Two United Nations officials urged the Indian government Thursday to lift a ban on social media and mobile Internet service in the Indian-controlled portion of disputed 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,” according to the Associated Press.
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,” said journalist Umar Ganie.
The state government claims social media sites were 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, doctors and students have contradicted the government’s claims, saying the ban is aimed at tech-savvy Kashmiris who use smartphones to record videos of human rights abuses and upload them to YouTube.
A video circulated online last month showed a Kashmiri man tied to the front of an army jeep, being used as a human shield against stone-throwing protesters. Another video in early April showed an Indian paramilitary soldier being heckled and slapped by protesters outside a polling station.
“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.
Protests and clashes occur almost daily in Kashmir, where anti-India sentiment runs deep among the mostly-Muslim population after decades of armed rebellion and military crackdowns.
Disputes over control of the divided Kashmir region, claimed by both India and Pakistan, have sparked two wars between the nuclear-armed nations since 1947. More than 44,231 people have been killed in Kashmir since the violent unrest started, according to the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.
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.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has asked India to revoke the social media ban.”The sweeping censorship of social media under the pretext of ‘maintaining peace and order’ will bring neither peace nor order,” Steven Butler, the committee’s Asia program coordinator, said in a statement.
“We express our life with social media. But in Kashmir we are not allowed to express the grief over brutality we face each day by India.
Wasim Jan, a bank employee, says freedom of expression is being curbed to portray India as a good democracy.
“When infants, children, students, are treated like terrorists and are killed each day, why wouldn’t a person with a voice raise and join the protests. Here in Kashmir even girls are not spared. Tear gas shells, pellets even bullets were fired on them as well,” Jan said.
Sabreena Mir, a teacher at a New Delhi public school in Srinagar and a resident of Kashmir, said her coordination with students is hampered by the social media ban. “I am not able to give assignments and other education-related materials to my students through WhatsApp or other social media tools,” she said.
Some Kashmiri youth are looking for alternative ways to get around the ban.
“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,” Ganie said.