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Mehbooba Mufti Once Opposed Internet Shutdown in Kashmir. Now She’s Done the Same.

The PDP-BJP government has banned 22 social media platforms, claiming that continued instability in the Valley forced it to take the harsh measure.

Mehbooba Mufti had said that instead of coming on streets if the Kashmiri youths express themselves on internet, it should be encouraged. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Srinagar: In 2012, the Kashmir assembly was in the middle of the autumn session when Mehbooba Mufti, the then leader of the opposition, disrupted the proceedings, demanding the lifting of the ban on Facebook and YouTube, which had been suspended following protests over the circulation of some controversial videos.

“Young boys and girls use internet to stay connected and express themselves… Instead of coming on the streets, if they express themselves on the internet, it should be encouraged. If we don’t provide space to our youth [on the internet] we will face difficult situation on the ground,” said Mufti, taking on the then Omar Abdullah-led government.

On Wednesday, April 26, the PDP-BJP government headed by Mufti banned 22 social media platforms – including Facebook, Twitter and Skype along with instant messaging services like WhatsApp – in Kashmir for a month to counter the fresh wave of protests in the region where the situation continues to remain fragile.

This was, in fact, the first time that the government resorted to sweeping censorship even as 3G and 4G cellular internet services remain suspended in the Valley since April 14.

While netizens and experts described the clampdown as an “unusually ruthless measure,” the government justified it, arguing that social media was being used by “anti-national and subversive elements to vitiate peace and tranquility”. It hoped the harsh measure would help restore normalcy in Kashmir, where fast spreading pro-freedom protests have come up as a new challenge for the beleaguered PDP-BJP government.

The ban

According to Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre, the internet in the Valley has been shut down at least 31 times since 2012.

This time, however, rumours were rife that the government would ban social media after tension mounted in the Valley following the circulation of videos depicting apparent human rights abuses by the security forces. The tipping point, however, was the video clip of a civilian tied to an army vehicle as a hostage or human shield against stone pelters. The video led to widespread anger across Kashmir and even drew strong remarks from Lieutenant General (retd) H.S. Panag, who tweeted, “Image of a ‘stone pelter’ tied in front of a jeep as a ‘human shield’ will 4 ever haunt the Indian Army & the nation!”

“In the interest of maintenance of public order, the government… hereby directs all Internet Service Providers that any message or class of messages to or from any person or class of persons relating to any subject or any pictorial content through the following social networking sites shall not be transmitted in Kashmir for a period of one month or till further orders, whichever is earlier,” reads the three-page order issued by R.K. Goyal, principal secretary in Jammu and Kashmir’s home department.

The sites banned include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, QQ, WeChat, Qzone, Tumblr, Google+, Baidu, Skype, Viber, Line, Snapchat, Pinterest, Telegram, Reddit, Snapfish, YouTube (Upload), Vine, Xanga, Buzznet and Flickr. The gag order came with a warning that any violation would be strictly dealt with as per the law.

Gag to ‘establish peace’

Justifying the move the government said that as per “available inputs”, over a period of time, a progressively increasing trend has been witnessed in regard to the “misuse of social media by elements inimical to the public order and thereby impinging on public safety”, particularly in the Kashmir Valley.

“This is detrimental to the interests of peace in the state and that is why the decision,” the deputy chief minister said in Jammu. “We want the situation to get normal and the youth [to] get access to social media soon. But in all this, the government obligation should be respected.”

A senior police official said, “increasing misuse” of social media by youth in Kashmir to “fan protests” has come up as a bigger challenge. “The live streaming of encounters or protests on Facebook and other sites is now resulting in complete breakdown of law and order, even at places far off from the spots,” said the official.

The government has also claimed that the ban would prevent the spreading of rumours and help “calm down tempers” in the region where peace remains fragile. “It [the ban] is a temporary thing only to save lives. As of now, there is no better way to try and de-escalate situation as there were provocations in the form of videos from both sides which played a role in creating more trouble. A lot of stuff which is posted these days on social media sites leads to anger and adds fuel to the fire,” ruling PDP spokesman Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra told The Wire.

While Facebook has emerged as an important tool to express dissent in Kashmir, in recent days, the Valley has seen angry students clashing with the government forces after 54 students of Government Degree College Pulwama were injured in clashes between students and police and CRPF. The growing protests forced the government to repeatedly shut down campuses during the past two weeks.

This spike in the protests has come as a huge challenge for chief minister Mufti, who last week met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi and sought resumption of dialogue for resolution of the Kashmir issue.

According to Parra, the continued instability in the Valley had forced the government to take the harsh measure. “This ban is of course not a solution but an arrangement to try and manage the situation,” said Parra, though he admitted it would lead to losses to Kashmir businesses as well as students.

‘Illegal exercise in frustration’

In its front page editorial, the daily Kashmir Reader questioned the wisdom behind the move. “But, the question, is would a ban change the underlying dynamics and conditions in Kashmir? A big NO is the resounding answer. Starving people of communication is neither the antidote nor the panacea to what essentially is a political issue,” the editorial read.

“Fair is fair and what is fair in the context of Kashmir is a multi-stakeholder dialogue on Kashmir to resolve the conflict. Any other approach – including the internet ban – is a chimera which, in the final analysis, constitutes the road to nowhere!” the newspaper went on to criticise the ban.

While the government invoked sub-section (2) of section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act (read with the Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules 2007) to impose the ban, experts have termed the move “illegal”.

“I’d argue this is illegal: (1) s. 5(2) of Telegraph Act may not be used for blocking of Internet services when s. 69A of IT Act exists,” tweeted Pranesh Prakash, policy director at Center for Internet and Society, an advocacy group for internet access and free speech.

Angry Kashmiri netizens also took to Facebook on Wednesday, soon after the ban was announced, to express outrage against the decision. “This ban aims to control whatever little space is left in Kashmir to express dissent. It is an iron fist policy to control things, but I’m afraid it will further deteriorate the situation as rumours will become more dangerous,” political analyst Noor M. Baba told The Wire.