Use of VPNs for social media criminalized in Kashmir

The police have registered an open case against individuals who have defied government orders prohibiting the use of social media via Virtual Private Networks

February 20, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
Kashmir internet
A complete internet shutdown was imposed on Kashmir till recently.

The Jammu and Kashmir police, on February 17, registered a case under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act–UA(P)A against those individuals who have defied the prohibitory government orders and used social networking sites through Virtual Private Networks (VPN).

In a statement, the police said that “taking serious note of misuse of social media, the Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone Srinagar has registered a FIR against various social media users who defied the government orders and misused the social media platforms”.

The Supreme Court of India had advised the government earlier in January to review the “unlawful restrictions” imposed in Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A (legal provisions which granted special guarantees of autonomy and residence rights to the State subjects.) This had prompted the State police to partially restore internet services, but the social media blockade persisted with the authorities claiming that these restrictions were imposed “to stall the rumor mongering, spreading false and fake facts having the effect on social instability”. 

However, as the blockade continued, residents began bypassing the censorship using different proxies and sharing VPNs to freely surf the internet, including social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc. The State agencies, however, claimed that they have received continuous reports of “people propagating the secessionist ideology” over social media. 

This February, three videos of ailing senior Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Geelani became viral on social media, with many fearing that the death of the nonagenarian Tehreek-e-Hurriyat leader might trigger another summer of mass uprisings in the region.

Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group based in New Delhi, filed a Right to Information request this February on the prohibition on the use of VPN in Kashmir and the prosecution arising from it. It concluded that there is no publicly available blocking order that prohibits using VPNs under Section 69A of the IT Act of the Indian Constitution. “The recent orders passed by J&K Home Department under Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 prohibit use of VPNs but there is no penalty prescribed under the Rules for violation”, the group claimed.

Several activists based in India have also condemned the case registered by the police against the use of VPNs by arguing that it allows for criminalizing anyone at will.  FIRs against unidentified members of the crowd (illegally accused for destruction of property) are similarly filed under the Public Safety Act which revolves around the arbitrary detention system.

Meanwhile, the political situation in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region continues to remain tense. Although the Indian government has been selectively bringing in right-wing envoys from different countries to bolster its discourse of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir, the reality is in stark contrast. The journalist fraternity has publicly complained that they are being continuously harassed and intimidated for reporting about the situation on the ground, while hundreds of political prisoners are languishing in jails after being charged under the draconian Public Safety Act which gives authorities the right to detain any person without trial for at least two years. 

Victims of this law include two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, who were slapped with another six months of arbitrary detention on February 7 and 15, respectively. More recently, popular bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal has also been charged under the PSA. 

On February 16, United National Secretary General António Guterres  during his Pakistan visit reiterated in a statement that the UN office will always be open for mediation between India and Pakistan to resolve their long-standing issues, including the Kashmir dispute. He stressed that the conflict should be resolved by implementing UN resolutions.  The Indian External Ministry was swift to reject the secretary general’s proposal, saying there is no role for any third party mediation in the internal matters of India and that “Kashmir is our integral part” and “it will be discussed bilaterally”.