Emerging Digital Media and Youth: Activism in Kashmir and the North East
Yasmin Rosammal Daniel and Allen Joe Mathew
Yasmin and Allen seek to understand the various aspects of digital youth protest in the present scenario, especially with a focus on Kashmir and North East India. They engage with alternative modes of protest, the politics of digital surveillance, governance, and the value and significance of digital activism.
It should be no surprise to anyone that the digital domain has increasingly grown in ambit, scale, and utilization. The general consensus is that the digital world facilitates communication, information-sharing and connection that transcends age, borders, language, and governments. Social media is only one of the corners of the digital world; yet it is a predominant fixture in the lives of many young people, who either passively or actively use social media. The digital world offers no dearth of benefits to a so-called content creator. It enables greater reach, to all those with an unrestricted internet connection. A social media user may be able to manipulate the reach of their content by using hashtags of certain ‘buzzwords’, or encouraging their followers to repost the things they have shared. During the youth protests against authoritarianism in Myanmar and Thailand, the hashtags #WhatsHappeninginThailand and #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar served as a way to pinpoint on-ground coverage of events.
Digital media has become an accessible domain: if one possesses the tools (gadgets) and the means (stable internet, constant electricity supply, and the opportunity to create digital content without paywalls or linguistic barriers). The comparative lack of regulation for online spaces usually engenders mistrust of the information that is presented; a common fear is that in the absence of verification, vetting, and monitoring, any individual can set up their online presence and spread misinformation and polarizing opinion. While this may be true, the lack of regulation is parallel to the lack of censorship – and this is a crucial highlight of digital spaces. The fact that one can, for example, set up a website without going through another regulatory authority that dictates the nature and content of the website which allows for a rather more easily-won freedom of expression, and vitally, dissenting expression. The internet also provides the easy availability of data itself – many print publications have been digitized, and hundreds of online portals provide articles, research papers and visual representations of data. Internet users can thus collate information from multiple sources with relatively uninhibited access (save for the occasional paywalls). People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) is a notable example of a portal which collects articles, reports, and essays in one website, with various translations. The tribulations of physical information-gathering and dissemination are circumvented by the handiness of the internet.
Academia has often mentioned the value and significance of digital activism. A commonly cited instance is that ‘modern information technology in general, and social media in particular’ played a ‘seemingly important role’ in the Arab Spring of 2011, giving people the conduit to rally behind and become involved with causes. Digital activism in the rest of the world has only seen an increase in its usage, particularly as social media has seen upward trends in users. Youth activism, in particular, has a certain potential which the digital domain engenders. In the foreword to the 2019 UN Volunteer Report on ‘Social Media and Civic Engagement’, Shoko Noda wrote that social media channels had ‘revolutionized how we communicate’, pointing out that youth had the opportunities to ‘have discussions with experts, and encourage a cultural exchange of ideas’ (UNDP Social Media Report, 2019, p. 9). She noted that social network user-numbers had increased to 258.27 million users in 2019; statistics in 2021 put the number of active internet users at 624 million. As of October 2021, India had 24.45 million Twitter users. In February that year, India had only 17.5mil Twitter users, 210mil active Instagram users, and 530mil WhatsApp users. Social media is ‘a youth-dominated virtual space’ in India. In an interview conducted for this essay, Achuth A, an assistant professor and media studies scholar, says that “There is a democratization at work in social media” (note 1). This kind of amplified scope allows the youth to espouse the causes and purposes that matter to their socio-political, cultural, and economic contexts, and foreground them in a meaningful manner.
Digital Activism in Kashmir and the North East
Given these benefits of the internet, it has been utilized as a tool to express a political opinion, particularly where physical demonstrations are difficult or outlawed by the ruling political forces. The internet allows people in politically sensitive areas to access information about their institutions; interact with other ideologies, assessments, and points of view; encounter the opinions of analysts, experts and laypeople about their society; and perhaps most importantly, it capacitates a relatively unregulated channel for speech. This speech is 'heard' across territorial lines and can be used as a reference for conventional forms of activism.
Two regions in India fit the bill for politically sensitive areas: Kashmir and the Northeast. Kashmir has long been subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny than most other Indian territories, and even more so after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. As documented in 'Kashmir's Internet Siege', a report published by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (hereafter JKCCS), an internet and telecommunications shutdown imposed in August 2019 severely impacted several sectors of Kashmiri life, including public health, justice, education and livelihood. The report mentions the visible forms of repression, including ‘undeclared martial law, arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances’, creating an atmosphere of fear and ‘terrifying uncertainty’ which was only intensified by the blackout. News, notifications and announcements did not reach the public - when the nation-wide Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Kashmiri residents took 60 minutes to download Covid-19 guidelines, while the rest of the country took 0.24 seconds (JKCCS, 2021).
Instagram post from user @lostkashmirihistory denouncing the internet shutdown. The post is a simple red square, which became associated with the Kashmiri crisis.
The JKCCS viewed the blackout as ‘throttling of internet speeds on grounds of national sovereignty, which they argue the Centre justifies by viewing all digital activity in Kashmir as a threat to national security. This stance is evidenced by S. Jaishankar, India's Minister of External Affairs, stating that he would be "delighted to know" if there was a way to keep internet connectivity stable for ordinary citizens while singling out those interactions between terror organizations and their functionaries. The reasoning for the blackout was to prevent ‘local militant outfits from . . . creating narratives that suit them.’ (Taneja & Shah, ORF 2019). Unfortunately, 1.36 crore people in Jammu and Kashmir were impacted as well.
Thus, a blanket ban imposition is intended to preserve peace and stability in the region: however, as the report points out, it has severely disrupted education (research scholars were unable to progress with their theses), journalism, and justice (for e-hearings, judges were unable to access case files in 38 cases) (JKCCS). For months after mobile internet connectivity was snapped, people could only access the internet via internet kiosks that had been set up by the government in September 2019; later, students crowded into internet cafes to apply for colleges. People including university students seeking to restore their internet connections after a background check had to sign ‘bonds’ that allowed conditional access: the content and infrastructure of their internet use could be subjected to scrutiny on demand. This extreme suspicion and monitoring meant that Kashmiri youth were stifled, their lives at risk of being dissected under governmental surveillance.
The extremities of the telecommunications shutdown as a counterterrorism policy is attributed to the assumption that the internet will be manipulated to foment rageful, violent resistance. But Chitralekha Dhamija, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), did not think that Kashmiri youth were only using the internet as a means of organizing armed militancy or violent rebellion. She noted that Kashmir was home to a generation that grew up being intimately familiar with digital technologies - ‘access to digital spaces has come to be associated with power, voice and reach.’ Simply expressing opinions, without calls to force, or creating forums to talk about lived experiences and circumstances, is also a form of activism.
Instagram post from user @kashhistorypics displaying ‘Azaadi’ spray-painted on a wall and a quote from Manan Wani in the caption
Sabah (name changed for safety concerns) (see note 2), a resident of Kashmir, accepted a request for an interview on the evening of January 31st, 2022. spoke on Stand With Kashmir, an online forum created by the Kashmiri diaspora in the US. Stand With Kashmir’s webpages are presently inaccessible, but during the August 2019 shutdown, they organized podcasts and live sessions where Kashmiri doctors, lawyers, daily-wagers, and university students, amongst others, were given opportunities to voice their opinions and struggles. People followed Stand With Kashmir’s accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram. “It was a kind of online activism”, Sabah said. “They talked about history, conflict, and politics. Everyone had a voice.” They also mentioned another form of youth activism: the revitalization of Kashmiri culture, long forgotten and barely attended to by the mainland, through Instagram pages which uncovered Kashmiri history that was not found in mainstream sources. “There are videos on YouTube of youth making music with Kashmiri instruments, singing in Kashmiri,” Sabah explained that while it was the youth who took the initiative to retrace Kashmir’s art, craftsmanship, and old towns, they were sourcing their heritage from their elders. In a situation where Kashmir is often portrayed as a depersonalized, militant, hostile zone in mainland Indian media, this reclaiming of Kashmiri heritage by the youth is a positive symbol of activism. That it is being portrayed and disseminated online is highly effective with a generation that uses social media frequently.
Instagram post from user @kashmere.history displaying an old picture from Kashmir’s royal past
Instagram post from user @lostkashmirihistory displaying a carved water bowl
However, this avenue for expression is frequently obstructed. In September 2021, Stand With Kashmir released a report titled ‘How social media corporations enable silence on Kashmir.’ While the report itself is unavailable, reportage on it reveals that 62% of a poll’s respondents had faced online censorship on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Tweets relating to Kashmir were taken down, accounts suspended, and deleted; an analysis of the withheld tweets by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that 920,000 censored tweets referenced Kashmir. Sabah’s Twitter account was suspended in 2019. “One of my seniors who were very vocal on social media was picked up and interrogated for two days (his father was a CID employee). When we talked to him about it later, he told us ‘don’t talk about the truth.’” Digital censorship invisibilizes Kashmiri stories and cuts at the heart of its youth activism. Finding similar stories and people is often a source of solidarity and support for any activist cause. It bolsters the movement’s legitimacy and validates the experiences of individuals who seek reassurance, change, and empowerment. In this instance, finding stories that restore Kashmir’s history counters its erasure - it is a form of activism that takes the shape of journalism. Sabah, who is a journalism intern, chronicling the tragedies that Kashmiris have witnessed, discussed the digitization of journalism as a significant part of activism in Kashmir. Stories that have been underreported or erased from history are being uncovered by journalists seeking to restore fragments of Kashmiri history.
If there is one characteristic feature of youth activity online, it is memes. Jayati Bhola details how satire and meme-making became forms of dissent in Kashmir. Bhola writes that online, where the audience is ‘national/global’, humor is more political with dissenting undertones. This implies that political satire on digital spaces conveys an aspect of resistance that is free from violence but no less meaningful. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, quoted in Bhola’s article, explains that “A new generation is finding new innovative tools to dissent.” The meme-makers and comedians may not have a political or ideological representation, but that does not mean that they are apolitical. Visvanathan stated that social media gives the youth a tool to actively create “space to express themselves, redefin[e] their narrative.” Sabah said that there were memes and videos on different Kashmir issues, but the inaccessibility and surveillance on the Internet made motivation peter out. In the context of frequent and arbitrary shutdowns, surveillance, and a permanent threat of consequences, digital activity in Kashmir, no matter how small, is a way of retaining and wielding one’s agency. Moreover, for the young and politicized Kashmiris, this agency is significant. It breaks the notion of a vulnerable and helpless population, allows a resistance that is devoid of blind connotations, and empowers resilience. “In Kashmir, survival is resilience,” Sabah said.
In India, Kashmir has not been the only state to have gone through such suffering. Though geographically distant, an uncanny similarity exists between the situation in Kashmir and India’s Northeast. On the one hand, since independence, these states have witnessed resistance movements and calls for autonomy, and on the other, the common people desire for a more dignified integration into the union. The region has seen periods of insurgency, government crackdown and repression, local leaders being put under house arrest, unwarranted deaths, and multiple instances of rape. Both regions have been through the worst impulses of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), leading to a widespread disregard for basic human rights. The local media have also not been allowed to operate freely. All this has led to a deep yearning for justice. The youth of the region are now exploring the various dimensions of their activism through digital media.
In the Northeast, ‘more than 70% of the youth are connected to social media’ (UNDP 2019, p. 23) and which is fragmented along with ethnic kinship identities. Youth activism is in its more nascent stages here. In an interview for this essay (note 1), Dr. Chubatila Ozukum, from Dimapur, Nagaland, described how digital activism was a second step to conventional physical activism, and that there were barricades to its scope. Talking about the patriarchal cultural norms rampant in the society, she explained, "access to the internet doesn't mean access to participation for many girls, owing to structural relations." Part of the most significant activism coming out of the Northeast is the gender equality movement - but this has largely been 'offline'. The contrast of offline and online activism has been brought up in several research papers, with varying conclusions. The general consensus is that it is not a substitute for physical demonstrations, but it can serve as a useful and productive supplement to ‘conventional activism.’ Manoj Deori and Sunil K. Behera describe that in 2012, Assamese youth were actively participating online in coordination with several street protests and rallies organized against unethical media practices, and later, illegal Bangladeshi immigration and women’s issues. These demonstrations gained momentum through social media, as they had become popular among the youth. The results of their survey among Guwahati youth revealed that Facebook was the preferred social media website, being used as an avenue to discuss social (86.30% of respondents), political (43.84%), and environmental issues (36.99%) (Deori & Behera, 2014, p. 13).
Calvin (note 1), a student from Manipur who is politically active online, provides an example of social media pressure. A racist incident at his college where a girl was called racial slurs and labeled ‘corona’ evoked a prompt reaction from the institution’s North East Cell, which filed a complaint with the principal, issued an official statement and reached out to other North East Cells for solidarity. Several racist incidents against NorthEastern students, including this, have been reported by the media. Calvin elucidated the impact of social media in these circumstances: “Through the online campaign, we were able to bring back the uncomfortable conversation of racism in the student community, and this led to many students coming forward and sharing their own racist experiences in the college, which we took up with the principal immediately. It also gave confidence to the students from Northeast to speak up for themselves.”
Map of internet shutdowns in the Northeast during anti-CAA protests
Source: Internet Shutdowns
But in Nagaland, the youth are still seeking direction for their activism, no matter what form. Dr. Ozukum argues that as political parties in Nagaland are themselves ideologically ambiguous, the youth as a mass do not have steadfast motivations to pursue. Digital activism thus appears to be sparse here though not negligible. Arguably one of India's most polarising events in recent times was the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019. During protests against this legislation, the Northeast region faced internet shutdowns citing law and order. Internet was suspended in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh in December, with the justification that ‘Social media platforms … are likely to be used for spreading of rumors and also for transmission of information … that have the potential to inflame passions and thus exacerbate the law and order situation.’ During this turbulent period, social media was flooded with videos, sloganeering, and opinionated posts which resulted in account monitoring. After the Oting massacre where six civilians were killed by armed forces, internet and SMS services were suspended in Mon district as outrage over the murders infused the internet.
To take one’s dissent online is to abandon and formulate new methods of conceiving activism and one’s own perspectives and identity. This reshaped point of view of the world may or may not be grounded in physical reality. Although community norms and tribal or clan labels are a predominant part of Naga youth identity, Dr. Ozukum believes that they may be diluted or dissolved entirely online. "People don't care about cultural and social affiliations online,” She declares. To her, the Nagas have been “plagued by tribalism, which has hindered social progress.” Activism in Nagaland has thus taken on environmental and social welfare causes, but not the more ‘contentious’ convictions like economic or political ideologies. Dr. Ozukum foresees that Nagaland has a long way to go in developing a political ideology, but she is convinced that student unions will spearhead activism in the state through the inclusion of the emerging digital platforms.
Activism requires the youth to conscientize themselves to their realities and ambitions. This conscientization must organically occur and be enabled in the ‘real world’: only then will digital activism find substantial foundations to achieve objectives. The internet is an advantageous sphere - but simply accessing it and being digitally literate doesn’t guarantee ‘more informed internet users or good netizens’. It does not necessarily forge socio-political identities but instead nurtures the products of contesting and expanding standpoints. The dawn of the internet and seamless connectivity has opened our world beyond the physical borders we reside in. The Internet has thus become a basic need for people of all ages, from school-going children to anyone who wants to expand their worldview and pursue new opportunities. Despite the geographical and cultural distance between states and communities, the youth of India can and have utilized the internet to transcend boundaries and fulfill their aspirations. The two cases of Kashmir and the Northeast showcase the scope of youth’s digital activism, and the present restrictive circumstances that this activism can be located in. Everyone deserves free and fair access to the Internet, from all states, regardless of their support, dissent, or neutrality. India is a country of youth - our median age is 28.4 years - and it is also a democracy, not just in name but in practice. Free speech needs to be nurtured, freedom of thought and expression is a cornerstone of a thriving young democracy. The youth’s opinions and voices should not be stifled or suppressed - we are not a threat to the nation or the government. The powers that be need to internalize the fact that the future of the country is in the hands of the youth.
The digital divide remains one of the major inhibitors of youth activism. As infrastructural capacities for electricity are far lower in India’s rural regions, it follows that the inhabitants of these areas have more limitations on their access to the internet. Kantar IMRB’s 2019 report stated that ‘internet penetration in rural India is just 25%, compared to 66% in urban regions’, and dominated by content in the English language instead of other vernacular languages. Broadband connectivity penetration in rural regions of Jammu, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Assam is lower according to data from TRAI’s 2020 report, despite an increasing subscriber base. Dhanashree Gurudu, in her article on rural internet connectivity, notes that there were 430 million urban broadband users compared to just 268 million rural users. She points out several reasons for this digital divide, including policy failure and the lack of reliable, consistent electrification in rural areas.
Graph displaying rural and urban internet subscribers (in million)
Source: Analysis of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India April-June 2020 Report, Dhanushree Gurudu. New Leam article (31/5/21)
Expanding youth activism in the digital domain is thus stymied in these regions. If the domain is seen as giving voice to the voiceless, then it may be said that the lack of digital access inhibits the political and social agency of the rural youth, to some extent. The internet does play a role in bringing information much closer. It can and has been effectively used as a tool for mobilization and education. The absence of this opportunity for education may cut away at autonomy. Instead of rural youth grasping at the internet with the purpose of bringing their issues and experiences into wider public consciousness, they must instead depend on others with the necessary means to tell their stories for them. The digital domain provides a measure of independence not easily found elsewhere. Youth activism embodies a bit of that independence, exploiting their inherent adaptability to devices and the internet, borne as a result of the generation that grew up with them. As an analysis of online youth civic participation in Europe and Central Asia declared, internet access was seen as giving the youth a strong sense of empowerment and belonging’ (UNDP Civic Engagement Report, 2021).
Yet, the potential of the digital aspect of youth activism is not boundless. It is constrained by many factors, not least being privacy concerns and online criticism, the hit-and-miss chances of something becoming ‘trending’, and the hazards of governmental clampdowns. Echo chambers, a phenomenon wherein only similar or identical voices and perspectives are amplified and presented leading to a bubble of simply affirming a certain mindset, are facilitated by algorithms that feed a user what they are already aware of or agree with. They are one of the major obstacles to online activism. Calvin affirms this: “The culture of being offended with anyone who disagrees with your opinions is destroying any opportunity of arriving at a consensus, of deliberating together to find the best possible solutions to problems.” He points out that algorithms “exacerbate the tendency of intolerance”, exposing people to similar opinions which culminate in inward-looking perspectives rather than fruitful discussions. It is a narrow assumption that the internet is uniformly democratic or that it fosters sensitivity and expands horizons. It may, in fact, lead to ‘digital gated communities’ and polarized internet users that band together for familiarity instead of progress.
Digital activism may seem temporary, facile, and underwhelming. There are other complications as well - Dr. Achuth, during the interview, points out that a lone individual is unprotected online; that it is questionable whether “online activism can achieve material results without taking to the ground” or if it is sidelined. But the digital domain itself need not be discredited. Regardless of online hindrances, the digital domain is a tool with sizable prospects that, in conjunction with conventional activism, can lead to concrete goals. In the hands of the youth, it transforms their approaches to activism, resistance, and leadership thereby bringing substantive changes in the society. The youth have often been the catalysts for revolutionary change, evidenced by many student protests across the globe. Despite inchoate awareness and commitments, there is a multitude of possibilities that the youth offer and are offered. The digital dimension to youth activism may seem embryonic, but given that it has already been harnessed, what remains is that it is used even more efficiently. Two conditions are required: that its scope is effectively expanded to counter structural inequalities and restrictions; and that it is recognized as a legitimate arena for the youth’s pursuit of change.
1. All direct quotes in this essay are taken from interviews conducted with Dr. Achuth A, Dr. Chubatila Ozukum, Sabah, and Calvin. Interviews were conducted over text messaging, phone calls, and video calls.
2. Sabah’s interview for this essay was a phone conversation, unrecorded and conducted on WhatsApp for privacy reasons. All quotes cited in this essay are taken from the interview. Sabah reviewed this essay to ensure that their words were represented as accurately as possible.
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Pictures and Visual Representations of Data
Internet Shutdowns. Shutdowns during anti-CAA protests. https://internetshutdowns.in/static-page/caa-protest/
Instagram user@kashhistorypics. https://instagram.com/kashhistorypics?utm_medium=copy_link
Instagram user @kashmere.history https://instagram.com/kashmere.history?utm_medium=copy_link
Instagram user @lostkashmirihistory https://instagram.com/lostkashmirihistory?utm_medium=copy_link
Yasmin Rosammal Daniel is a second-year undergraduate student at St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bengaluru, pursuing a degree in journalism and political science. Her interests lie in poetry, world cinema, the politics of social justice, and the positions of communities that have often been understudied and underreported. Her work has been published on The Open Dosa and appears in the ‘My Slice of the Sky’ South Asian Youth Anthology. She adores almost all kinds of music, sings in her spare time, and indulges in bad humor far too frequently. She is always up for coffee and chatter.
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Allen Joe Mathew is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Journalism from St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bengaluru. An avid reader, his interests range from fiction to history, automobiles, and travel. He enjoys writing too, preferring blogging over pen and paper, only to struggle with his handwriting before every exam. If not buried in his books or laptop he can be found outside, taking long strolls in the neighborhood, trying to identify the fauna he sees. With a very inquisitive mind, he loves to learn and recall all manner of trivia and facts.
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