Every second day, Zaraf Shah, a structural engineer based in Dubai, calls her parents in Kashmir on WhatsApp. For her, like for so many other expatriates, the messaging app saves money and allows her to stay in touch with friends and family back home.

Though the United Arab Emirates has banned internet phone calls, including those on WhatsApp and Facebook, social media users like Shah pay for virtual private networks to bypass the ban. The monthly cost of a shared private network is about half the cost of a minute-long call home.

For a 24-year-old woman in Central Kashmir, WhatsApp is a convenient tool to avoid a snooping, repressive father. “I rely heavily on WhatsApp to make calls,” she said. “It is not difficult to bribe and obtain anyone’s call records here.” She said women often face the prospect of male members of their family seeking to monitor their phone calls. “WhatsApp helped us avoid these hassles, it left no record,” she added.

In Kashmir, WhatsApp and other internet-based applications have also, to some extent, helped bridge the gap between families divided by the Line of Control. Making regular phone calls to or receiving one from the Pakistan-controlled side is difficult and restricted.

But on Monday, The Economic Times reported that a ban on voice and video calls over WhatsApp was discussed at a meeting in Delhi attended by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba, top officials of the telecom department and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and officers from security agencies and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. The Gulf countries were cited as examples.

Blamed for unrest

In the last few years, social media has brought militants in Kashmir out of hiding with their photographs and videos floating around WhatsApp conversations and Facebook posts. Since at least the unrest of 2016, security agencies have blamed social media not just for the dissemination of anti-India content but also for mass mobilisations on the street, particularly through countless WhatsApp groups, some of which they believe are run from Pakistan. Police officials say the largely untrackable conversations on these platforms are a worry.

A senior police official in the Valley, who did not wish to be identified, accused separatists of using internet applications to communicate with the Pakistan-based leaders of various militant organisations. According to the official, blocking voice and video calls as punishment for “misuse” of these services would “help bring some accountability”. He said such a step, along with the linking of SIM cards with Aadhaar numbers, was needed in Kashmir. “There has to be some regulation,” he added.

Citing the case of the United Arab Emirates as “one of the best examples” of social media censorship, the official said such measures would help improve the security situation in the Valley, especially as there has been “no progress” on the political or policy front and the state has lacked the will to prosecute the separatists and hold them accountable.

The official went on to say that blocking calling features on social media would not affect other aspects of life. “Service providers, too, have to help detect misuse,” he added. “If their services are being misused, they cannot say they are not liable.”

Several police officials said they also hoped that by restricting encrypted, internet-based communications in Kashmir, militants would be forced to use regular channels of communication that could be easily put under surveillance.

Frequent internet bans have become commonplace in Kashmir in the last few years. (Credit: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP)

‘Collective punishment’

Internet blackouts in Kashmir – some limited to a certain area and some spanning the Valley – have become routine and frequent. With any disturbance, such as a gunfight between militants and security forces, mobile internet services are shut down for entire districts. With 72 internet shutdowns since 2012, Kashmir accounts for half of the internet outages in India, according to a tracker maintained by the Delhi-based non-profit Software Freedom Law Centre. Over the years, the state government has also devised indirect methods of restricting social media access. Police officials in the Valley say the bandwidth allowed for social media sites and applications in Kashmir has been downgraded to delay the sending of text messages and prevent the downloading of pictures and videos on phones.

In April 2017, the state government banned 22 social media platforms, including Facebook and WhatsApp, for a month, citing misuse by “anti-national elements and anti-social elements by transmitting inflammatory messages, in various forms”. Though many circumvented the ban through virtual private networks, these remained unreliable as they were free services that often stopped working abruptly.

The administration’s approach to internet shutdowns and bans has been criticised in some quarters. In May last year, the United Nations took note of the ban on social media in Kashmir. “The internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment,” noted the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.

In the same statement, two United Nations human rights experts, including Kaye, stated, “The scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir, undermining the Government’s stated aim of preventing dissemination of information that could lead to violence.”

Citing a Scroll.in report, Apar Gupta, co-founder and trustee of the Internet Freedom Project in India, said most shutdowns were ordered under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, under which administrations can “confiscate property for short periods of time”. This, however, was “supposed to change” after the “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017” were formulated in August. These rules were meant to create an administrative structure at both the Central and state levels to issue legal orders for shutting down the internet. Review committees are to oversee this process at both levels.

Gupta said that any restriction on social media is “a violation of the right to receive information under freedom of speech and expression”. Acknowledging that the Valley has seen a “higher degree of internet censorship”, he pointed out that internet bans have become “a required tool of bureaucratic process, down to the district levels” across the country. “Bans have been ordered for minute instances with no link to actual evidences of harm,” he said.

Gupta pointed out that a ban on social media in Kashmir would only “hurt people in a conflict situation by isolating them”. He explained that “if people are not able to get in touch and send messages of safety, it leads to higher degree of tensions” that eventually “increases a perception of threat and insecurity”.

Last year, India recommended stringent net neutrality regulations that stipulated that internet service providers cannot prevent access to or charge more for specific digital services or platforms. If net neutrality laws make a provision for exemptions citing threat to national security, Gupta said, it must “go through proper disclosure and formal order unlike situations where this does not come in the public”.