The Indian government has long maintained a chokehold on most avenues of expression in Kashmir, with Twitter now being the latest social media platform to come under its control.
On August 31, Wasim Khalid, a 34-year-old journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir, received an email from Twitter stating that the Indian government had objected to some of his recent tweets.
One of the tweets that Twitter later removed from Khalid’s timeline was posted on June 16 of this year. It was a picture showing two Indian soldiers standing by a Kashmiri boy, who was handcuffed and made to sit on the ground. Khalid’s tweet read: “A teenager being used as a human shield by Indian paramilitary man in #Kashmir to stop other pro-freedom leaders from moving ahead.”
Twitter told Khalid his tweets, as per the Indian government, violated Indian law, but did not explain how or why.
“It wasn’t a love letter,” Khalid told TRT World. “It (Twitter email) was a deterrent, an intimidation tactic against anyone who exposes India’s brutalities in Kashmir.”
In the last few days, Twitter has sent similar notifications to over 100 Kashmiris including activists, journalists, teachers and academics. In fact, the censorship has become so widespread that the well-regarded academic and critical race theorist, Khaled Beydoun, had one of his tweets about the plight of the Rohingya, flagged.
Curbs on free speech are not new in Kashmir – the site of a decades-old dispute between India and Pakistan. Prior to the internet, the Indian government used draconian laws such as the Public Safety Act (PSA) to muzzle dissent in Kashmir. Amnesty International has called it a “lawless law” under which any civilian can be detained without trial. According to a report, more than 670 Kashmiris, including minors, were charged under this law.
With the increasing reach of the internet and the emergence of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Kashmiris began questioning Indian rule in Kashmir and reporting on human rights abuses. They posted videos of Indian armed forces torturing civilians, mutilating bodies of militants and vandalising public property.
Social media has become a potent tool to counter state-approved and biased narratives of mainstream Indian media, which often likens Kashmir’s armed insurgency to Islamic extremism, and justifies state aggression against Kashmiri civilians.
Whenever the Indian police kills a Kashmiri protester for expressing his dissent either by chanting slogans or hurling stones, India’s leading TV news anchors have no qualms branding them as terrorists. As a result, the practice of shooting dead a civilian protester or a demonstrator throwing stones has been normalised in India.
Now the move to block or vet Twitter content coming from Kashmir is an extension of India’s broader crackdown on Kashmiri people.
“It’s also a warning in general that they can use your posts and charge you in a fictitious case,” said Khalid, the Kashmiri journalist.
News versus disinformation
Earlier this year, a video showing a young Kashmiri man tied to the bonnet of a military vehicle went viral on social media. The army accused the man of throwing stones and justified the act, saying it was to prevent others from attacking the convoy.
The Indian media was quick to buy into the army's line, praising them for taking cover behind the man. However, Kashmiri journalists later debunked the story through social media. It turned out the accused had not been throwing stones and the army had picked him up from a street while he was on a motorbike heading home. The incident brought international embarrassment to India, revealing what many Kashmiris feel is the extremely partisan nature of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir.
The social media presence of Kashmiri human rights activists, journalists and separatist leaders came under government investigation in 2012. Police and secret service agents formed a cyber unit called Cargo, named after a notorious torture chamber in Kashmir. Facebook and Twitter came under intense scrutiny, as they had played a major role in mobilising Kashmiris during the mass uprisings in 2008 and 2010.
Since then, the government has banned the internet in Kashmir at least 32 times and detained many Kashmiri Twitter and Facebook users either for writing posts about India’s harsh military policies in Kashmir, or for expressing their support for Kashmir’s total independence or its merger with Pakistan. The Indian state considers such gestures as "unlawful."
The witch-hunt doesn’t end with the monitoring of local journalists but also freelancers and academics who live abroad and often report and write about the conflict.
Huma Dar is a professor at University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. She is a vocal advocate of human rights for Kashmiris and Dalits, a low-caste community in India regarded as “untouchables” in the Hindu caste system.
The Indian government has asked Twitter to remove her recent tweet that criticises racist attitudes in India’s upper-caste Brahmins toward the impoverished Dalit community.
“It’s so horrifyingly pathetic and spineless of Twitter to dare to harass me about the Indian law, which is absolutely inapplicable on me,” Dar, who is based in San Francisco told TRT World.
“I'm neither an Indian citizen nor do I reside there. Twitter is bowing down to the totalitarian whims of a fascist regime, one with a well-documented record of mass murder.”
The big tilt right
Social media scrutiny intensified in Kashmir right after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014. Since then, many Kashmiri journalists and human rights activists are being constantly abused on social media by anonymous users who aggressively tweet in favour of the BJP's political interests.
Even the people who live outside Kashmir and criticise the Modi government aren’t spared. Rape and deaths threats are common on Twitter and often come from users who follow Prime Minister Modi and whom Prime Minister Modi follows back.
Modi isn’t shy about lauding such followers. In 2015, he invited his social media supporters to his residence in Delhi. Among them were infamous trolls who constantly abuse men and women who speak against the police brutalities in Kashmir, or against the socially polarising politics of the ruling party.
India’s parliamentarian Derek O’Brein recently pointed out how certain trolls who write "venomous, misogynist tweets" besides issuing "death threats" are being followed by Prime Minister Modi.
Sometimes the threats and abuse come from twitter handles that are run by the government. Prime Minister Modi’s flagship Digital India, an online platform that aims to report on Indian affairs, sent out a tweet last fall, when the Indian armed forces were engaged in killing and maiming protesters in Kashmir. Shockingly, the tweet called for the "murder of Kashmiris." Many Indian celebrities, including famous cricketers, have echoed similar opinions against Kashmiris. Twitter does not seem to take issue with this hate speech.
TRT World contacted both Twitter and the Indian government for their comments, but they did not respond.
Khurram Parvez, a Kashmir-based human rights activist, believes that prior to social media the Indian military policy always attempted to divide the people of Kashmir along ethnic, religious and ideological lines. “But the social media has diluted this fragmentation,” he told TRT World.
Parvez was detained for several weeks last year for reporting on human rights abuse in Kashmir. He believes social media is proving out to be an “important instrument in Kashmir for information, connectivity and for mobilisation against atrocities.”
“India, obviously in the absence of a political approach to deal with the Kashmiri demand for self-determination, is trying to control every initiative leading to mass mobilization,” he said.