In Kashmir, crackdown on VPN users shows intention to muzzle opinions

As per Access Now, the internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever imposed in a democracy

The order issued by Principal Secretary Shaleen Kabra said the directions would be effective from 9 pm Sunday. File Photo. PTI

In an apparent move to criminalise views, suspend civil liberties and create fear, authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have started a clampdown on social media users who managed to access restricted social media websites through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

VPNs allow users to mask their location and browse the internet using the 2G internet service that was partially restored after a gap of six months since the Centre abrogated the restive region’s statehood last August.

What came as shock for many was the filing of a First Information Report (FIR) by Kashmir Cyber Police last week against “social media users who defied the government orders and misused the social media platforms.” The cyber police lodged an open FIR under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Section 188 and 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and 66-A(b) of the Information Technology Act.

The problem with the FIR is that it is open. It does not name anyone. Basically, it is an FIR against all people who access social media while using VPNs.


Discriminatory rules

Clearly, the aim is to create fear among people in Kashmir so that they do not use social media networks at all.

Interestingly, many top bureaucrats and police officers are accessing social media platforms freely to post their views on controversial political issues in violation of their Service Rules as government servants. They continue to enjoy uninterrupted 4G internet services while their juniors are accessing social media via VPNs.

Related news: In Kashmir, BJP’s outreach programme perceived as ‘propaganda in panic’

The controversial FIR, according to a statement issued by the local police, is aimed at clamping down on individuals who “propagate the secessionist ideology and promote unlawful activities”. These people, the police claim, have accessed restricted social media websites through VPNs.

As a result, several hundreds of social media accounts are under the scanner for uploading content that is deemed ‘political’ in nature or critical of the BJP and government’s decision to rescind Article 370.

Indiscriminate arrests

What is worrying is the fact that Kashmir’s Cyber Police Station, Kashmir Zone, is questioning and tracking many internet users who are posting their views on Facebook and Twitter while using VPNs. Two persons have been arrested thus far in the Kashmir Valley.

According to a police official, Waseem Majeed Dar, a resident of north Kashmir’s Handwara, was arrested after for “posting objectionable content” on social media platforms. The police claimed they acted against Waseem for allegedly circulating “fake news, spreading rumours and hatred on social media platforms”.

Police took action under Section 153-153A of the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC). This particular RPC section deals with those who resort to vilification or attacks upon the religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.

Another person arrested by police has been identified as Saqib Ahmed Lone from central Kashmir’s Budgam district.

Related news: Kashmiri journalists slam prolonged internet ban, seek unified action

Fallout of ban

According to Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks Internet suspensions, the internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever imposed in a democracy. This was the group’s assessment in December last year when the clampdown on internet had completed 134 days. It’s now been over 200 days and internet services are not fully restored.

On 25 January, net access was allowed to 301 “whitelisted” websites. It was then expanded to 1,485 sites but internet speed continues to be restricted to only 2G for now. Social media sites still remain banned.

After revoking J&K’s autonomy and statehood, the authorities had also snapped all communications and detained the region’s politicians. The nearly eight million people of the Kashmir Valley returned to a pre-internet era.

According to Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), the region’s leading and influential business body, the business losses since August last year are over ₹20,000 crore while thousands of youths, especially entrepreneurs and those associated with IT sector and tourism, have lost jobs since their work solely depended on the internet.

Related news: EU MPs visiting Kashmir are united by a cause and have a message

In December, thousands of Kashmiris began disappearing from WhatsApp because accounts are automatically deleted after 120 days of inactivity.

Meanwhile, the FIR registered against the citizens of Kashmir is an official admission of the situation not being normal in Kashmir by any stretch of the imagination.

For about seven months now the attempt has been to paint the Kashmir story as “all is well” and “everything is normal”, but the very act of registering FIR against “the people”, not restoring the internet services fully and keeping opinionated people and politicians under detention nullifies all such claims.

Moreover, the sections of the law invoked in police’s statement about the FIR carry punishments that are completely disproportionate to the alleged offences.

The legal provisions invoked in the FIR include the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which allows a suspect to be detained for several months without bail. The statement also said that police have also invoked Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, even though it has been struck down by the Supreme Court.

Attempts to control views

This practice of thought control, policing of views of eight million people; telling them what to think and how to think; and not allowing them to have an opinion is a brazen attempt to criminalise dissent. This way all civil liberties will remain suspended. Is it good for any civilised society that people aren’t allowed to think, to speak, to write, and to express themselves freely without fear of reprisal?

Related news: 85 days since Article 370 move, Kashmir businesses suffer ₹10,000 crore hit

Over the past six months, many seasoned journalists in Kashmir have been routinely summoned and questioned in a disgraceful manner at police stations or at the Srinagar-based counter-insurgency headquarters, locally known as Cargo.

Former diplomat and senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar on his recent visit to Srinagar claimed in a scathing article that he found himself in “hotel arrest”!

Aiyar questioned the BJP government’s normalcy claim and wrote in The Indian Express, “The police, having been tipped off by now to our presence in their city, arrive at our hotel to inform us that we cannot hold the meeting we have openly convened in a UT where “normalcy”, it is officially claimed, has been restored.”

Responding to a tweet by President Ram Nath Kovind, which said the internet and social media have democratised journalism and revitalised democracy, London-based Kashmiri novelist Mirza Waheed wrote, “The Internet, social media and journalism have all been criminalised in Kashmir. As for democracy, it never really arrived.”

Related news: In J&K, internet used only for watching ‘dirty films’: NITI Aayog member