‘Lockdown of thoughts’: Kashmiris decry restrictions on freedom of expression in India | Social Media News

Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir – Sadia Munawar is a 29-year-old government worker in Indian-administered Kashmir. She is also an amateur poet.

Sitting at her home in a picturesque town in central Kashmir, Munawar (pseudonym) says she has witnessed firsthand the past few years of unrest, blockages and fear among residents of the disputed region.

“If we had feared the darkness like this, we would have died, nameless, a long time ago,” she recently wrote.

She says her poetry is about “everything happening in Kashmir, the people in prison, the vast grasslands, the mountains, the dead and the fear”.

“When light brings fear and darkness frightens us, better than that fear is death,” she said in another of her poems. “Accident after accident, I witnessed… The destruction of my home, I witnessed.”

“Writing relieved my anxiety,” she told Al Jazeera. “I shared it with people on social media but now I have more anxiety because I’m writing and I can’t share it anywhere because of the fear that you might be questioned for your words.”

Indian soldiers arrive at the site of an attack on the outskirts of Srinagar [File: Mukhtar Khan/AP]

Munawar has now decided to quit social media following a recent order asking government employees to share details of their social media accounts, primarily Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Since the March 3 order, social media in Indian-administered Kashmir, once a vibrant space for political debates and expressions of dissent, has largely gone silent.

The order authorizes police in the disputed region to examine the social media accounts of government employees, saying that no new government recruits would receive their salaries until they went through a verification process by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

The order states that “government instructions are not being followed” in some departments, “as a result of which many people with questionable backgrounds and conduct” have been paid “without obtaining mandatory CID verification.”

The order is the latest in a series of measures – some of which strike at the heart of the right to free speech – imposed by the Indian government since it took office. repealed the Muslim-majority region’s limited autonomy in August 2019, followed by months of a crippling security lockdown and a communications breakdown.

The measures have caused panic among old and new government employees in Indian-administered Kashmir who call it “thought police” and a “new normal” under India’s Hindu nationalist government.

largest employer

Indian-administered Kashmir has almost 500,000 people employed in various ministries, making the government the largest employer.

In 2017, when the region had an elected government led by a coalition of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Kashmir-centric People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the administration told its employees to refrain from express their political opinions on social issues. media.

Fear is more palpable among young job candidates.

Muhammad, 32, a resident of south Kashmir, recently completed his doctorate and applied for several government jobs. He told Al Jazeera the government had “perfected the technique of silencing people”, describing it as “a blocking of thoughts and expression”.

“I think this time they silenced a huge state-employed population,” said Muhammad, who did not want to be identified by his first name.

Muhammad fears that if he posts anything critical about the government on social media, it will hurt his job prospects. “I don’t think twice, but a dozen times.”

Police officers check the bag of a Kashmiri motorcyclist in a busy market in central Srinagar [File: Dar Yasin/AP]

Defending the government’s crackdown on social media accounts, Manoj K Dwivedi, a senior administration official in the region, told Al Jazeera that “times are changing and a person’s virtual address is as important as their physical address”.

“Social media conduct is very important. There are hundreds of things about the conduct of the person on social media,” he said.

Dwivedi said there was “no negative intention” behind the CID verification.

“It’s just to check whether someone is involved in controversial, illegal or questionable conduct. Everyone has freedom of speech, but when you’re in public office you have certain limits,” he said. he declares.

“When someone comes to government services, they have to change according to government rules. Social media is now part of the verification.

“Psychological Fear”

In June last year, Habeel Iqbal, an outspoken lawyer based in Shopian district, south Kashmir, was called by police and interrogated for six hours over his social media posts.

“They (the police) took my phone, asked for the passcode and wrote it on the back with a permanent marker,” Iqbal told Al Jazeera, adding that he has now become “more careful” about what he shares on social media.

“I won’t say I’m brave and I’m not afraid anymore. I have surely become more conscious with what I write. You can tell on a subconscious level that I have self-censored myself now,” he said.

Iqbal said “this invasive and intrusive surveillance” is designed to restrict information and is “against international standards for freedom of speech and expression”.

“People feel like they live in a panoptic society in which the invisible eye is constantly watching them, resulting in self-censorship and self-surveillance.”

Over the past two years, multi-faceted oversight mechanisms have sprung up in the Kashmir region as protests are banned and social media users are summoned and detained for their “anti-national messages”.

The result was a gigantic silence. Al Jazeera contacted a dozen prominent activists in Indian-administered Kashmir who had spoken out in the past.

Journalist and commentator Gowhar Geelani told Al Jazeera that the new measures aim to “inculcate psychological fear, making it a permanent feature and a new normal”.

“We are not writing about important issues regarding our existence and identity, but talking about tulips and tourism,” Geelani said, referring to self-censorship and Kashmiri fear of sharing anything online. .

Cybervolunteers

In a separate move, police recently said they would recruit some residents as cyber-volunteers who will be tasked with identifying and reporting “anti-national” social media content.

The surveillance project, known as India’s Cybercrime Coordination Center (I4C), is an initiative of India’s Home Ministry.

Indian-administered Kashmir is among the first places to launch the initiative.

“The volunteer must maintain strict confidentiality of the tasks assigned to him or performed, within the framework of the program,” reads the announcement of the police.

Residents and activists inside and outside the disputed region have also accused social media platforms such as Twitter of censoring Kashmir-related content.

In one such case, the account of Kashmiri diaspora-led group Stand With Kashmir, which has more than 30,000 Twitter followers, was recently suspended.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the group’s spokesperson said that many such accounts, most formed after August 2019, as well as accounts of rights activists and Kashmiri people, had also been suspended by Twitter. ” without reason “.

“Twitter’s suspension is a continuation of a campaign of repression against Kashmiri activists and information about Kashmir,” said the spokesperson, who did not wish to be identified.

When Al Jazeera contacted Twitter about the allegations, the US-based company said, “We enforce Twitter rules judiciously and impartially for all members of our service.”

Stand With Kashmir’s account was later restored, but other Kashmir names have since reported being temporarily suspended.

Kashmir “not free”

A report released earlier this month by Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit, classified Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free” while India was downgraded to “partly free”. .

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, a group advocating freedom of speech in India, said social media monitoring is a violation of citizens’ right to privacy.

“In addition to restricting their right to express themselves freely, the monitoring of their social media accounts is also a violation of their fundamental right to privacy. Surveillance like this is totally reprehensible and more reminiscent of an authoritarian state than a democratic state,” she said.

Seshu said commissioning civilian volunteers to spy on other citizens “similar to Nazi Germany, where citizens were conscripted to spy on and relate to each other.”

“It is an unhealthy gesture aimed at” dividing social solidarity between citizens, sowing seeds of suspicion and mistrust between neighbors and discouraging fraternity “.