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Denied Access to Facebook, Kashmiris Paint Their Virtual Walls With Protest

Many people in Kashmir see the government ban on social media sites as a sign of the state’s weakness in the face of continuing protests.

The government ordered a ban on 22 social media sites in Kashmir for a period of one month. Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Files

Srinagar: Before they were blocked from accessing Facebook, hundreds of Kashmiris expressed their outrage “one last time” against the state government’s month long ban on social media. Even as internet access was getting increasingly difficult, many here posted status messages on April 27 attacking the ban, or changed their profile pictures to show their anger. Journalists were among the most prominent protestors. Some used the choicest invectives to criticise the ban. “As everything stands banned, we should turn to porn sites and upload the street truth with hash tag #kashmirf*&%sindia,” wrote a well-known journalist on his Facebook wall. Another senior journalist and editor, Mir Hilal, suggested that Facebook was still working despite the ban. “Hello testing. F*&% them all,” he posted, presumably though a virtual private network (VPN). Further criticising chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, Hilal wrote, “After last year’s bloodbath, the CM went on a pilgrimage spree. After the massacre of social networking sites, are we expecting a visit to Facebook headquarters?”

Several users, however, signed out of Facebook with a sense of resignation. “Being forced to stay away from you for a period of one month. Goodbye friends here,” wrote senior journalist Mir Liyaqat on his wall.

Many Kashmiris left Facebook after providing phone numbers and email IDs. But others did not quit so easily – they posted how-to guides for VPN access to banned social media sites through proxy servers. “Tear it with TOR,” wrote Tahir Manzoor on his Facebook wall, sharing a link on qz.com that had a guide to staying online even if the internet service provider blocked a social media site.

Amidst all the anger over the ban, there was some humour as well. Social media users took a dig at the government’s inability to enforce the ban, even after 24 hours of the order being issued. “Eman na tagani (they are not able to do it),” wrote Irfan Mehraj, a researcher, while posting a link of a newspaper report that read, ‘Authorities struggle to block social media in Kashmir.’

Others made fun of the fact that popular photo-sharing site Instagram had not been blocked. “The government orders banning of unheard-of sites like Snapfish, Vine and Xanga, but forgets Instagram. Nalayak hai yeh gormint (This government is useless),” read a Facebook post.

Javed Parsa – owner of Kathi Junction, a famous food outlet in Srinagar, who has many followers on Facebook and is famous for his social work – wrote on his wall, “Dear world’s one of the most digitally empowered government, please know how to block social media websites and end this bullshit. Have some shame. We are tired of your stupid attempts and repeated failures. Regards VPN aided Kashmiris,”

Senior journalist Sameer Bhat criticised the ban in a long Facebook post, where he noted that even in war-torn Syria or for Palestinians in Gaza, a social media ban had not been imposed. “In hindsight it’s a crying shame that India, which calls itself the largest democracy in the solar system, would deny the right to internet access to millions of citizens, simply because of their political persuasion. Irony just self-slaughtered itself,” he wrote.

In the wake of Thursday’s army firing in Kupwara that killed one 70-year-old civilian, internet users accused the government of covering  up “oppression” through the ban. “This is why the government banned the social media, so that [the] world doesn’t know of the crimes committed on innocent people in Kashmir. We will shame you through our writings and keep a record of your oppression no matter what do you ban,” wrote a Facebook user after the militant attack on April 27 in which three militants and two soldiers were killed.

Some Kashmiris tried to remind the government that more than 100 people were killed between July 2016 and November 2016. Internet services had been suspended for much of that period. Some saw a silver lining and termed the ban as a benefit to the cause of “freedom”. Shahnaz Bashir, author of two novels, called the ban “Foolish” and wrote, “The government that is but utterly foolish thinks that this gag will subdue what couldn’t be suppressed in the 50 years before Facebook and other SNS [social networking sites] existed… the government’s utter faux pas. And believe me this ban will become a great benefit to our strife-torn valley on many fronts!”

Many users thought the ban was a consequence of a frustrated government and some called the ban a sign of victory against the state. “Even though the government banned social media on the pretext of inciting violence in Kashmir, there is stone-pelting going on in Kupwara where militants attacked an army camp. Clearly the government’s ploy to ban social media to muzzle the pro-freedom voices has failed,” wrote Irfan Mir on Facebook.

Internet services have been barred more than 28 times in the past few years in Kashmir. Not even Syria and Iraq have seen internet bans so frequently, even in their worst years. The latest snapping of internet in Kashmir occurred in the second week of April, after eight civilians were killed on the day parliamentary by-elections were held for the Srinagar seat. Thereafter on April 26, the government issued an order on to ban 22 social media sites that include Facebook, WhatsApp and Youtube for a period of one month.

Saquib Magloo is a Kashmir-based journalist.