The Praagaash Row: An attack on free speech

by Shehla Shora

It all started when The Kashmir Walla, an online magazine, reported that Kashmir’s first and only girls’ rock band quit” after criticism”. While expressing gratitude to The Kashmir Walla for flagging the story, I pointed out that their choice of words may have been problematic. The girls quit, not because of criticism” — they had been facing a lot of that already- but due to to organised vile abuse, rape and murder threats meted out to them on a hate page that carried their photo.

As the matter started gaining attention on social media, another portal came up with a report that sought to downplay the incident by quoting the band manager, Adnan Mattoo, as having said that the girls have neither received any threats nor are they going to quit. I was happy to read that they are not calling it quits but some people who were rather apologetic about the issue insisted that the abuse had no part to play while some flatly denied the abuse meted out to the band. Raheel Khursheed, who is Director Communications for Change​.org, sat through the thousand odd comments on the hate page and published screenshots of the same with the most abusive comments highlighted so that there’s no room for denial anymore. I appeared on a Headlines Today discussion on which the band manager clearly said that it was because of the vile comments that the girls were intimidated into silence and that their parents were concerned.

About two months back, the Internet Democracy Project started working on a study that looks at how women are subjected to vile abuse online. Much of this abuse is gender-specific and sexually violent. Although the issue has been discussed in the West in some depth, and, in India, flagged by Sagarika Ghose among others, a systematic attempt to understand it had not been made before until the Internet Democracy Project started working on this research.

Having been an active user of social media myself, I have faced such abuse and grown a thicker skin over the years. But, to expect three soft-spoken, teenage girls to do the same would be a bit unfair. I started a Facebook page in their support which, 4500+ likes as I write this. The Facebook page, according to the Hindustan Times, was instrumental in galvanizing support for the band in Kashmir.

When women venture out into public spaces, they threaten a patriarchal balance that wants them to work inside the home and do jobs that do not pay. In the case of Praagaash band members, it wasn’t the immediate family which objected to their decision. In fact, they had been very brave in allowing them to sing and play music. But the families apparently became worried for the safety of their girls after they got to know about the sheer volume of abusive and sexually violent threats that were issued to them. This is only an extension of sexual harassment and assault being used as weapons to silence women into oblivion in the offline world. The consequences that this sexist abuse can have in the online world are yet to be fully studied. Self-censorship is very clearly one.

After the Fatwa issued by Grand Mufti of Kashmir, which the band seems to have accepted, the issue has become excessively politicised and it may be best to respect their decision and give them some breathing space. The State police have taken cognizance of the threats issued to the girls on Facebook and registered a case against several users that they claim to have identified. The case was registered under Section 66A of the IT Act and Section 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Ranbir Penal Code (equivalent of Indian Penal Code in the state of Jammu & Kashmir). On 31st December, 2012 the Jammu & Kashmir police cracked the first cyber stalking case following which the complainant thanked the J&K police. Section 66A has clearly been helpful in these cases but whether these developments will be helpful in making the Internet a less threatening space for women is something that needs to be carefully determined.