On April 26, the Jammu and Kashmir government banned 22 social networking sites in the Valley. The ban was mainly meant to restrict Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter which the government believes are used by people to share and upload “inflammatory” content that stokes anti-India protests.

Two weeks into the ban, the question one must ask is whether the overall situation has improved and whether the protests in Kashmir have abated. The answer is no. The ban coincided with the student protests that broke out after government forces assaulted over 50 students in Pulwama on April 15. The clashes across the Valley that followed the assault were streamed live on Facebook and the photos went viral on  Whatsapp.

Now that the ban has put an end to streaming clashes online, the unrelenting student unrest refuses to die down and has entered the fifth week. Both boys and girls march out of campuses across the Valley to protest in solidarity with their battered colleagues. The police-student confrontation has forced the government to shut down schools and colleges.

"Militants have released more than five videos and audio messages on social media following the ban, using the Virtual Private Networks."

On May 4, the security forces in south Kashmir’s Shopian cordoned off more than 20 villages, reviving memories of the military crackdown of 1990s. The sight of the forces provoked people who protested and pelted them with stones. The clashes continued for hours, contrary to the Indian Home Minister’s assertion that people from across the border act as agents provocateurs to mobilize youth through social media.

Thank you VPNs  

Militants have released more than five videos and audio messages on social media following the ban, using the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) discussed below. The audio messages of former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Musa circulated on social media ruffled feathers after he threatened to chop off the Hurriyat leaders’ heads and hang them at Lal Chowk.

In another video, militants were seen assaulting and giving a rough haircut to suspected police informers at some undisclosed location.

Another video showed a group of armed militants in an orchard receiving tips on using assault rifles. The militants’ videos, according to Kashmir’s Inspector General of police S.J.M. Gillani are being circulated as part of “psychological warfare”. But nobody has an answer as to how these videos are released during the ban. In fact, one youth, Zubair Turray, who escaped from police lockup in Shopian, announced that he was joining the militant ranks by issuing a videotape on May 15, when this article was being written.

Like hundreds of social media users, the ruling PDP is circumventing the ban by using the VPNs. A VPN helps to connect through a secure network over a public network or private network. A VPN secures a user connection through encryption and security protocols and protects the identity of the connection. VPN allows users to remain secure online and also enables them to access content or websites that are otherwise blocked, according to Kashmir Reader.

Almost every day, PDP leaders such as Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, who is also Secretary of the Sports Council, updates his Facebook and Twitter handle. Along with his party handle @jkpdpm, he has been sending tweets almost every day.

When Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti participated in an event meant for specially-abled children on May 14, Parra shared a series of tweets along with photos of the event.  One such tweet featured Mufti, who is heading the home department which issued the social media ban order, and read, CM@MehboobaMufti with a specially(-)abled footballer today imranrazaansari (sports minister).

Parra told The Hoot he tweeted from Jammu. A PDP leader, who is part of the government and pleaded anonymity, said they tweet on the party handle from Srinagar. “Like everyone we also access blocked sites through VPN,” he said.

The opposition National Conference’s provincial spokesperson, Imran Nabi Dar, frankly admitted that he accesses social media through VPN. “I was cut off from the social media for a week but I was suggested a secure paid VPN,” he said.

Not only Dar but even his party’s working president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah is also tweeting amid the ban. “Obviously, Omar sahib would be using VPN too,” said Dar. He pointed out that Parra is accessing the social media saying “This shows the seriousness in the government”.

A policy that’s proven to fail  

A senior police officer admitted that the government’s methods are redundant and have failed elsewhere. “The ban has brought disrepute more than doing any good to the government. It has highlighted the Kashmir case in the international media,” said the officer, who was not authorised to speak to the media.

This is the first time the axe has specifically fallen on social media. Last year, when the massive uprising erupted after Burhan Wani’s  killing, the government not only shut down the Internet 10 times but also mobile telephony. Yet that did not stop people from holding huge mass demonstrations across the Valley.

Steven Butler, Asia Programme coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said, while urging India to end the ban, that “such broad censorship clearly violates the democratic ideals. The sweeping censorship of social media under the pretext of ‘maintaining peace and order’ will bring neither peace nor order,” he said.

"An official who is part of the Chief Minister’s office agreed the ban made no impact, saying it had been suggested by the security agencies."

Apart from the Committee, United Nations rapporteurs have also urged India to restore social media in Kashmir. “The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment [and] fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression,” said special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, and special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, in a press statement.

So far, the government has not yielded to the requests.  An official who is part of the Chief Minister’s office agreed the ban made no impact, saying it had been suggested by the security agencies.

A PDP leader criticised his own government for the ban, calling it a  symbol of “repressive” regimes. “We allow no seminar, no protest. Now, there was Facebook that allowed people to express themselves. It was blocked. We are pushing people to hit the streets,” he said.

He explained that the videos which went viral on social media were the ones which showed troops beating youths. Such videos were released by the forces, he said.

Another PDP leader explained his reason for using social media despite the ban. He said he does it to compete with other narratives. “If we stay silent on social media, the one-sided narrative will flourish,” he added.