Is Facebook, a major conduit for political ideas in Kashmir, about to be banned? Since 2012, the internet has been shut down 28 times in the Valley. On April 17, a police order went out, jamming 3G and 4G mobile internet networks. Now, rumours are rife that social networking sites, especially Facebook, may be shut down for months.

Police officials said the measure is being discussed since February. According to a source in the government who did not want to be identified, many in the administration are in favour of such restrictions. However, a decision is yet to be taken.

Both the police and the political executive believe that social media acts as a “force multiplier” during agitations, causing mass anger by instantly relaying unconfirmed news. In the wake of unrest triggered by militant leader Burhan Wani’s killing in July, mobile internet was cut off for nearly five months. Since most Kashmiris rely on mobile internet rather than broadband, this meant restricted access to social media sites. Yet, during those months, people across the Valley largely managed to remain aware of the events.

Facebook dissent

Over the last few years, Facebook has emerged as an important medium to express dissent in Kashmir, with political cartoons and pictures of protests leading to intense debates and discussions.

For Suhail Naqshbandi, editorial cartoonist at Greater Kashmir, social media has expanded the audience for his work. “My job, as a cartoonist, gets accentuated by social media,” he said. “It’s a big forum for discussion and a lot of feedback. It gives me an idea about the direction in which people are thinking. I keep that in mind. And it’s important to have discussions.”

Social media, Naqshbandi said, has helped bridge the gap in the narratives that people outside the state receive about Kashmir. “People from outside have a different response,” he said. “They get provoked, they troll me but somewhere it hits them, makes them write something.”

Of late, the youth have taken to relaying live through social media gunfights and stone-pelting. The latest ban on 3G and 4G internet, in fact, is aimed at such livestreams and sharing of videos.

Shrinking space

Freedom of expression is constricted in many ways in the Valley – bans imposed by the state, political pressures, social and religious taboos. For many, the proposed ban on the internet will be a blow to one of the last, relatively free spaces in which residents could vent their feelings. One of the many destructive effects of the conflict in the Valley has been on mental health, and social media even allowed a means to bypass the taboos associated with counselling.

Arif Khan, a psychologist based in Srinagar, and his associate run a Facebook group that allows them to stay in touch with patients and respond to their concerns. “Many people can’t go for counselling daily,” Khan said. On an average, he responds to 10 people daily. After the internet disruption, they have been unable to respond to those who seek help.

Several Facebook users posted their Twitter usernames, believing that this forum will not be banned, as well as links to their personal blogs. These would become the means to stay in touch if Facebook is indeed shut down.

Khan tried using an internet café to get around the restrictions. But the café owner, wary after the recent furore over posts and videos, was reluctant to let him use social networking sites. It was only after Khan explained why he wanted to use Facebook that the owner relented.

Facebook has helped reinforce a sense of community, especially in times of distress, through both public conversations and those in private groups. “We can’t build a community on Gmail,” said a government employee who did not wish to be identified. “There are [also] people who do not use it for [political] debates, there are people who use it for keeping in touch with people with whom you can’t meet daily. In Kashmir, it flares up sentiments but it also provides a vent to people. If you block this again, Kashmiris will feel choked.”

Counterproductive move

Many people are of the opinion that the ban, if implemented, would be counterproductive and only magnify rumours. According to Naqshbandi, netizens will find other ways to express themselves. “You cannot suppress opinion. It’s like water, it will find its way,” he said.

Still, Kashmiris are bracing for a ban. Several Facebook users posted their Twitter usernames, believing that this forum will not be banned, as well as links to their personal blogs. These would become the means to stay in touch if Facebook is indeed shut down.

There are other ways, too. On April 9, the day bye-election was held to the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, the internet was shut down. For those who wanted to stay updated about the events, it meant a return to phone text messages.

“This is not something new,” the state government employee pointed out. “Earlier [under the Omar Abdullah government] there was an SMS ban when SMS groups were popular. Now if there is a Facebook ban, people will find alternatives to it.”