In Kashmir, another police complaint, another public gag order. On June 7, the Jammu and Kashmir police lodged an “open FIR” against social media criticism of a judgment passed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court on May 28. The court ruling had upheld the incarceration of Kashmir Bar Council President Mian Qayoom under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law, on the grounds that there was no evidence to show he had “shunned his separatist ideology”. The 76-year-old lawyer had been detained last year because his ideology had been deemed a threat to public order. As they filed an FIR criminalising criticism of his continued detention, the police cited the “threat of disharmony in the general public” once again.
Since the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy and split the former state into two Union Territories on August 5, “public order” has become a powerful reason to block the flow of public discourse in Kashmir. It has been used to paralyse the local press and intimidate reporters in the Valley. Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued a vaguely worded statement about a new “media policy” that will “raise alarm against any attempt to use media to vitiate public peace, sovereignty and integrity of the country”.
The crackdown on the news media has been extended to social media, which has also been under the security scanner for some years now. Blanket social media and internet bans have been replaced by more direct police action. Back in February the Kashmir cyber police had filed yet another FIR against the “misuse of social media” and the use of virtual protection networks, which allow users to mask their location while browsing the internet. Offenders could be booked under anti-terror laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Like the current complaint, it was an “open FIR”. Nobody is named; the police have the licence to fill in the names of the accused as and when it sees fit. The open FIR in February had triggered a spree of arrests, including that of a 17-year-old booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The new FIR now looms over any would-be social media critic. Lawyers in Kashmir have already been summoned by the police to explain their social media comments on the high court judgment.
Never mind that the use of anti-terror laws against social media posts is disproportionate to the alleged offences. Never mind that open-ended FIRs against crimes not yet committed go against legal common sense. As the Jammu and Kashmir Police piles up the paperwork and fills up jails, it must ask itself whether these actions meet its own stated aims. Does it really believe that preventing free debate on a judicial order will shore up the credibility of the judiciary as an institution? Does it really believe choking off channels of information and expression will preserve public order in the long run?