Opinion

WhatsApp in Kashmir: When Big Brother wants to go beyond watching you

Instead of enforcing punitive measures for spreading violence through rumours, the administration sought to prevent private group conversations.

Last week, Kumar Rajiv Ranjan, district magistrate of Kupwara in Jammu and Kashmir issued a circular requiring registration of “WhatsApp news groups” following violent protests in Handwara and Kupwara in which 5 people were killed.

The circular was issued with a view to “restrict the spreading of rumours”. The circular laid down five conditions:

  1. It asked group administrators to register their “WhatsApp news groups” with the ‘District Social Media Centre’ within 10 days of the issuance of the circular.
  2. It required this Centre to keep a “vigil on the activities of these WhatsApp groups”.
  3. It made group administrators responsible for all posts on their group, with any “irresponsible remarks leading to untoward incidents” to be dealt with by the law.
  4. It restrained government employees serving in the Kupwara district from “making any comments/remarks with regard to the policies and decisions” of the Government, failing which strict action will be initiated against them.
  5. It required authorities in Kupwara and Handwara to maintain a list of individuals (with evidence) involved in provoking the creation of law and order problems in the district. 

The Jammu and Kashmir department of information and public relations in a press release also noted that the divisional commissioner “directed the operators of social media news agencies to obtain proper permission from the concerned Deputy Commissioners for posting news on social media news groups along with sources.”

Information Technology Act

As the Centre for Internet and Society has previously pointed out, alarmist news reports, which proclaim that administrators of WhatsApp groups are liable for what the group’s participants post, are wrong.

Unlike many other laws passed by the Indian Parliament, the Information Technology Act is applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. In 2008, the provision that deals with liability of "intermediaries" for the actions of third parties – Section 79 of the IT Act – was amended following the notorious Bazee.com case, where Avnish Bajaj, the chief executive officer of Bazee.com – which is now eBay India – was arrested for a sexually explicit video being sold on that website.

Post-amendment, Section 79 provides strong protection for intermediaries against liability for actions by others, with limited exceptions. The district magistrate of Kupwara roundly ignores this, and in doing so contravenes a law passed by Parliament. His circular states:

“Group admins of each group will be responsible for all the posts on their groups and for any irresponsible remarks/deals leading to untoward incidents will be dealt under law.” 

This is a gross violation of Section 79, and is beyond the powers of the district magistrate.

Freedom of Expression

There is a difference between the press release provided by the department of information and public relations of Jammu & Kashmir, and the circular issued by the district magistrate of Kupwara. The circular states that registration is required, whereas the Divisional Commissioner Dr Asgar Hassan Samoon is quoted as stating that “proper permission from the concerned Deputy Commissioners” is required for “ posting news on social media news groups along with sources” and also that “action will be taken against the violators.”

The latter smacks of the pre-censorship of the Emergency days. It is actually even worse since this applies not just to the mass media, but to everyone. If “permission” of a government official is required to engage in speech, what remains then of the guarantee of freedom of speech and expression in our Constitution?

While the circular – which doesn’t require taking of permission, but requires registration – is nominally better, it is no more within the powers of the district magistrate. The Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867, which (since 1965) is applicable to Jammu & Kashmir, requires registration by all newspapers published in India, but does not cover social media – nor does the Jammu and Kashmir State Press And Publication Act, 1932 cover social media. It is clear that the district magistrate can’t make up requirements when Parliament and State Legislature have opted not to.

Chilling Effect

What the district magistrate has sought to do is not to strongly enforce punitive measures for spreading violence through rumours, which would be welcome. What he has instead sought to do is to prevent private group conversations from taking place, thus directly striking at the intersection of the rights to freedom of expression and opinion, the right to privacy, and the right to assembly. Rumour-mongering with an intention to cause disharmony and violence is clearly undesirable, but it is far more reasonable to counter these both by spreading the truth using the same channels of communication, and through punishment of those engaging in such malicious acts.

Requiring prior permission from, or even registration with, authorities to simply post messages on a WhatsApp group cannot be considered a “reasonable restriction” under Article 19(2) of our Constitution. Having such onerous requirements will only cause the chilling of speech – discouraging of even legitimate and lawful speech because of fears that Big Brother is reading all that you write.

There is unfortunately a long history of such repression in Jammu & Kashmir. Restrictions on text messages – SMSes, as they are called – have been frequent. Internet shutdowns – which caused an uproar when they happened in Egypt – are considered commonplace. Since 2013, there have been at least 15 instances of Internet shutdowns in Jammu & Kashmir.

Rather than countering rumours with truth, the government seeks to counter rumours with fear and the chilling of speech. Satyameva Jayate.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.