Separatism online

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They’re on Facebook, using pseudonyms, real names, protected profiles, unabashedly open profiles, busy friending like-minded activists and sympathisers. They are creating Facebook pages, groups and coordinating events. They’re on Twitter, disseminating information, articles, blogs and videos in support of their cause. They have their own daily updated YouTube channels and stations, their own Yahoo! mailing lists chock-full of their leaders, their own crowd both inside and outside Pakistan — and they are angry.

Downplayed by the mainstream media, ignored intentionally or unintentionally by what they term ‘fake civil society’ and facing a government and army with a zero-tolerance policy (to put it mildly) for engaging its troubled citizens, Baloch separatists — those who believe they are being ruled by a foreign occupying force, and are demanding their own state — have taken the battle to the internet, where the playing field is more even and nearly impossible to police.

What can the Pakistan government and army do about the rising tide of Baloch separatists and sympathisers online? Yes, they may be able to successfully block a few websites, but with a proxy in hand even a layman now knows how to access blocked material, and if a website is hosted in Ukraine, or India, it is unlikely the site can be dismantled and taken down permanently. And even if it is, so what? It can simply be hosted on another server, and another and another.

Forget individual websites and blogs, what about Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo! Groups and YouTube? Imagine the logistical nightmare of attempting a coordinated silencing of individual Facebook and Twitter accounts. Imagine trying to take out YouTube channels and cutting Yahoo! groups at the source.

Obviously, attempting a blanket ban of these websites is ludicrous. Hopefully this much has registered with those at the helm of such affairs. So now what? Form teams of agency folk to use any tactic and channels necessary to shut down as many ‘anti-state elements’ as possible? Would threatening emails and messages to say 20-30 per cent of such anti-state folk spread enough terror to curb the flow of information? Or would that result in fuelling the movement, propelling it from strength to strength? And what about anonymous bloggers? Or those in foreign lands? Can they be prevented from saying what they want to say? The answer to this basic question is one Google search away: Type ‘Baloch freedom movement’ and see Pakistan’s great untold story for yourself.

No sir, there is no scope for policing the internet. Bigger, better nations have tried and failed. However, ignoring this growing online chatter is also no longer an option. Just listening to it and trying to formulate strategies to fight it on-ground ‘where it actually matters’ will also fail, as we have seen in recent times just how powerful the internet can be when it comes to dissent and revolution.

So should the establishment be alarmed? Should we, the general public who believe in a unified Pakistan, be alarmed by Baloch separatism leading to our second Bangladesh?

Hopefully not. What needs to be done is to start talking in an open, frank manner. Stop treating citizens, no matter how deep their hatred and dissent, as ‘the other’ who must be silenced. Initiate dialogue, and what better place to do that than online — a level playing field built for communication where even we, individuals, can play the role of diplomats, listening to our estranged brothers and sisters. While it is the responsibility of the government and the armed forces to step up efforts (and step down violence) to tackle this volatile situation with empathy and intelligence, it is also up to us citizens empowered with new technology to breach the widening gaps threatening to tear this entire nation apart.

You want to start a real revolution? Log on, and have a heart.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2011.

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