POLITICS
20/08/2019 12:19 PM IST | Updated 21/08/2019 6:53 PM IST

'The Rules Have Changed': Why Shehla Rashid Tweeted What She Did

Shehla Rashid explains why she decided to go public with the information that she is receiving from J&K.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

There could be a knock on the door, and she might be placed under house arrest or jailed, like one of 4,000 Kashmiris arrested since August 5. With her arrest, there would be no Kashmiri public figure left to speak for those who oppose the revoking of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status, its bifurcation, the unilateral manner in which the Modi government made these changes, and the communication blackout that followed.

And still, Kashmiri political activist Shehla Rashid tweeted allegations of grave misconduct and torture by the Indian Army in Kashmir. The army in turn rejected  Rashid’s allegations as baseless, unverified and fake, which triggered calls for her arrest. TV channels devoted primetime news shows to debate her arrest and whether she was an asset to Pakistan. One channel even ran an online poll, asking readers to vote in favour and against her arrest. #ArrestShehlaRashid was trending all day on Monday.

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Rashid, the former Vice President of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, explained why she felt that she had to tweet unverified allegations in order to expose human rights violations. 

“If the media was allowed to function, if social media was allowed to function, I would not have to do this. I really do think the world needs to hear all of this and an arrest is a very small price to pay,” she said. 

I really do think the world needs to hear all of this and an arrest is a very small price to pay.

A criminal complaint was filed against you by a Supreme Court lawyer, who says you are spreading fake news and calling for your arrest.  

We have to highlight the things that people are saying in the absence of any kind of communication. The press is not allowed to report. Local journalists are not allowed to travel to the villages. It’s important to highlight how people feel, I don’t care who files what.

What is the basis of putting out those tweets? 

 On the basis of conversations who have travelled from there. 

Did you feel confident that you could put these out? It could be hearsay. Did they offer some kind of proof? 

It is a very repressive environment there. After cutting off the internet, phone access, newspapers and reporters, obviously the government is not doing social service. If the government does anything remotely good, they go to Twitter, they go to town with it. When they are shutting down communication, they obviously feel that something is wrong. 

This information is the best that can come out right now because this is all that is allowed to come out. When people try to make videos, their phones are snatched. My cousin told me that the security forces in her area, they were breaking the window panes of houses. When I asked her, did you try to make a video, she said that a CRPF man prevented her from taking a pic. People are being actively prevented from documenting any kind of abuse. 

Let the army conduct an investigation. What investigation did they conduct in those four hours when they jumped to refute it? I will tell them the details of which camp it was, where the people were called, and the name of the villages. I’ll tell them all of it. 

But to put out those tweets only on the basis of what people are telling you ― even if you think it’s the best information that is possible ― do you think you should have put out these grave allegations? 

Yes. These are being told to me by responsible people. In an environment where the government is actively suppressing information, it is important for us to actually get the narrative of the people out. Let the government hold an investigation. Let the people depose. Right now, people are not allowed to move out of their houses. They are not allowed to document anything. In the 21st century, there is absolutely no reason for shutting down the internet. The only reason is that you want to carry out human rights abuses without the world watching.

In the 21st century, there is absolutely no reason for shutting down the internet.

This is a tricky situation. Even if we consider someone as responsible, as a media organisation, we may not be able to put allegations as serious as this in the public domain. You feel that in the present circumstances, this is the best information we can get and it needs to be put out. 

Because the rules have changed. If the media were allowed... see, I normally never do this. I only share articles that are printed by a responsible media organisation. How do we do that right now? There are very few ground reports coming in. If the media was allowed to function, if social media was allowed to function, I would not have to do this. I really do think the world needs to hear all of this and an arrest is a very small price to pay. When issues are raised at big forums, the government does respond. When the Kashmir issue was discussed in the U.N. Security Council, after that landlines were restored, schools were opened. The government directly responds to this, so someone has to pay the price of getting information out. 

And you know, I have mentioned good things. For example, if you see point number 8, I say the administration is going to different districts and reviewing the healthcare situation. Are they going to refute that?

Is Twitter the best place to raise grave allegations?

We just want to highlight people’s miseries as much as possible. That’s all. I did not put so much thought into it ― why Twitter, why not some other medium. These updates need to get out. Some of them are reassuring updates. People, who are outside, want to know how things are back home, if things are available back home, if medicines are available back home. 

You have not gone back to Kashmir since 5 August. Why is that?

It’s because we have been working on the Supreme Court petition which was finally filed yesterday. 

Is it because you feel that you won’t be able to get out again? 

It is not a question about being allowed to come back or being arrested. The thing is that once you go there, you can’t do anything. This petition, for example, we could have done in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, but the High Court is not functioning. We are being told about normalcy, but it’s been two weeks since the High Court has functioned. That is not normal by any standards. You can’t move the High Court, you can’t write, you can’t publish. The Greater Kashmir website was last updated on 4 or 5th of August. Life is totally suspended. It’s a place frozen in time. You can neither move the judiciary, do any kind of publishing or organising. While being here, I don’t know till when, I will be allowed to do what. That is not in my hands.  

You can neither move the judiciary, do any kind of publishing or organising.

When you were a student activist at JNU, there was a goal in sight. For instance, getting Kanhaiya Kumar out of jail. What is the goal here? The government has already done what it had to do. 

We are not merely protesting or writing. We have filed a petition in the Supreme Court today. We are asking for the restoration of the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, reversal of the bifurcation, and restoration of Article 370. We believe that this has been done illegally and unconstitutionally, and we want a reversal. We want the government’s actions to be undone. 

Are you in touch with family back home?

Yes, now that landlines have been restored. 

Do they know about the latest controversy today? 

I’m not sure. They may have seen it in the news. 

You get trolled a lot on Twitter. Is the trolling with respect to the Kashmir issue different? 

Honestly, at this point, it doesn’t even matter. There is a 17-year-old dead, and there is a 65-year-old man dead from pepper gas. The trolling is the least of the human rights abuses that can happen. It hasn’t even been that much. They are doing what they are doing. They are trending #ArrestShehlaRashid, I am aware of that. 

Were you startled when you saw #ArrestShehlaRashid?

Honestly, nothing. I didn’t really have a reaction. We are anticipating the worst. If I was to go back there, there is an actual possibility of getting killed or hit by a pellet. There are the larger issues, so this fades in comparison. 

There are the larger human rights issues at stake, of course,  but there is also a natural feeling of self-preservation. 

I didn’t feel that. I would be dishonest if I were to say that I felt bad or whatever. I haven’t clicked on the thread to see. On my timeline, there wasn’t much trolling. They were trending this, there must have been a lot of awful things written, I didn’t look at them. I’m just doing my thing. 

Are you are afraid of getting arrested.

No. There are 4,000-6,000 people who have been arrested. There is no voluntary jail bharo andolan going on. The government has run out of prisons in Kashmir. How have they executed all these arrests? Obviously, they have barged into people’s homes, dragged them out, committed a lot of excesses. It’s not easy to arrest thousands of people. 

After Shah Faesal’s house arrest, do you feel you are one of the last political voices left to put forth the narrative that you have. 

Kind of, yeah. 

If they were to put you under house arrest, there would be no one left to voice this narrative?

That’s true. Based on that fear, we can’t be silent. We have to use our agency to raise people’s voices as much as possible. The government is not playing by any rules. What is happening is not democratic. They are threatening us with the law, but what have they done with the law? They have erased the law.  

When Shah Faesal was arrested, he was not doing anything illegal. He had every right to leave the country. He is an enrolled student at Harvard. They are the state, they are the government, and the law has been completely suspended in Jammu and Kashmir and with respect to citizens of that place. This happened in Delhi. 

What is happening is not democratic. The government is not playing by any rules.

Why do you think they have not put you under house arrest? Would the optics of arresting you be much worse ― especially abroad ― than, say, arresting a relatively unknown politician in J&K?

They are the government. It is up to them. I cannot comment on that. But I don’t think there is any stopping them now. Omar Abdullah and Shah Faesal are just as well known, maybe even more globally. It didn’t really deter the government. Nothing is out of bounds. I feel we are speaking too soon. I feel the arrests have just begun. 

You being a Kashmiri Muslim woman? 

They have arrested Mehbooba Mufti. She is also a Kashmiri Muslim woman. I really don’t think the Government of India cares about optics right now. It’s getting more and more brazen. 

Do you get the sense that Indian Muslims have been quiet on the Kashmir issue because more than anyone else, they will get branded as anti-national? 

That has always been the case. Kashmiri Muslims have always had this complaint that Indian Muslims do not speak up for them. It has another dimension. Long back, before I was an activist, I discussed this with an Indian Muslim, who said ― so many of us left this country. Just imagine, if Partition had not happened. We don’t want Kashmir to secede because we would even be fewer. We would want Kashmiris to step up to the national stage and assert Muslim leadership in the country.