The move follows a gradual increase in online surveillance throughout the past few years in Kashmir, as youths have turned to social media as a form of political expression. After people in the Kashmir Valley protested the recent anti-Islam video that unleashed similar protests across the Muslim world, observers say it gave the government the excuse it was looking for and YouTube and Facebook went dead.
“This is one more step in pursuit of depriving the people of avenues of expression. The telecast of blasphemous film on YouTube simply served as a pretext to execute a predetermined policy by the government,” says Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst and academic who teaches human rights at Kashmir University.
For six decades, a piece of land about the size of Britain situated between Pakistan and India has been the source of major tension and fighting between the two countries. Many within the mostly-Muslim Kashmir Valley want to be free of India. Nearly 70,000 people died following the outbreak of an armed Kashmiri insurgency in 1989, now quelled.
Kashmir’s state government has clamped down on freedom of speech in the past. During mass street protests in 2008, the government banned SMS text messaging. And since another protest wave in 2010, a number of college students have been arrested and taken to Cyber Cell Police Station, located in the summer capital of Srinagar, for posting or uploading anti-India text or pictures on Facebook or YouTube.
“Such a move by the government is a serious infringement on the freedom of speech,” says Sameer Yasir, assistant professor at the Centre for International Relations at the Islamic University of Science and Technology. The state has long wanted to block these specific sites, he says, but worried about popular outcry. This unprecedented step, he says, ultimately causes free speech to suffer. “This is unethical because social networking sites provide information to people. [A] gag on these sites is a suffering,” he says.
Dr. Hussain agrees: “Avenues of communication remain strangulated in Kashmir,” he says. “Internet was allowed after a lot of persuasion and resentment,” he adds. “However, with the passage of time other avenues of expression and communication were choked. The local news channels [have been] unable to telecast news and commentary since 2010 mass protests. SMS is banned on prepaid mobile networks.”
The Internet has been widely used by people in Kashmir, especially as a tool during times of military clampdown. Groups resisting Indian rule use Facebook to disseminate their message through Facebook pages such as "Freedom of Dawn," "Hoshar Jamaat" (Awakened Group), and "Kale Kharaab" (Hot Headed).
The popular separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has been using YouTube as a way to get around the fact that the state government doesn’t allow him to address any public rally or go to Friday prayers.
One popular Facebook group, Aalaw (A call), found a way to still post a protest. The group recently posted on its feed: “Facebook partially banned in valley, sms banned, people caged this is what you called indian demon-crazy. Down with indian state and its policies. Aalaw will continue to reach you no matter facebook gets blocked in valley. Aalaw Radio Is on Cards.(sic)”
The private Internet service providers said their customer care executives reported that Facebook and YouTube would be restored after the ban is lifted by the government, but they are not sure when that will happen.