By: Murtaza Shibli

Fifth column

The UN has finally shown some movement. Let us call it turning sides while in deep slumber. Last week, a press release issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called India’s ongoing ban on communications in Jammu and Kashmir a collective punishment and demanded that India must lift the siege and protect the right to freedom of expression and pursue an open and democratic dialogue.

The statement issued by two special rapporteurs – UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye and UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst – took a firm stand against the ban and highlighted that the gags were rampant and arbitrary.

Since 2012, the Indian government has enforced at least 31 internet and phone blockades and, for the last nine months of continued mass public
rebellion, the bans have been repeated far too often.

After the press release, I reached out to David Kaye, who is also a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and recorded a detailed interview on the OHCHR’s position on the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Describing the frequent bans on the internet as “a real outbreak of digital age censorship”, David Kaye said: “We often notice [that] these bans are targeted at a particular community or a particular region”. He likened the situation of regular communication gags in Jammu and Kashmir to that of Cameroon, a tiny country in central Africa, where the government blocked the internet for almost 100 days earlier this year.

Kaye acknowledged that India was treating Kashmiris differently from the rest of India. Rebuking the Indian behaviour as unfortunate, the UN human rights expert characterised the Indian response to the Kashmiri protests as “inconsistent with the democratic society” and invited different arms of the UN to “focus on other issues in Kashmir as well”. He showed firm determination to pursue the matter with full vigour. “I will continue to monitor the situation while at the same time encourage the Indian government to avoid...restrictions which we mentioned in our statement as collective punishment”. He also called upon the Kashmiris and others who monitor the situation in Kashmir to cooperate with his office to mount a response to these restrictions.

When I asked him what he makes of these frequent blockades given that India continuously brags about being the world’s largest democracy, he responded with a sardonic laugh. “I am not sure how to answer that”. He added: “India prides itself [on] being the largest democracy in the world but these...restrictions are not in line with the democratic norms”. He also showed surprise and regret at the absence of any debate on these restrictions within India and hoped their press statement could spur a public debate.

The current communication blockade in Kashmir has put “deeper restrictions on freedom of expression that are not about violence but reporting on that violence”. He hoped that the international community will look at Kashmir beyond the domain of violence. “When the international community deals with Kashmir, it is usually in the context of protests, violence and counter violence…but it is not just about violence and the international community needs to focus on this as well”. He called upon the international community to converge on Kashmir and hoped “others in the UN will also get persuaded to talk about the situation and make this an issue so that they are also talking about it”.

Discrediting the Indian rationale on the frequent communication gags, he said “people in Kashmir are being denied access to basic tools of communication for reasons that really don’t hold up”, and termed it as a “basic violation of freedom of expression”.

He regretted that these repeated restrictions were a direct attempt to obliterate the ability of people to receive and share information beyond their borders. He also noted the blockade is being deployed more frequently than in the past. “The current round of restrictions has been persistent for a long time and over the last several months, there has been a kind of persistent return to restricting the internet and mobile phone access. In the last few weeks, I have learned more about the filtering of content and throttling down the speeds of the internet, which make it virtually impossible to go online”.

To a question about what the motivation of their public statement was, David Kayne said that: “our goal is to try to encourage the [Indian] government to come to compliance with its human rights obligations and change the way it addresses information issues in Kashmir”. He hoped their communiqué will allow people in India – NGOs and others – to identify this as a problem that needs to be resolved. “With this public statement, we are identifying a broad problem that is ongoing in the entire territory of Kashmir…something the government needs to address”.

Postscript: Justifying the ban on the internet, Waheed Para, one of the spokespersons of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that rules in coalition with the Hindu extremist BJP, announced a deal for the restive public. “If the people restrain themselves from sharing violent and sensitive videos online, the ban can be revoked tomorrow,” he said. Displaying uncanny political prudence, he observed: “The videos are not going viral after the ban was enforced.

Appendage: The Indian website The Hoot revealed that almost everyone within the ruling coalition was circumventing the ban using the Virtual Private Network (VPN) – a weapon that Kashmiris are using to blunt the gag. Waheed Para himself has been updating his party Twitter handle using the VPN. An anonymous PDP leader told The Hoot: “Like everyone we also access the blocked sites through VPN”. Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister and leader of the pro-India National Conference (NC) – and a known social media addict – is also using a VPN. Imran Nabi Dar, a spokesperson for the NC admitted using a VPN and declared: “Obviously, Omar Sahib would be using [a] VPN too”.