In Kashmir Internet Access and Social Media Visibility are Both an Uphill Battle!

Ifat Gazia

Almost five years ago I was preparing to write my master’s thesis at SOAS, University of London. It was the summer of 2016, a local rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed, and Kashmir faced one of its longest internet and communication blackouts; the ban lasted for almost 133 days (Boone, 2016). Protests erupted across the valley. Not only was extreme violence used to quell the protests, but people were also once again barred from communicating with each other.  Pellet guns were used on civilians, blinding, and killing hundreds of people in Kashmir (Yasir, 2017). In my research, I was attempting to understand how the internet influenced social movements in Kashmir. I was trying to make sense of how Kashmiris used the internet differently than say how people in London were using it. All this because the internet was instrumental in my own journey of storytelling, and I wanted to assemble my personal experiences with the collective experience of Kashmiris.

Almost 10 years ago, I met three other Kashmiris on Facebook during the 2010 summer uprising in Kashmir. Together, I ended up directing my first documentary film about the youngest victim of that uprising (Irfan, 2012). Sameer Rah, a seven-year-old was trampled under military boots in broad daylight on a curfew day and Indian media reported that he died in a stampede. This 21-minute investigative documentary was my first attempt at telling our story in our own voice and had there been no internet to initiate this process, it would never have been possible.

In a place like Kashmir where physical spaces are choked, introduction of the internet in the daily lives of people was very instrumental in voicing dissent. The calls for Aazadi (Freedom) were not limited to occasional protests anymore. Sentiments for Aazadi were reverberating in the online spaces now. After 2008, the internet use in Kashmir was not just limited to its internet cafes. More and more people were able to access it through their phones and on their computers at home. There was a shift in the local narratives, from an offline world to an online one. Political discussions were not limited to men on shop fronts. Women started taking part in the online discourses. Social media reinvigorated Kashmiri social organizing, engaging more and more minds. Henceforth, creating strong online public spheres where like-minded people shared their ideas of freedom, their resistance against occupation and even daily occurrences in their areas. However, due to the lack of openness to discuss social movements in offline public spaces, the increased visibility of Kashmiris on these social networks also led to increased choking of these spaces. This was usually achieved by frequent internet bans, censorship, and surveillance. Intermittent bans on the internet in Kashmir have lasted from hours to years. The longest so far lasted for 550 days (Hussain, 2021).

Social media platforms have become important in terms of local and international discussions which has also led to concerns on the freedom of expression. Therefore, the attacks and attempts of silencing actors in political conflicts have also increased, thus forcing them either into nonparticipation or triggering platform policies to remove controversial speech (Zuckerman and York, 2019).

The dissidents in Kashmir are exposed to an obstinate stream of political events over which they exercise no control; left to make sense of it in their own way. On one hand, social media helped people in creating such sense, which otherwise the institutional media failed in doing.  But on the other, internet shutdowns and intense censorship, purely driven by the government to criminalize Kashmiris, threatens their presence on these very platforms. The extent of internet censorship varies from country to country and is reflective of its state of democracy. One of many myths in cyberspace is that the internet is an inherently emancipatory tool, a device that promotes democracy by giving voice to people who lack power (Warf, 2010). However, in Kashmir, if anything, the internet, and big tech platforms have only helped India to further its control and silence Kashmiri voices (Gazia, 2021).

A lot has been debated about the implications of internet use in general. Is it empowering the citizens or the authoritarian governments? Is it a threat to civic power or is it not? Rebecca MacKinnon in her 2013 book, Consent of The Networked has tried to address these questions. She forms a bridge between the two extremes by illustrating examples from different countries. MacKinnon’s detailed breakdown of the process by which big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter became powerful online public spheres is very important to understand how much power and control these companies have over people. Her work is also important in understanding the relationship that Kashmiris have with the internet.

Kashmiri voices have always been silenced by mainstream media as well as the big tech platforms (SWK, 2021). On the contrary, narratives claiming, ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’, ‘Kashmir issue is a terrorism issue ‘and ‘India is a post-colonial state’ have been widely promoted through the same platforms. Seldom heard are the legitimate counter-perspectives: Kashmir is not India’s internal dispute, and it is not a law-and-order situation but a powerful resistance movement for right to self-determination (Gazia, 2020). And whenever Kashmiris tried to use the only space available to them through social media and voice their opinions, everything was done to curb this space that was helping them to tell their stories and locate themselves in the world (Saramifar, 2015). Indeed, part of India’s strategy in silencing Kashmiris online and offline is in preventing these counter-framings about the legitimacy of Kashmiris struggles from receiving traction and media attention.

Electricity cuts, water cuts, cable tv cuts, are very common usually in developing nations but in this region internet cuts are also an everyday experience of people. Kashmir’s internet blockade broke all the records of internet blockades throughout the world. A new development in the list of assaults is the unannounced internet cuts that started this year.  Since October 2021, many areas of Kashmir including areas in the main city Srinagar are facing daily internet cuts. These cuts happen daily and last from three to seven hours or more. To make matters worse, no news channels announce these cuts, and no record is kept for such outages, thus hindering essential services as well as education of students (Bhat, 2021).

The disputed region of Kashmir has been under India’s illegal occupation for more than seven decades now. As a result, physical spaces have systematically been choked due to intense militarization. There is one soldier for every 30 civilians in Kashmir. That is a higher civilian-soldier ratio than the wartime Afghanistan (Gazia, 2020).  In Kashmir, the internet did not only have the only use of connecting long lost friends overcoming geographical barriers within and outside Kashmir, it was also helping them to create alternate spaces where they could meet each other, listen to each other’s thoughts, vent their anger, share their grief, mobilise and organize protests. Facebook’s feature ‘What’s on your mind’ has opened new windows of self-expression for otherwise silenced people. In the early days of Facebook and Twitter in Kashmir, the ability to maintain connections online, when they were so difficult to make physically, was a joy until surveillance, censorship, frequent internet bans and even physical arrests and harassment based on ‘online activities’ became a reality.

The use of technology and its importance in social movements is instrumental in understanding not only the sentiments of the public who use it but also the motivations of the authoritarian government that controls it.  No doubt the growth of the internet has exponentially increased the possibilities of freedom of expression. But to protect that freedom of expression online is also turning out to be a major challenge for government and non-government organizations (Benedek and Kettemann, 2020).

In 2016, the UN passed a non-binding resolution, a ‘soft law’, declaring the internet as a human right. It took the world an entire COVID-19 pandemic to understand that the internet was a human right and not everyone has access to it (Open Global Rights, 2020).  Online classes, binge watching, online doctors’ appointments and crucial services like contact tracing, downloading CDC guidelines were completely hampered in Kashmir due to the unavailability of 4G internet (Parvaiz, 2020).  This level of censorship also helps us to understand how much that country’s government is open to criticism and receptive to dissent.

There’s never been a time when freedom of expression on the Internet has played such an important role in debating the questions about our future. The Internet no longer remained a luxury but became a necessity for everyone. As a result, more and more states started to use the Internet to spy on journalists, activists, and civil society members, to prosecute them and most likely to jail them as well (Simon, 2018). These are just some of the ways cyberspace impacts social relations, everyday life, culture, politics, and other social activities. In fact, the real and the virtual have become thoroughly intertwined for rapidly growing numbers of people around the world (Warf, 2013).

There are countless needs and desires expressed in every social movement. This is a liberating moment when everyone releases his or her frustrations and opens his or her magic box of dreams (Castells, 2015). Freedom of expression on the internet is crucial to understanding the possibilities of information and communication technologies. It is not only for bringing about increased levels of equality, civil rights, and social justice but Information Communication Technologies are redefining how we live, work, play, and learn (Benedek and Kettemann, 2020).

In 2019, more than eight million people from Kashmir were pushed into an information blackhole, with complete shutdown of any forms of communication, including post offices. When the world was transitioning to a complete COVID-19 lockdown, Kashmir was already undergoing a militarized lockdown, without internet and without the liberty of physical mobility. When I tried to bring into the world’s attention the double lockdown Kashmiris were enduring, I became a target of a vicious doxing campaign on Twitter. Emails from Twitter threatening my account suspension became usual and eventually I realized how everyone around me had been either silenced or they had to self-censor. I began seeing Kashmiri dissident voices disappear from Twitter and I learned the cost one must pay for a 280 character-long tweet. I found myself rethinking my words a dozen times before pressing the tweet button. The organized harassment on Twitter against people like me is a routine and so are the chances of getting mass reported and suspended.

This control and censorship does not operate in a vacuum. Governments need certain tools to engage in different kinds of censorship. For example, China used custom made equipment to create it’s ‘Great Firewall’, Yemen purchased off the shelf software and Palestinian authorities installed open-sourced software to achieve this goal (York, 2021). Despite its global reputation for democracy, India is one of the biggest censors of the internet, a behaviour almost universally accepted to be a characteristic of autocracies rather than democracies. For India, it is the Information Technology Act (IT Act) 2000, wherein the section 66A could be used to criminalize anything that does not suit the narratives of the authorities (Bailey, 2014). India also achieves their censorship goals by directly ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to selected websites for its users within its geographical reach (Statista, 2021). For example, since March 2021, the social media pages as well as the website for the diaspora led activist group Stand With Kashmir (SWK) remain geographically blocked from users in Kashmir and India (Stand With Kashmir, 2021). SWK is one of the very few voices that continues to draw attention to the human rights violations in the region. In their recent report, SWK published findings of their research where 62 percent of Kashmiris who participated said they experienced censorship on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The users registered different methods in which they were censored, including being removed permanently from platforms, their content pulled down, or their privileges restricted. All of them were given dishonest technical reasons for the cause of censorship, therefore impacting their trust in the political neutrality of the platforms (Stand With Kashmir, 2021).

The internet platforms understand that they have constraints towards operating in some countries based on their governments’ censorious attitudes. At best, they work to make sure that individuals and groups can express themselves even when governments object – consider Facebook’s celebration of its role in the Arab Spring. Platforms like Twitter need to understand that they are being used by the Indian government and their allies to silence Kashmiris and other vulnerable groups across the world. I have faced censorship, harassment, trolling and doxxing first-hand and as an internet scholar I can only hope that the big tech companies stop being complicit in silencing voices that are critical of India’s actions in Kashmir. It is high time social justice be promoted in all means possible and voice be given to those who struggle to remain visible and tell their stories.

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Ifat Gazia is a Ph.D. student in the department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She previously has an MA from SOAS, University of London, in Media in Development.  She is the founder and host of The Kashmir Podcast. Ifat is the recipient of the Muslim Women in Media Fellowship 2020, the UMass Research Enhancement and Leadership Fellowship, and the Unicorn Fund 2021.

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