The Jammu and Kashmir government has now imposed restrictions on the use of social media by its employees, that is, an estimated 5,00,000 individuals. In an order issued on Tuesday, it made an amendment to the Government Employment Rules, 1971, to add the following sub-rule:
“No Government employee shall engage in any criminal, dishonest, immoral or notoriously disgraceful conduct on social media which may be prejudicial to the Government. They shall also not use their personal social media accounts for any political activity or endorse the posts or tweets or blogs of any political activities in any matter whatsoever. They shall also not post inflammatory, extraneous messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on topic discussion”.
Posting in code
Shortly after a copy of the order was circulated on social media, it drew criticism from various quarters, including government employees. Shah Faesal, the famous Indian Administrative Services officer from Kashmir who was also former director of school education in the state, mocked the order in a Facebook post. He would use “code language” as government employees were to receive a “foot whipping” for using Facebook, Faesal wrote. However, in a later post he called for government employees to display “good behaviour” on social media.
Political leaders from both separatist and mainstream parties issued a barrage of statements against the curbs. The main opposition party in the state, the National Conference, in a statement issued on Wednesday, called the amendment a “tyrannical” order which “aims to defame and vilify lakhs of government employees as either terrorists or anti-social elements”. The party’s state spokesperson, Junaid Azim Mattu, argued that the gag revealed the government’s “chronic sense of insecurity and intolerance to criticism and contrarian views”.
“It is quite possible that the government might issue another diktat asking government employees to endorse every post and tweet of Mehbooba Mufti on social media – given the damning invective of indifference people have shown towards her. This level of pettiness is unbecoming,” said Mattu, taking a jibe at the government.
Mattu also criticised the People’s Democratic Party and Mufti for sacrificing “every possible vestige of propriety and rules of conduct by handpicking anti-social and openly partisan trolls from social media to function as her secretaries and official staff – a reward given to them for abusing PDP’s political opponents.”
Yusuf Tarigami, the Communist Party of India legislator from South Kashmir’s Kulgam, issued a statement where he called the order “highly undemocratic and arbitrary” and asked for its revocation.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the separatist Hurriyat Conference (M), called the order despotic and aimed at suppressing the aspirations of the people”, and said it betrayed the “nervousness of the government”.
Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik castigated the government for “resembling a North Korea-type dictatorship” and launching a “direct attack on the freedom of speech”. The order, he said, effectively banned government employees from raising their voice against human rights violations in the state.
Government spokesperson Naeem Akhtar played down the gag. “Personally, I feel that social media is a reality and there can be no blanket ban on it,” Akhtar told The Indian Express. “But civil servants should conduct themselves in accordance with conduct rules.”
He did not clarify, however, what constituted conduct that may be “prejudicial to the government” and what political activities employees may not endorse.
Most government employees in the Valley, however, already tread cautiously in public forums to avoid attention from the government. “We have bartered our little freedoms for our livelihood,” said one government employee.
Being in the government’s service meant self-censorship was a given. “There are those who are vocal but the majority already censors itself. Not many have lost their jobs but there are other ways, our lives can be made difficult,” he said. “Everyone gets easily upset here.”
Another government employee in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district called the order “dictatorial” in a place where social media provided a vent for collective grief or anger. “A simple example of sharing pictures of grief, a mother in tears over her son, is now a crime. We can’t even do that now. No one wants to be suspended,” he complained.
“The battlefields have shifted,” he pointed out. “Now even wars are fought on social media. Burhan Wani did and shook the Valley, and Zakir Musa is now doing it. This government sees social media as a threat.” In April this year, the state government had banned 22 social media networks, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, claiming “anti-social elements” transmitted “inflammatory messages in various forms” through these forums. The ban was, however, bypassed by users who accessed social media using virtual private networks on their phones and computers.
Anti-India sentiments run deep in the Kashmir Valley and government employees are no exception. Many of those who work with the government have also taken part in protests or shared separatist sympathies. Setting up social media accounts under false identities to voice their opinions, the government employee from Anantnag said, could be an alternative after the curbs. “A fake profile is still not the same as being ourselves but it’s better than losing our jobs. We can’t lose our jobs, we can’t lose our aspirations either.”
Meanwhile, the state has been painfully slow to catch up with its ideological adversaries on social media. Former chief minister Omar Abdullah is among the oldest of the Twitterati from the Valley’s political elite but the government’s presence was still not felt on such forums. An active outreach on social media has only developed recently. Various government departments and senior police officials have taken to Twitter.
Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti started tweeting in September. In her first tweet, she shared a short promotional film for the state’s tourism department.