Last month, on August 14, a young man donning a Guy Fawkes Mask holding a placard was picked up by the police from Bahu Plaza area of Jammu. The placard mocked “security reasons” given by Delhi whenever asked for internet restoration with the hashtag #BewakoofNaBanao (#Don’tFoolPeople). It is pertinent to note that more than a year has passed since the ban on high-speed internet in Jammu and Kashmir. Recently, the J&K administration has restored 4G internet services on trial basis in two districts of Ganderbal of Kashmir division and Udhampur of Jammu region.
After hours of interrogation, the man was set free but his face with the Fawkes mask had taken over the social media in Jammu. The internet was swarmed with his pictures and hashtags demanding his release.
The young man has now become popular as the Mask Man. He said that he was standing silently wearing a mask and holding a placard when he was whisked away by the police. “I didn’t know that the state would be intimidated by my silent lone presence. They questioned me for hours trying to establish that I was planted by the Opposition but couldn’t find any evidence. I am a local young guy with no political affiliation,” he told NewsClick.
A week later, the Mask Man in collaboration with Amit Kundal, a singer from Jammu has come out with a Dogri version of Bella Ciao (Goodbye beautiful) – an Italian protest folk song sung by women paddy field workers in the late 19th century in protest against the harsh working conditions and has recently gained popularity across the world as a protest song. Since then, the Mask Man has gained traction, particularly among young people who are spotted in the streets wearing a mask, capturing a picture and posting it on the social media with the hashtag #BewakoofNaBanao (#Don’tFoolPeople).
“Few days ago, a friend sent me a picture of some boys wearing a mask while pointing at a pothole in Kathua district of Jammu with my hashtag. I was overwhelmed,” the Mask Man said.
Also read: Jammu: Amid COVID, Water-Logged Bunkers Add to Risk for Dwellers in Border Areas
The mask with the wide grin, blushed cheeks and a thick black upturned pointed moustache with a goatee on a stark white coloured face, was traditionally used to represent one of the men convicted in England in the Gunpowder Plot about 400 years ago. The mask was later popularised by the movie V for Vendetta based on a graphic novel written by Allan Moore and illustrated by David Llyod centred on dissidents efforts to usurp an authoritarian regime in UK.
The mask, over a period of time, has evolved into a global symbol of protest in various anti-establishment movements employed by protesters, dissidents and has acquired the name Anonymous mask after hacktivist collective “Anonymous” used the mask in 2008 as it launched Project Chanology, a major political demonstration, to target the Church of Scientology after the church censored an interview with Tom Cruise on Web.
In Jammu, which has long faced the government’s neglect, the Mask Man encapsulates the growing resentment and the brimming anger among the people who have not refrained from showing solidarity to the masked protester.
The young-man has declined to share his name, saying that the mask was a chosen disguise to stay anonymous and divorce the attention from his personality. “People would often stop by. They first notice my mask, then the shirt and later read the placard, click a picture and post it on social media only because they could relate with me,” he said.
In the course of his lone protests, the young man with a placard in hand highlighting failed promises and indifferent attitude of the government, has defined himself as a “Voice of Dissent” which is rarely visible in Jammu. He said that the peacefulness of Jammuites has been taken for weakness by the government.
He further explained that when he started protesting he was driven by his own personal experiences, but little did he know that his experiences would be resonated by the majority of populace in Jammu and they will find a voice through him.
Also watch: After a Year in Detention, Kashmiri Man Hears News of Dead Wife
But what inspired this 27-year-old man to wear a mask and stand silently in the streets for hours? Speaking to NewsClick, he said that the crushing unemployment followed by frustration forced him to launch a protest. “Jobs are scarce in Jammu and Kashmir and there is no private sector. So, the youth mostly rely on the government jobs which are rarely advertised and scrapped at the last moment. I myself applied for JK Bank, railway jobs, the interviews for which never took place. I was personally affected by this and saw my friends plunging into depression. Instead of asking people to gather, I thought I should take the first step and protest,” he added.
NewsClick had earlier reported on how the rising unemployment, flawed job policies and unprecedented delay in conducting exams has left youths in distress. As per the Economic Survey Report, 2016, the unemployment rate in Jammu and Kashmir is higher than the average National unemployment rate, with 24.6% population - in the age of 18-29 years - unemployed which is far more than all India unemployment rate of 13.2%.
The former Governor Satya Pal Malik had promised creation of 50,000 government jobs after the scrapping of the special status of the erstwhile state but residents say that not a single job has been forthcoming.
The young masked man said that his protest was a result of the setback he faced after the scrapping of the special status. “We were sold fancy dreams of jobs, tourism, development. We were told Article 370 was hindering the growth of our state. Jammu gave overwhelming support to everyone including me. But, it has been more than a year and we have received nothing but false promises,” he said. One of his placards read: State Da Darja bhi tusein khoyi leya, UT de Benefit te Dawayo (We have lost the status of state, now at least give us the benefits of the UT).”
The masked protester has highlighted various issues ranging from 4G to unemployment to artificial lake in the region. Another placard held by the young-man read: ‘Artificial Lake is So Artificial that you can’t see it with Naked Eyes #BewakoofNaBanao’. The Artificial Lake has been in news for more than a decade since it was conceived in 2006-08 when Ghulam Nabi Azad was the Chief Minister during Congress-NC government, sanctioned in 2010, and delayed till 2020 as the work has not yet started.
Reportedly, the state government has spent more than Rs 57 crore on the project until now. The aim of the proposed 1,500-metre long and 600-metre wide Artificial Lake was to attract tourism in Jammu by constructing an auto-mechanical barrage over the river Tawi.
“The government can spend Rs 57 crore on an artificial lake but whenever we ask for job, they cite lack of funds. Do you think we need an artificial lake over jobs? No, we don’t,” he said.
He further added that he has served as a “Wake Up Call” for the people who were already aware but afraid to speak out and that he will continue to protest “till the government gives us reasons not to.”