Viral photos of the Kashmir conflict have haunted topics for years

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After surviving a missile strike that left her covered in shrapnel cuts and could have killed her newborn baby, a Ukrainian mother breastfed her baby girl in a kyiv hospital. When a press photographer captured her image, it quickly went viral online.

The photo has already become an iconic depiction of the devastation suffered by Ukrainians during the war. But in a few years, what will this mean for this young woman and her child? Images of adults and children severely affected by violence live on in public and personal memory – forever stored on the internet and returning from time to time.

Thousands of miles away in Kashmir, home to one of the world’s oldest conflicts, the long-term effects of an image like this can be extreme for an individual. The consequences can be life changing.

Consider Farooq Dar’s ordeal. In 2017, after voting in a contentious election that led to an outbreak of public violence, Indian army officers apprehended the 33-year-old Kashmiri, beat him and then tied Dar to the front of a jeep. They traveled 17 miles with Dar strapped to the vehicle’s spare tire, effectively using him as a human shield in a conflict zone, where the military was vulnerable to attack.

When the vehicle came to a stop, army officers themselves took Dar’s photo, even as he begged not to be photographed. “In those moments, I felt like I should never have existed. My lips were bleeding and they had broken my elbow,” Dar recalled. Snapshots of the scene instantly gone viral on social networks.

The footage caused massive outrage, but the Indian military defended its actions, as did the government. Supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party sold T-shirts with images of the incident, bearing the caption: “Indian Army save your ass whether you like it or not!” The incident was even recreated in a Bollywood movie.

“They were making money off my tragedy. The Indians used me terribly,” Dar told me in a recent interview.

“When they clicked on my photo and uploaded it to the internet, they showed the world how brave they were without thinking how it would ruin my life.”

Kashmir’s long-running political conflict

The conflict in the Kashmir Valley began in 1947 with the fall of the colonial British Empire and the subsequent emergence of a relatively secular India and Pakistan, a homeland sought by Muslims who feared a majority Hindu onslaught. Territories like Kashmir had the option, at least on paper, of acceding to either dominion. Kashmir fell into a quagmire: it was, and still is, predominantly Muslim, but was ruled by a Hindu autocrat who joined the Indian Union conditional on the promise, made by India’s first Prime Minister, of a plebiscite in which the inhabitants of the region decide which country they want to belong to. But the plebiscite never took place.

Since then, Kashmiris have endured generations of political strife and uncertainty, with many continuing to claim their right to self-determination from an indifferent New Delhi. Their challenge was met with the ubiquitous presence of the Indian army; draconian curfews and communication cuts; economic isolation; extrajudicial executions and torture; and a long list of other human rights violations.

‘I can’t hide’

At first, Dar had no idea the photos of the incident had gone viral. Internet was cut off in Kashmir, as is often the case. When the connection returned, Dar discovered that he had become known as “Human Shield” – a title he is still unable to escape, five years later.

People recognized him everywhere. He was suddenly unable to find a job, or even a woman to marry.

All potential matches were pissed off by what happened to him. Eventually, a year later, Dar married a woman from the Jammu division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, who had no knowledge of what had happened to her. He hides the story from her, even now.

Dar attempted suicide. He thought about fleeing Kashmir and starting over, but he fears that won’t be enough.

“I can’t hide. This is what the internet does to you. One action and the world knows you,” he said.

“[For as long as] the internet exists, this image will exist. They almost killed me that day but I survived,” Dar said.

Haunted from an early age

Dar is not quite alone. Faizan Sofi endured similar trauma for a decade. When he was just 12, Sofi was arrested on allegations of rioting, after a picture of him throwing rocks surfaced online.

“I was too young. It was a mistake we promised never to repeat,” he said.

Days after her arrest, as Sofi was transferred from court to a juvenile facility, he and his younger sister sobbed as she clung to his arm. A reporter captured the moment, and soon the photo went viral online. Although it created an outpouring of sympathy for the children and intense criticism of the government of the day, the photo haunted Sofi into adulthood.

In the 10 years since the incident, Sofi has been arrested five more times. After the police arrested him on campus, he dropped out of school. Friends abandoned him. Like Dar, he couldn’t find a job. He is still struggling with depression and insomnia.

“Over the years, I’ve been shown my picture so many times. And even though I know I didn’t do anything wrong, it hurts,” he said.

One of the youngest people known to face this challenge is a five-year-old Kashmiri boy, who was pictured two years ago sitting on the body of his grandfather, who was killed in the crossfire of a shooting that broke out in the northern town of Sopore. The boy’s family members are now trying to restrict his access to the internet, to prevent him from finding his own image there. They told me they wanted whoever took the photo to blur the boy’s face before sharing it with the world.

“We are sure that if he sees his picture one day, it will all come back to him because he has sweet memories of the day that he is not able to comprehend,” the boy’s uncle said.

Who has the right to be forgotten?

It’s not a new phenomenon – photos like Nick Ut’s 1973 “The Terror of War” (also known as “Napalm Girl”) which showed a naked girl, screaming and running from a napalm attack in the South -Vietnam, had similar effects. But in the digital age, those images move at lightning speed, often without an editor’s attention.

Anuradha Bhasin, editor of “The Kashmir Times”, one of the oldest newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir, said journalists must be aware of the pitfalls of uploading photos of victims. “How is it that we broadcast these images, and in what context? she asks.

But she acknowledges that the problem is not exclusive to journalists. The very nature of digital networks – in which anyone can easily copy and share an image or video – ensures that a piece of content can always exist or resurface in some way. Indeed, there is no foolproof remedy for people like Sofi or Dar. But the intervention of the courts or the big Internet companies can make the difference, by reducing or even prohibiting their dissemination.

Apar Gupta, an Indian legal expert and executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, points to the “right to be forgotten,” which is part of the European Data Privacy and Security Act, the General Regulation on data protection. The provision allows anyone convicted of a crime, after serving their sentence or after being found innocent, to request the erasure of their personal data. Companies like Google have substantial systems in place to process and adjudicate ‘right to be forgotten’ claims in Europe.

Although some other jurisdictions have legal frameworks that help people to assert their right to their image, most countries, including India, do not have comprehensive data protection laws that could help people facing to these situations.

Gupta said the right to be forgotten needs a clearer definition than what’s on the books in Europe because it can be abused by people in positions of power, politicians in particular, who can seek to clean the internet of information that could harm their reputation.

“Currently, the right to be forgotten is the subject of litigation in several cases in India where individuals are requesting that their personal data be removed from search engine results relating to cases in which they have litigated,” he added.

In India, a Data Protection Bill dealing with the right to be forgotten was tabled in Parliament in 2019. Although the petitioners have taken data protection cases to several courts, the issue has not yet been backed up by law.

the internet never forgets

Social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube also have a role to play here, as major distributors of this type of imagery. But none of the major companies provide a mechanism for people to request that their images be removed from these sites, unless the images already violate the sites’ content rules covering things like nudity and gratuitous violence. The photos in question don’t fall into this category — it’s the context in which they were taken that makes them so powerful.

But artificial intelligence and human moderators from social media companies are able to block content and drastically reduce its spread, said Maknoon Wani, a recent graduate from the Oxford Internet Institute.

“What ISPs, social media companies and other content curators can do is limit the scope, they can try to clean it up as efficiently as possible. It can be removed to such an extent that a common Internet user cannot access this content,” Wani said. “A child or person who may be traumatized by this photo or video will not be exposed to this content.”

If social media companies allowed users to request removal of content on these grounds, it could help reduce the long-term effects of these types of images for their subjects. But there is no indication that this will happen anytime soon.

Zoya Mir, a clinical psychologist based in Kashmir, explained to me how photos like this can aggravate the mental health issues of people in these situations, who have already suffered severe trauma. Part of the challenge, especially for young people like Sofi, is finding a way to move on. For people in any conflict zone, the internet makes this especially difficult.

“By putting an image on the internet, we break the idea that something is actually over,” Mir said. “We put it on a continuum, meaning forever.”

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