Three forces personnel thrashing a man brutally with canes and gun butts.
In over a two-minute video, the man is continuously tortured, both physically and verbally.
The incident, as is evident in the video, had to do with some ‘questionable’ matter saved on his phone.
Both, this guy and the one in our cab, were lucky though. Fortunately, their ordeal ended up at thrashings only.
Unlike the one shot at in Nowpora, Kulgam on the evening of same day our cab was stopped. There too, as per reports, army had lined-up the youth and asked them to show their phones.
It agitated the latter, sparking clashes in which one civilian, Aijaz Ahmad Bhat of Akhran, was hit with a bullet and succumbed before he could reach the hospital.