Kashmir police move against VPN users

Police in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir have filed their first case against social media users.

In a statement, the Kashmir police said they registered a First Information Report (FIR) under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in the Kashmir valley against "various who defied government orders and misused social media platforms."

Indian authorities have imposed a blanket ban on the use of any kind of social media platform in the disputed region ever since New Delhi scrapped special provisions granted to it under the Indian constitution on Aug. 5 last year.

was further divided into two centrally administered Union Territories (UT) -- Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

Police said an order issued by the Jammu and Kashmir UT administration on Jan. 14 had banned all social media sites to "curb the misuse of the sites by miscreants for propagating false information/rumors."

"The ban was ordered to stall the rumor mongering and spreading false and fake facts having the effect of causing social instability," the statement said.

had imposed a strict communications blackout on the disputed region to stall any rebellion against the Indian government. The restrictions have gradually been lifted and 2G internet has been restored. The internet ban in the disputed region by India is reportedly longest communications blackout in the history of internet itself.

Jammu and blamed social media platforms, saying "social media has remained a favorite tool which largely provides anonymity to the user and also gives wide reach."

"The FIR has been registered while taking cognizance of the social media posts by the miscreants by use of different VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] which are propagating rumors with regard to the current security scenario of the Kashmir valley, propagating secessionist ideology and glorifying terror acts/terrorists," the statement added.

Internet Freedom Foundation -- a non-governmental organization based in Indian capital New Delhi -- in a Twitter statement said there was "no publicly available blocking order prohibiting VPNs under Section 69A, [Indian] IT Act".

Notably, there is no ban on use of internet or social media anywhere in India.

The NGO conducts advocacy on digital rights and liberties in India. "The recent orders passed by J&K Home Dept under Telecom Suspension Rules 2017 prohibit use of VPNs but there is no penalty prescribed under the Rules for violation," the statement added.

- 'COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT'
Terming it as "unprecedented collective punishment," a Kashmiri academic based in United States told Anadolu Agency that the police move might be "the first in history."

"This should translate to the world as India's desperation to disallow Kashmiris from voicing their opinions about their dire situation," said Ather Zia, who teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

"The world should ask India what it is so afraid of in a common Kashmiri tweet or using social media. This level of repression, among other question marks, is another one on Indian Democracy," she said.

Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh, a lawyer who has been defending rights of Kashmiris, tweeted on the issue: "They [the government] don't really need to actually prosecute a person u/ UAPA. Involvement in 'open FIRs' [as this kind of FIR against unnamed suspects in crowd offenses is locally referred to] becomes basis for PSA detention order against which there is no bail and no remedy except quashing."

PSA is a so-called Public Safety Act termed as "lawless law" by Amnesty International under which a person can be detained for up to two years without trial.

Pertinently, the police statement about the FIR against defying ban on use of social media in Kashmir does not name anyone as such. It is usually termed as "open FIR".

"Open FIR again[st] 'various' unidentified VPN users -- a means of criminalizing anyone at will who [police] cops accuse of using VPN. Open FIRs against unidentified members of crowds for rioting/ destruction of property etc is a familiar strategy in PSA/ revolving door detention system," Ghosh added in another tweet.

Kallol Bhattacharjee, an Indian Journalist who writes on social issues, said the denial of mobile phone and internet connectivity in the 21st century Kashmir "amounts to denial of basic goods necessary for a just and a fair citizenship".

"India is now among the top countries where mobile disconnectivity is enforced often because of law and order reasons. But the continuing disruption for more than six months has clear signs of discrimination against the people," Bhattacharjee told Anadolu Agency over phone.

"The state says that this is necessary for peace and order in the state. But the question is how long should this blackout last to satisfy the law and order enforcing wings of the state or is the blackout itself acknowledgment of a problem on the ground in Kashmir?" said Bhattacharjee, who writes on regional affairs.

- 'JOURNALISTS HARASSED'
Meanwhile, a Kashmiri journalists' body -- the Kashmir Press Club -- in a statement decried what it said was "continuous harassment of journalists."

Kamran Yousuf, a multimedia journalist working with the New Delhi-based Newsclick website, was picked up by police after a raid on his home late Sunday in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district, some 18 miles from the summer capital of Srinagar.

The press club said police detained Yousuf until midnight after checking his gadgets.

"The police's nocturnal raid at the house of a journalist has once again highlighted the dangers faced by journalists in the [Kashmir] valley… It is once again urged that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and speech is respected in the region," read the statement.

- KASHMIR DISPUTE
Jammu and Kashmir is held by India and in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.

Since they were partitioned in 1947, the two countries have fought three wars -- in 1948, 1965 and 1971. Two of them were over Kashmir.

Some Kashmiri groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence or unification with neighboring Pakistan.

According to several human rights organizations, thousands of people have reportedly been killed in the conflict in the region since 1989.


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