Project to include Islamic discourse by moderate Ulemas, rehabilitation of former militants and counseling detainees
In January when United Arab Emirates deported Sheikh Azhar-ul-Islam with two others for being ‘radicalised’, he became the first Kashmiri youth to be arrested by the National Investigation Agency of suspected links with the militant Islamic State (ISIS) group. The 25-year-old from Kangan in Ganderbal district was studying for Bachelors in Education, when he suddenly left for the UAE. Local police believes that Sheikh became attracted to the IS ideology hearing sermons in the local mosque and later made contacts with like-minded people online, who facilitated his trip to the Gulf.
This mishmash of select groups in certain mosques propagating Wahhabi-Salafi ideology and widespread use of social media, is giving sleepless nights to the police and intelligence agencies, who believe nearly 50 per cent of the youth population in the valley of Kashmir is radicalized and harbors fanatic thoughts in their minds.
Intelligence officials say indoctrination of extreme ideas and views by religious elements and rampant spread of social media is a mounting challenge in Kashmir. As a way out, the J&K police have proposed monitoring and analyzing social media messages and targeting the radical narrative. Part of the planned `de-radicalisation project’ includes setting up a Social Media Monitoring Centre (SMCC), identifying and counseling youth radicalized online and running a counter propaganda that highlights Islam’s message of peace. The proposal was discussed earlier this month with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The plan to monitor social media comes closely in the wake of a recent circular directing people to register WhatsApp based news groups to prevent circulation of rumors and misinformation.
Censorship and blockages of free servers on internet is widely practiced by state forces in Kashmir and is often the first casualty when the valley erupts in protests or has sensitive situations. In the militarized conflict zone where locals fear talking freely, lest they are picked up for questioning, the anonymity offered by social media platforms is the preferred means to express their opinions, upload videos of protests and debate on current news in the valley. With Internet being accessed on mobile phones, its usage in the last five years has jumped from jumped from 30 per cent to 70 per cent.
If students, media, activists and average civilians are accessing social media, the same platforms are also being used by militant and religious elements to propagate their ideology, police say. Around half of the new recruits from Kashmir in militant groups were found to be radicalised online. Handlers of militant groups from Pakistan are believed to be running many accounts to scout for vulnerable and like- minded Kashmiris as potential recruits.
Local militants of Hizbul Mujaheedin and Lashkar e Taiyba, the two active groups also use social media for posting videos, photos and messages, like other global jihadi groups.
The Institution for Studies, Learning and Analysis (ISLA) recently conducted a case study on “growing radicalisation among youth of J&K through social media.” The study found ‘radicalisation’ was “spreading among youth through cheap and accessible means like facebook, twitter and whatsapp.”
As a part of the study, a survey was conducted wherein messages, posts, and conversations on chat messages were intercepted based on certain keywords on popular online platforms.
“We found five lakh conversations related to these keywords of which around one lakh conversations are a matter of concern,” says Additional Director General of Police, J&K CID, SM Sahai. He refused to provide details on the nature of the conversation or the keywords, insinuating they were concerned on the perceived problem areas of Kashmir that gets popular crowd support: militancy, freedom- azaadi, anti-India sentiments, Islamism, Pakistan, Army and militant groups.
One of the key reasons apart from easy availability of internet for growing radicalisation is a twisted religious discourse. Decrease in the traditional form of religious practice in Sufi Islam and growing congregations of the Wahhabi ideology through Ahl e Hadees factions is considered as a major contributor in religious radicalisation.
Giving example of Sheikh who is suspected to be lured with IS ideology, an officer said that some religious elements are advocating selective interpretation of Quran by quoting ayats on war and conflict to incite youth to adopt violent action. There are 109 `sword verses’ in Quran highlighting the turbulent period in 7th century when Prophet and his followers were spreading the new faith of Islam, these are however taken out of context to sweepingly endorse violence and justify war against `un-believers’ to defend Islam. Those who join the `jihad’ the holy fight is promised an afterlife in heaven and sweetest rewards from Allah, while those who don’t is declared an apostate making their way to hell.
To counter these narratives and religious radicalisation wave, the proposed SMCC by the J&K police will target those individuals who are spreading, accessing and posting frequent radical propaganda including anti India messages and have sizeable online following. The centre will monitor, analyse, identify and engage youth who support or spread radical propaganda.
A key aspect of the SMCC will be to create pages on social media platforms with verses of Quran and Hadiths with their right interpretation. “We want to engage those who are indoctrinated religiously by disseminating bulk messages on religious texts. The Quran has verses on peace and humanity which are never highlighted by extremist groups,” Sahai said.
The focus of the de-radicalisation project is to `reintegrate and inclusion of the youth back in mainstream.’ In addition to social media monitoring, the project also talks of establishing NGOs to hold discussions and roping in `moderate ulemas’ to discuss subjects related to religion, Islam and conciliatory messages of Quran. Rehabilitation of former militants, a counselling programme for detainees in prison, involving parents are some of the other measures suggested as part of the de-radicalisation project.