On February 25, the police in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district released a statement saying they had “saved a youth from joining militancy”. The 17-year-old had been taken into custody and booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

The teenager’s offence: “misusing VPNs” to access social media websites still banned in Kashmir.

Virtual Private Networks, or VPN, allow users to mask their location while browsing the internet. In Kashmir, there has been a surge of interest in VPN applications after the government allowed limited access to 329 websites in January, after six months of a complete internet shutdown.

Keen to clamp down on VPN use, the security forces first resorted to physical checks of smartphones, as multiple Kashmir residents told Scroll.in. Then, on February 17, the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s cyber wing filed a first information report on the alleged “misuse of social media” through VPNs. The FIR invoked the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code against unknown persons.

According to police officials, there have been no arrests directly under the cyber police’s FIR. But it has kicked into motion several arrests under FIRs filed at the district level. Scroll.in tracked down at least five cases of arrest since February 17, all for social media and VPN use.

One of them is of the 17-year-old teenager who is a student of Class 9 in Ganderbal’s Shallabugh village.

‘Too poor to afford a phone’

The police statement claimed the teenager was in “touch with Pakistan based handlers” over VPN applications. It said: “The accused is highly radicalized, has uploaded objectionable contents on Facebook which includes propagation of ISIS ideology. He had also joined many groups on WhatsApp who are spreading rumours, radicalize the youth and propagate hatred against the India state. All the social sites were accessed by said accused through misuse of internet by using 15 different VPNs.”

The 17-year-old was booked under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which provides for seven years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of aiding or committing an “unlawful activity”. Charges were also made for “disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant” under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

The police statement is silent on the date of the teenager’s detention. The boy’s family said he was picked up by the army and personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s counterinsurgency wing on February 20.

“He doesn’t have a father,” said Firdousa, the teenager’s cousin. “So after school, he works as a labourer to take care of his mother and younger sister. That day, he was working at a neighbour’s, helping construct some shops. He was picked up from there.”

The family is mystified by the Class 9 student’s arrest. “He was too poor to afford a phone,” said Firdousa. “One day his cousin saw him crying because all his friends had a phone except him. So the cousin decided to give him one.” According to the family, the boy was summoned by the police in 2019 but released after being warned not to share pictures of militants.

The family lives in a wood and tin shack divided into a kitchen and a room to sleep in. Next to the shack is a single-storeyed structure made of concrete. “This was built with help from the entire village because the family doesn’t have enough to live on but it’s still not fit to live in,” said a neighbour.

The minor's home in Ganderbal.

A video goes viral

On February 16, videos of an ailing Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a veteran separatist leader of the Hurriyat, went viral on social media. Geelani, who has been under house arrest for years, is heard saying he wishes to be buried at the “martyr’s graveyard” in Srinagar’s Eidgah.

Around 10:30 pm on February 18, the police picked up two domestic workers from Geelani’s home: Sirajuddin Ganai and Imtiyaz Ahmad. “They have been working at the house for many years,” said one of Geelani’s relatives. “Besides buying medicines and groceries, they would take care of household chores and the office.”

A senior police officer in Srinagar said they were arrested by the Jammu and Kashmir Police counterinsurgency unit and questioned about the videos of Geelani.

“I heard one of them has already been released,” said a police official from Budgam district, adjacent to Srinagar. “When the videos went viral, a general FIR against rumour-mongering was registered in the district. It’s an open FIR.”

Another minor arrested

On February 21, the police issued a statement about the arrest of another minor, this time from the Handwara area of Kupwara district. He was accused of “circulating fake news and spreading rumours, hatred through social media platforms.” The boy was booked under Sections 153 (“provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (“promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and race”) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.

The boy’s family said he had been arrested on February 20, a day after he returned from Jammu. The teenager studied in Class 10 at a local school in Handwara and had bought a smartphone a few months ago, said his mother, Rafiqa Begum.

“Sometimes, when he didn’t have school, he used to do some odd jobs in the orchards and make some money,” she said. “We had bought him a simple phone but he had probably sold it and got a big one. He’s just a child. I will never let him use a mobile phone again.”

According to a senior police officer in Handwara, the teenager ran a WhatsApp group with another administrator. “The WhatsApp group had 30-40 members and they were using VPN to post messages in it,” he said. “They were mostly rumours and fake news like Geelani is dead etc. There were also messages of religious hatred.” The other administrator, an adult, is absconding. “We are tracking him and he’ll be arrested soon,” said the police official.

The police claimed the minor had been shifted to a juvenile home in Srinagar within 24 hours of his arrest.But the family contests the claim. “I met him in the Handwara police station on Saturday [February 22]. He was there, sitting on a bench,” said his mother.

Authorities at the local school he attended also said the police were late to verify the boy’s age. “The police came today for his date of birth and other details,” an official from the school told Scroll.in on February 24.

An old photograph of Imtiyaz Kawa.

‘He was illiterate’

On February 18, 35-year-old Imtiyaz Ahmad Kawa, a tourist taxi driver, was arrested for alleged “misuse” of social media. The police in the northern district of Kupwara had filed an FIR against him earlier.

“The FIR in Kupwara was based on a specific instance,” said a senior police officer in Srinagar. “The local police station took cognisance of the issue and booked him under specific provisions of the law. It had nothing to do with the cyber FIR. Similarly, in other cases where people have been arrested for misusing social media, they have been booked by the local police stations.”

On February 15, two policemen, one of them from Kupwara, visited Kawa’s house in downtown Srinagar. “They questioned him about his work and education,” said Rahila Jan, his sister. “Finally, they told him about some old pictures of 2016 unrest that had been uploaded on a Facebook page some months ago.”

They also asked Kawa to visit the Kupwara police station in a few days, Jan said. On February 18, Kawa went, accompanied by driver colleagues. He was arrested.

“He had posted a few photographs in which he was saying that forces have gone berserk in a village called Panzgam and have indulged in vandalism,” Ambarkar Shriram Dhinkar, Senior Superintendent of Police, Kupwara, told Scroll.in. “Fake photographs were part of the post. This was just to incite law and order problems in that area. However, nothing like that had happened.”

While Kawa’s family says the posts emerged on Facebook in September 2019, Dhinkar held that it was uploaded in the run up to August 5. “He was outside [Kashmir] that time,” said Dhinkar. “An FIR was registered as per the contents of the post. Later on, during the technical investigation and sound technical evidence, we identified this person.” He said Kawa had been booked under Section 505.

Kawa’s family is dumbstruck, maintaining that he is illiterate. “He doesn’t even know how to save a contact number in his phone,” said his younger brother, Arshad Ahmad Kawa. “Yes, he used Facebook to upload photos he clicked with tourists but he can’t read a single word.”

According to the family, a cell phone number in Kawa’s name featured in the contact information of a Facebook page. ‘The page’s name is ‘Kashmir – Paradise on Earth’,” said Arshad Kawa. “The pictures mentioned by the police were uploaded to this page in September but we don’t know how Imtiyaz’s contact number got there. All phones and the internet were shut in September last year, how could my brother have been behind this?”

Arshad Kawa said his brother had been arrested because of the Facebook page and not because of any content in his personal Facebook account. “After his arrest, the page has disappeared from Facebook,” said Arshad Kawa.

Kawa, the eldest of three siblings, is the main breadwinner for the family. “He took care of all of us by driving around tourists across Kashmir,” said Rahil Jan. “He is the biggest loser if the situation in Kashmir is bad. I remember tourists used to call him about the situation here and he used to assure them that everything’s fine. How could such a person post an image of violence?”

On February 24, Kawa was granted bail. Abdul Qayoom, his legal counsel, said they were able to get bail relatively fast because the police had not followed the due process required in such cases. “If the police wanted to initiate prosecution against my client, they would have to seek sanction from the Centre or the state government, which in this case would have been district magistrate,” he said. “They had to investigate the matter first and then lodge an FIR. They hadn’t done that.”