Two United Nations officials urged the Indian government Thursday to lift a ban on social media and mobile Internet service in Jammu and Kashmir.
The two officials, David Kaye and Michel Forst, said in a statement that the ban had “disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir” and had the “character of collective punishment”.
As frustrations mount, Kashmir residents have reported feeling isolated since the one-month ban on 22 social media sites. “Life feels like a suffocating prison without connections to outside world,” a student Faheem Bhat says.
While the government claims social media sites are being used by “anti-national and subversive elements” to harm the state. The government order said “objectionable content” was being distributed to “spread disaffection” with the authorities through social media.
Journalists and students have contradicted the government’s claims, saying the ban is aimed at tech-savvy Kashmiris who use smart phones to record videos of human rights abuses and upload them to YouTube.
“They want to curb our voices so that the world does not hear us. India claims to be the largest democracy in the world but the ban is a slap on this claim,” said Mehreen Khan, a student at the University of Kashmir at Srinagar.
Another student, Mohsin Sheikh argues: “As a student, the social media ban didn’t affect me much but the ban is a blatant infringement of civil rights. I should be able to decide for myself if I want to use it or not. There are a lot of students studying outside the state whose important link to their families back home is social media.”
While Face book, the primary social media site used in Kashmir, is abundant with information for students preparing for different exams, some students claim that the ban has affected their studies as well.
“It has affected my studies a lot as I am preparing for my entrance. I used to study online most of the times and there were various helpful Facebook pages. Due to the curb on social sites, I have to buy many expensive books,” said Asma Iqbal, who is currently preparing for IAS entrance examination.
Other students have termed the ban a “joke”. They say that in the world, abundant with IT expertises, the ban has had a minimal affect on ground.
Muniba Elahi, a college going student says, “The ban had no impact on me as I am using each and every site the government legally blocked a month ago,” she claims.
“Now Kashmiris are forced to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to sidestep the curb but it slows down the internet speed and playing video on YouTube is almost impossible,” Muniba says.
The Internet has been blocked in Kashmir at least 31 times between 2012 to 2016, according to a report by the Software Freedom Law Centre, an Indian organization that works for online freedom.