Panic as Kashmir ‘survey’ seeks personal details, links with alleged rebels

Apr 18, 2024 | Brutality by Occupying Forces

‘Intrusive’ police exercise adds to fear and anxiety among residents in the disputed region.

Al Jazeera Media Network
Muhammad Shadab had gone to pray in his neighbourhood mosque in Indian-administered Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar when he was given a questionnaire by the mosque’s management.

The questionnaire was part of a so-called survey by the disputed region’s police, seeking his personal details, including phone numbers of family members, possible links to armed rebels, records of foreign visits or a member settled abroad, and even the number of CCTV cameras at home.

Other details the residents were asked to record in the survey last month included their Aadhaar – or unique identity card – number, the number of vehicles they owned, and specifics on the exact location of their house.

Shadab, 55, told Al Jazeera he had been panicking since he was handed the questionnaire. “I couldn’t believe I had to provide such extensive details – even of my female family members,” said the former government employee now running his own business.

“It was intriguing for all, even for the mosque committee members. They were instructed [by the police] to distribute the forms, collect them from us, and submit the filled-in documents within a week.”

The questionnaire, accessed by Al Jazeera, was circulated in Srinagar and other areas of the region. Many other residents said officers in plain clothes came to their houses with the document, asking them to fill it and submit it to the nearest police station at the earliest opportunity.

Another layer of surveillance

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan, which rule over parts of the territory but claim it in its entirety. The two nuclear powers have fought three of their four wars over the territory.

After a popular anti-India rebellion broke out in Indian-administered Kashmir in the late 1980s, New Delhi deployed nearly 700,000 troops to suppress the movement, making the region one of the world’s most militarised conflict zones. The military-to-civilian ratio in the region stands at one soldier for 30 residents, according to a 2020 study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the decades-old conflict, most of them civilians, while there are widespread allegations of torture, arbitrary detentions and denial of basic rights by the Indian security forces.

Surveillance has been a major component of India’s strategy in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has only intensified, especially since 2019 when New Delhi scrapped the region’s partial autonomy and brought it under its direct control.

Hundreds of security checkpoints are spread across the region to monitor people’s movements. Technology has helped authorities widen the surveillance infrastructure, with hundreds of high-tech cameras with facial recognition features installed in several cities and even villages.

Security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, emboldened by laws such as the Armed Forced Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or the Public Safety Act, enjoy general impunity in the conflict zone as they carry out raids and arrests, or single out Kashmiris, mostly young men, on the streets for random checks.

Since India penalised dissent and cracked down on protests against its 2019 move, even critical social media posts have invoked scrutiny by security agencies.

Government employees have been instructed to desist from criticising the state on social media or risk dismissal. In 2022, police warned the region’s shopkeepers of penal action if they failed to install round-the-clock CCTV cameras outside their shops and share footage with police when demanded.

‘Psyops to create deliberate panic’

However, residents say the ongoing police survey adds another layer of surveillance by broadening the information demanded by the government.

Additionally, there is no clarity on how the police intend to store and process the collected personal data, exacerbating apprehensions of misuse and possible breaches.

Shadab’s 28-year-old daughter, a banker who “unwillingly” provided her details in the questionnaire, said she was in disbelief over the exercise.

“What details are left to be asked? It plays with your psychology. You feel helpless,” she told Al Jazeera.

The Peoples Democratic Party, a pro-India political party in the region, said it was concerned over the survey, calling it an “alarming development” and an “assault on the identity of ordinary Kashmiris”.

However, a senior police officer in Indian-administered Kashmir, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the survey was being misrepresented in the media.

“Police rules as enshrined in Jammu and Kashmir Police Rules Manual warrant this kind of census. This data compilation is not about terrorism but routine crime, too. This exercise was conducted in the past, too,” he told Al Jazeera.

Quoting government sources, some Indian media reports said the details of the residents were being collected to “minimise damages to property and protect the locals” in case of a gun battle with rebels.

“The form will ensure that the police and security forces have the precise details,” said a report in the Hindu newspaper, adding that the army also conducts such exercises.

Rights activist Ravi Nair, of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told Al Jazeera the survey by the Kashmir police is a “dead giveaway”.

“The deep state is doing a mapping exercise for intrusive surveillance … The process violates the privacy rights of every Kashmiri citizen,” he said, adding that the move should be challenged in court.

Mohamad Junaid, who teaches anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the United States, said the so-called census “acts as psyops to create deliberate panic” among the Kashmiris.

“No contextual information or reasons are provided by the agencies involved in it, or even whether they have any legal authority to carry out a census, especially since there is already an official census in place,” he told Al Jazeera.

Junaid said in a world where laws are meant to protect citizens, such a move would be considered illegal. “But, of course, Kashmiris have no such protections.”