The map of India; with Kashmir highlighted
Ms. Tech; Original map: WIkimedia commons

Humans and Technology

Teen video app TikTok is the latest battlefield in the Kashmir conflict

Hindu nationalists are flooding TikTok with videos declaring they plan to go to Kashmir, get married, and ostensibly make the majority-Muslim contested region Hindu.

Aug 15, 2019
The map of India; with Kashmir highlighted

The social video app TikTok has taken off in India, but the latest crop of uploads aren’t cute lip-synchs or teenagers taking on silly “challenges.” Instead, TikTok—and to a lesser extent, Facebook and Twitter—has seen a flurry of clips in which men announce they’re going to “marry Kashmiri girls,” presumably whether they like it or not.

The videos are linked to the escalating crisis in the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir (typically referred to simply as Kashmir). On August 5, India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, revoked Article 370 of the country’s constitution, which had been in effect since 1950 and which granted Kashmir “special status,” including an independent government and autonomy. There was—and is—no media or communication coming out of or going into Kashmir. The Indian military is patrolling the area, and a mandatory curfew has been put into effect.

Kovind’s move delivered on a promise from India’s general elections in May, in which Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was elected prime minister (constitutional orders like this one can only be carried out by the appointed president). But it’s having unintended consequences. Outside Kashmir, social media has been buzzing about Article 370, and Google searches for terms like “kashmir girl,” kashmiri girl,” and “kashmiri girl pic” have spiked.

(Note: The vertical axis represents relative interest levels, rather than a specific number or search volume. According to Google, “A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means there was not enough data for this term.”)

It’s not that Article 370 banned non-Kashmiris or Hindus from marrying Kashmiris, who are predominantly Muslim. But it did make it impossible for the children of such marriages to inherit land—an effort to preserve Kashmiri autonomy in the region. Without Article 370, anyone can own land there.

That’s where the search term “Kashmiri girls” comes in. Its use began to climb on July 28, as tensions began brewing between the Indian and Kashmiri governments. By the time communication was shut down in the region, it was spiking on Google Trends.

Why? Hindu nationalists are using the term to suggest that since the law does not inhibit Indians from owning land in the region, it would be possible for men to marry Kashmiri girls and women—perhaps even against their will (unfortunately not unheard-of in some localities)—and become landowners. The endgame appears to be to turn the majority-Muslim region majority-Hindu.

And it’s a surprisingly widespread phenomenon. Declarations of intent to marry Kashmiri women to “reclaim” the disputed region are popping up across a variety of social platforms, from Facebook to Twitter to the fast-growing TikTok, which as of April had around 120 million active users in India. Huffington Post India chronicled one user’s videos since the end of Article 370. They show him and some friends planning to go to Kashmir, “since I am not getting women in Delhi.” 

That thinking was further boosted by an Indian state minister, who said that single Muslim activists “should be happy as they can now get married to ‘gori’ Kashmiri girls,” using the term for “light-skinned” (India has long dealt with discrimination based on skin tone, with lighter skin being valued above darker skin).

The comments show both the misogyny and the racism in how the situation is playing out on social media. The mentality recalls that seen in the sometimes violent, largely online group of people in the US who identify as “incels”: They can’t get women in India, so why not lay claim to light-skinned women, plus land and religious superiority in the bargain?

It’s the latest episode in what’s been a bumpy ride since TikTok, then known as Musical.ly, first launched in India a little less than a year ago. At first, it got traction among users who liked to lip-synch to Bollywood tunes. But in early April, just a few weeks before the election, TikTok was banned after a court ruled it contained “pornographic” content and exposed children to sexual predators. The company responded by removing videos. By April 18, the Supreme Court of India had ordered the ban removed from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.

Then in late July, the country’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology ordered TikTok to respond to concerns that the app was being used to disseminate information considered “anti-Indian” and “unlawful” and to share user data with India’s other neighboring enemy, China. In a joint statement with Helo, which creates SMTP protocols for email, TikTok said, “We take our responsibilities to this community seriously and welcome this opportunity to fully collaborate with the Government to meet and exceed our obligations.” At least one person has died by suicide after taunts on TikTok, and a few incidents have been reported of people dying while trying to make videos. (TikTok did not respond to several requests for comment on this article.) 

And now TikTok is being used to push nationalist agendas, joining WhatsApp, which was used last year to spread false rumors that led to mob lynchings. This week, Wired published a story by Nilesh Christopher that chronicled how the platform’s “duets,” or split-screen videos, were being weaponized in caste politics, leading to the murder of at least one lower-caste individual who had been taunted in a video for his caste.

What ultimately is making TikTok so attractive for disseminating hate, then, is exactly what makes users love it in the first place: an easy interface, short-video capabilities, and a platform on which all ideas can spread like wildfire.