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Indian Government Bans 22 Social Media Platforms in Kashmir including Facebook, WhatsApp

Social media ban. Images mixed by Rezwan.

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have blocked 22 social media applications including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

An official state circular issued on Wednesday, April 26 and obtained by Global Voices said the social media services were “being misused by anti-national and anti-social elements” in the Valley to disturb “peace and tranquility” and could be blocked for up to 30 days. An excerpt reads:

The government hereby directs all internet service providers that any message … through the following social networking sites shall not be transmitted in Kashmir Valley with immediate effect for a period of one month or till further orders, whichever is earlier.

The move comes in the face of increasing unrest in the region, particularly since last week, when India's military was broadly condemned for strapping a Kashmiri man onto the front of an army jeep and parading him through several villages (see Global Voices report).

Many Kashmiri citizens and Indians are openly opposing the web ban, arguing that they go against the basic tenet of free expression, which is guaranteed by India's constitution. They have taken to social media to protest these bans. Journalist Gowhar Geelani tweeted:

The move comes in the face of increasing unrest in Kashmir. Student protests, both in person and on social media, have intensified in recent days, in opposition to the heavy-handed tactics deployed under India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which significantly expands military power in regions considered to be “disturbed”. The policy gives officers broad legal immunity for actions taken in zones under this designation. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been under the AFSPA since 1992, and currently has more than 700,000 troops deployed, making it the most militarized zone in the world.

As recently as April 9, separatist leaders called for boycotting elections in the state, which led to major protests and clashes. This resulted in the deaths of nine people (see Global Voices report).

Writing for EZine Dailyo.in, Angshukanta Chakraborty suspected that social media was targeted in Kashmir because it showed a different narrative than what Indian authorities hope to portray:

By presenting the other side to the Kashmir storyline, the locals once again were able to own for a while what constitutes the highly complex and conflicted Kashmir narrative, something that made the government extremely uncomfortable, and it was left without a moral high ground.

Blocking social media to quiet ‘anti-national’ rhetoric

Though the Indian government has censored the Internet and discrete web platforms in the Kashmir valley with some frequency in the past, it is unusual for them to block social media platforms at such a large scale to quell protests. The Indian government has very often used the “anti-national” rhetoric to question critics of its policy, be it filmmakers, activists, or NGOs.

In addition to WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, the ban also targets Chinese-owned platforms such as QQ, Baidu, and WeChat from the Valley. QZone, Google Plus, Skype, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube, Vine, and Flickr are also banned.

According to information from Bangalore-based Software Freedom Law Centre, Jammu and Kashmir have witnessed 28 internet shutdowns since 2012, the highest in any Indian state. The government blocked Internet signals for five months in 2016 after uproar over the killing of Burhan Wani, and pro-independence militant leader whose death resulted in major protests across the Himalayan region.

A crowd-sourced definition of Internet shutdowns, developed by Internet policy experts and coordinated by digital rights NGO Access Now, defines them as follows:

An internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.

The move presents a clear violation of India's commitments to human rights, both domestically and as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In a resolution adopted in July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council explicitly condemned Internet shutdowns. Resolution 32/13, Article 10 reads:

[The Human Rights Council] condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and calls upon all States to refrain from and cease such measures.

Experts and activists weigh in

Indian digital privacy and media law expert Pranesh Prakash explained why the ban is illegal in a series of tweets:

Some say that the ban will not stop the resistance:

The ban also has inspired new waves of activism online:

Others see no point in the ban:

Mir Laieeq writes in a Facebook post:

It hardly matters that they call such raw courage and political clarity as a simplistic expression of “anger” or “recklessness”. More than anything else it has always been the people on the streets who have valiantly decimated the obfuscations weaved by the media wing of the Indian military occupation in Kashmir and this resistance will continue till the dawn of Azaadi (freedom), soon, Inshallah (God Willing)!

Steven Butler, Asia Program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists mentioned in a statement:

The sweeping censorship of social media under the pretext of ‘maintaining peace and order’ will bring neither peace nor order. Such broad censorship clearly violates the democratic ideals and human rights India purports to uphold.”

A report in scroll.in reads:

There might be a legitimate security reason to turn off the internet, but it needs to be vigorously debated in public, with an examination of costs and benefits. Did the SMS ban in its time really reduce stone-pelting? Won’t those who use data services to organise simply move to another platform, leaving those who have adopted the government’s digital India approach helpless? Is this simply authoritarian laziness from a government that has been unable to deliver its promises?

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