In Kashmir, a systematic crackdown on freedom of speech

The gags ordered by the Jammu and Kashmir administration to nearly half a million of its employees and also by the corporates and private companies are violating a fundamental right as they strike at the heart of Article 19 (1A) which grants freedom of speech and expression.

The orders issued over the past few years are indicative of a damning trend that attempts to force a silence in Kashmir and go beyond the scope and definition of “reasonable restrictions”.

The Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India 1949 elaborates the fundamental rights. “All citizens shall have the right,” it reads and the first sub-clause grants the freedom to speech and expression. 

In Kashmir, this fundamental right to speak and express is increasingly becoming suspended, implemented with systematic crackdown that is purging individuals from speaking.

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‘Charge me if you can, don’t threaten me’

Peerzada Waseem, a 26-year-old freelance journalist in north Kashmir, was at home when he got a call from Sopore police station, on 12 May, enquiring about a viral video. He reached the police station, where, he said, the Station House Officer (SHO) shared a laugh on the video and let him go in the afternoon. 

It was the night before Eid-ul-Fitr and Waseem got another call around 8:30 pm, asking him to report at the station again. “I was told that they need to talk for five to ten minutes, but when I reached there, there was a different scene,” Waseem recalled. “The officials there told me that SP (Superintendent of Police) and DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) are not agreeing to let me go.”

The video for which Waseem was summoned was a 26-second voiceover, of a Bollywood movie, on a police raid in a market during Covid-19 lockdown. “The police alleged that I’m one of the persons laughing in the video,” he said.

“They (police) said that they will file an FIR against me and there will be an investigation,” Waseem said. He, however, challenged the police to go ahead if they can find anything against him. “I told them to check my social media and said if I have, then you can go ahead,” he added.

Waseem was detained at the police station, kept in a room, without informing him of any charges. Next morning, on 13 May, he was allowed to leave by the officials.

“Who could have I told this to? Everybody is scared,” he said. “What freedom of expression? What rights?”

At least two other photojournalists, one of them in Sopore and another in Srinagar, also told The Kashmir Walla that they were inquired by the police — on the same day Waseem was detained — about their photographs of police excesses on civilians while imposing the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Waseem and another photojournalist from Sopore claimed that it wasn’t the first time they were called up by the police. He said whenever there is a law and order story, they get a call from the police. Last significant summon came when the police asked Waseem to take down his social media post about Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt last year.

A regressive media policy, summons and detentions of journalists, and filing of cases against them under India’s stringent anti-terror laws are forming an intimidating pattern that has emerged in the last years. Many are now preferring to stay quiet – in real life and on social media.

While Waseem maintained a radio silence about his detention on the eve of Eid, the intimidation from the police didn’t stop, he said. On 14 May, he uploaded a text status on his personal WhatsApp in solidarity with Palestinians as Israel’s military attacked Al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims. 

In the evening, “I was again stopped by the Station House Officer (SHO) in the market and he showed me a screenshot of my status”. 

“The officer asked me: ‘What is wrong with you? Why do you write anything about Palestine?’,” Waseem said. “I told the SHO that if there is an issue then book me, why do you keep threatening me?”

The Kashmir Walla reached out to Azam Khan, the SHO Sopore police station, for a comment. After hearing the query, he said, “I’m in a gathering and I cannot talk, can I call back after ten minutes.” He didn’t respond to repeated queries after that.

Geeta Seshu of Free Speech Collective, a civil society group, said that “surveilling the journalist’s personal WhatsApp account is an invasion of his personal identity”.

The expression of opinions about the Palestine issue has landed several others in police custody this month and included an artist, Mudasir Gul of Srinagar. Gul and twenty others were detained by the police without charges after they had staged pro-Palestine demonstrations and he had drawn pro-Palestine graffiti which the policemen forced him to rub.

Kashmir’s police chief, Vijay Kumar, had said they “wouldn’t allow cynical encashment of the public anger to trigger violence” in Kashmir streets, leveraging “the unfortunate situation in Palestine”. 

“Expressing opinion is a freedom but engineering and inciting violence on streets is unlawful,” Kumar said in a statement, without providing specific evidence, or further clarity.

Mehbooba Mufti, the last chief minister of the erstwhile state of J-K, loathed the police’s detention policy. “Kashmir is an open air prison,” she said.

“People’s thoughts are being monitored and they are punished for it. There is no outlet left to express one’s opinion and this is a deliberate attempt to push Kashmiris to the wall.”

Continuous crackdown on social media

The police has become the implementing agency of the crackdown on free speech in Kashmir. Earlier, the police had questioned a teenage hip-hop artist for his work, and was forcibly locked out of his account on YouTube; the government also rolled out registration of private citizens to police the internet and report alleged cybercrimes. But the administration’s other organs and associated corporates are also part of the scheme to impose a gag on speech and expression.

Jammu and Kashmir Bank, designated as RBI’s agent for banking business in Union Territories of J-K and Ladakh, has taken actions against its officials for their social media posts, according to the bank’s official document obtained by The Kashmir Walla.

The bank’s circular dated 6 August 2020 is one of the several similar notices issued by it that directs the employees against writing any social media posts that are “anti-government”.

In the circular, in possession of The Kashmir Walla, the bank’s management noted that “some employees were seen violating the guidelines … by way of misusing Social Media Platforms, such acts on behalf of employees compelled Management of the Bank to take strict action against these erring officials”.

Though the circular doesn’t specifically mention the actions taken by the management against the employees, The Kashmir Walla has learnt from the sources in the bank that several employees were enquired about their posts. 

The management claimed in the circular that “instances are being reported where employees take to social media platforms/Micro blogging sites to write anti government posts/comments”. 

Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Hasnain Masoodi, the former Jammu and Kashmir High Court judge and a sitting member of parliament, noted that “the protection under Article 19 is equally available against J-K Bank employees as well”. 

“J-K Bank cannot forbid the employees from voicing their opinions. If an employee accepts employment, he doesn’t give up all his powers that are granted to him as part of the democratic polity,” Masoodi said. “Employment doesn’t mean he has surrendered all the rights.”

The circular noted: “It is once again reiterated that no employee shall post/express any remarks/views on Social Media Platform/Micro Blogging Sites which may be against the National interest/government or against Management of the Bank or its policies.” 

The Jammu and Kashmir Bank, which is one of the largest employers in Jammu and Kashmir, also warned that non-compliance “can even lead to his/her dismissal from the services of the Bank”.

Karanjeet Singh, the private secretary of the J-K Bank chairman, told The Kashmir Walla that he cannot recollect the instances of actions against the employees. He denied to comment further.

The Bank’s circular ended with a warning to the employees: “Mind your Language and content at all times”.

A week after the issuance of this circular, on 14 August 2020, The Kashmir Walla had exclusively reported that the police had intimidated, questioned, and detained several social media users for their posts critical of the government. At least two people, in their 20s, were detained. The new found evidences suggest in retrospect that the crackdown against free speech and expression was more widespread than earlier reported.

A year on, one of the detained persons has decided to come on record. In August 2020, 24-year-old Khalid Bhat of Srinagar, an engineering student, was detained for seven hours at a police complex that houses the Cyber Police Station, where he said he was “interrogated”, “mentally tortured”, and “beaten up” for posting “anti-government jokes” on his Twitter handle.

Superintendent of Police Tahir Ashraf, who then headed both the police’s anti-insurgency unit and also the Cyber Police Unit, had denied the allegations. Instead, he said the summons were issued to users after the police had received the complaints of online harassment and bullying.

Ever since, Bhat has minimized his social media activities. “The fear is still there,” he said. “I don’t outrightly say anything anymore.”

For Bhat, the concept of freedom of speech in Kashmir no longer exists. 

Bhat’s Twitter timeline was once dotted with the posts that were critical of governments, now it is mostly “non-political humor”. “Many of my friends deleted their account after my detention,” Bhat said. “The government wants us to be deaf and dumb like Gandhi ji’s monkeys — and say nothing.”

Blanket ban on over 4.5 lakh voices

Hasnain Masoodi, a former Jammu and Kashmir High Court judge and sitting member of parliament, said “restricting an employee’s expression offends his rights under Article 19, of course.” 

“You can expect an employee not to be part of a political party, or support a party on a stage, but that’s all. You cannot put a blanket ban on their right to speak, or seek information,” he said. 

“In my opinion, the principles of freedom of expression and speech are close to our hearts. These are integral parts of our rights. And the state’s policies are offending our rights,” Masoodi added.

Seshu, the activist with Free Speech Collective, said such orders are “absolutely not legal”. She said the “reasonable restrictions” on the freedom of speech and expression defined under Article 19 (2) are limited in scope.

The Article 19 (2) imposes “reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right” in the specific cases of “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.

“So to bring in anything else which curbs people’s right to freedom of expression is unconstitutional and there is absolutely no definition, no legal definitions of what constitutes anti-national,” Seshu said.

The most blanket case of the onslaught against the fundamental right, to speak and to express, has, however, come from the Jammu and Kashmir administration that in 2017 amended its rule book and placed a gag on its 4.5 lakh employees.

The amended Government Employees Conduct Rules 1971 directed the employees “should not engage in discussion on social media by way of tweets, status updates, posts or blogs which are political in nature or on contentious issues or are seen to propagate anything which is anti-social, anti-national or illegal.”

“This policy may restrict the speech of its employees when employees are speaking on matters of public concern or when the Government’s interest in maintaining law and order outweigh (sic) its employees interest of freedom of speech,” the rule summary read.

In March 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir administration continued the policy of suppressing the fundamental right to speak and express when it ordered new employees to submit their social media accounts for police scrutiny. It further deepened the paranoia.

Since the circular, a 27-year-old junior assistant in a government department has avoided using social media.

The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the social media was a platform to voice his opinion “where one could stand for the rights and express opinion”. 

He now goes by a pseudonym on Twitter and keeps the content confined to “only entertainment posts, cringe stuff, or the posts that are in favour of the government because everybody is scared of repercussions”.

“There was some freedom of expression in Kashmir earlier … now I always think what if I lose my job or the worst — the arrest.”

At least eight employees, in private and government sectors, that we spoke with denied to come on record fearing for their jobs. 

The policies of repressing the free speech of employees have also been adopted by other private companies, including radio stations, wherein the employees have been told to not talk on “politics or religion”. 

“If you look at the situation we are in, I cannot come on record,” an employee at a radio station said, adding that their social media handles are the “property of the company” too.

Three consecutive lockdowns since the August 2019 clampdown — when the limited autonomy of J-K was abrogated — the economy has been in shambles and it has increased the insecurity of losing the jobs. 

“My job is really, really important for me, considering the current situations, this is the only source of income right now,” one of the private sector employees told The Kashmir Walla. “Sometimes, I want to scream my lungs out, but I can’t. To survive, your job is important.”

In addition to the blanket ban on political comments, the gag is now extending to other domains including the health sector which has proven insufficient to deal with the second wave of COVID19.

The J-K administration this month barred “all the staff under the administrative domain” of Directorate of Health Services Kashmir to desist from media interactions, forcing doctors to go mute and allowing the administration a free run to project a deceptive all-is-well scenario. 

Seshu, the activist, said that the policies of gag, in private and government sectors, violate the employees’ fundamental rights. “Someone has to challenge the fact that this is wrong,” she told The Kashmir Walla

“This attempt to control people, not just in their workplaces, to extract this kind of compliance from them is really a violation of their very being,” she said.

“If there are so many restrictions on people from every side, they are being boxed,” she said. “So, where is the democratic space?”


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