“While we have several effective means of communication for official purposes, social media is one that has accentuated our communication network. During internet bans, our work is not entirely hampered, but there is a little bit of pinch, since that speed and ease of working is not there.”
Internet shutdown robs security forces’ social media lifeline in J&K.
For Mahender, a member of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) posted in Srinagar for the last two years, the internet has been a way to feel virtually close to his children and wife in Bihar, nearly 1,900 kms away. After duty every day, he finds a quiet corner to start video-calling his wife. At the other end, she ensures their two children are beside her. “We discuss how our day went. Most of our conversations revolve around the kids, their schooling and food, and about my parents who live near our house,” says Mahender, who identified himself only with his first name.
However, Mahender and thousands of security personnel like him posted in the Kashmir Valley haven’t found this easy connectivity always reliable, courtesy the government’s frequent internet shutdowns, phone data connectivity cuts, and social media bans.
Jammu & Kashmir has faced 55 internet shutdowns between 2012 and 2017, as recorded by the Software Freedom Law Centre. The administration justifies this crackdown by citing “law-and-order situations” that occur during encounters of security forces with militants and, later, when protests and marches are carried out by civilians during militants’ funerals.
Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces and police on 8 July 2016, triggering a six-month-long “uprising” among civilians in Kashmir. Immediately after the shootout, security agencies shut the internet down. With 55 internet shutdowns in 2017 itself, it is something of a standard practice in Kashmir today to block social media or internet in a district or entire Valley each time there is an encounter. It is also a recurring practice of precaution against protests on Independence and Republic Day every year.
Security forces and police are not untouched by these shutdowns though. There are 47 CRPF battalions posted in the Kashmir region. “Our jawans experience difficulties during internet bans as they are not able to communicate with their families and friends as frequently as they do when internet is working,” says Srinagar-based CRPF Public Relations Officer Rajesh Yadav.
The J&K police, who are at the forefront of quelling protests and maintaining law & order in the Valley with a strength of nearly 100,000, also suffer. There have been growing instances of clashes between the Kashmiri police and protesters who believe their home force is being brutal during crowd control. The policemen have had to hide or operate in plain clothes. A senior police officer in Srinagar, who does not want to be named, says, “Our families are worried about our well-being when we are dealing with frequent agitations. In such a situation, when there is a ban, we find it difficult to stay in touch with our families.”
More dangerously, internet bans also hit the official communication of cops in action. Their offices are equipped with BSNL landline connections, which are rarely shut down, and they usually communicate through wireless; but for mobile internet most of them depend on private internet service providers, owing to their better connectivity, as the rest of the state. A senior police officer who deals with counter-insurgency in Kashmir speaks of the impact of cutting off phone data connectivity. “We have our own WhatsApp groups for quick official communication. We use broadband in offices only and can’t take it to sites of counter-insurgency operations.”
Yadav of the CRPF says, “While we have several effective means of communication for official purposes, social media is one that has accentuated our communication network. During internet bans, our work is not entirely hampered, but there is a little bit of pinch, since that speed and ease of working is not there.” Nevertheless, he defends the ban, insisting that Facebook and WhatsApp are handy tools for people to “flare up” the situation and “mobilise youths” during protests. “So, it becomes a compulsion for the administration to impose the ban.”
Counter-insurgency forces have in the last few years created social media monitoring and surveillance cells. They say it is to equally match the extremists, including those in Pakistan, who use social media services like Telegram, Facebook and WhatsApp now, instead of their phones which can be tapped. It is also to keep an eye on suspected rumour-mongers and propagandists. For instance, 22-year-old Burhan Wani had gained the attention of security forces precisely because of the way he used his huge following, amassed through Facebook posts and gun-toting pictures, to inspire young Kashmiris to militancy.
“There is always monitoring and surveillance. If militants are using it, then they are within the loop,” says Yadav.
There is widespread public outrage against the state government and agencies who impose frequent net bans in Kashmir, but the CRPF official says it hampers their attempts to build an image and do public relations in Kashmir too. “We promote and highlight programmes like Civic Action and Sadhbhavana online, and that’s not possible when there’s no social media.”
“The public’s criticism of the ban is justified,” the counter-insurgency official says. But they are compelled to use it in situations like during the recent scare around braid chopping, which was caused due to “rumour-mongering by persons with vested interests”. Kashmiri civil society had suggested that the police keep the internet up to issue online clarifications trashing the rumours, but it was not to be.
“The internet has made it possible to identify culprits while sitting in an office. But we have to shut it down in case of communal tensions which have the tendency to engulf the whole state,” says the senior cop. “When we have no option left, we go back to traditional human intelligence.”
Name changed to protect identity.
The story first appeared in The Internet centre for society.