As the Government of India extended 2G services to Jammu and Kashmir after months, many websites continue to remain blacklisted in the region. Among those are social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In order to bypass the ban on social media, people in Kashmir have started using VPNs to bypass the firewall.

Naveed Ul Haq, 21, who lives in the central Kashmir’s Budgam district, likes football, Kashmiri music and Bollywood movies. He plans to study Journalism in Baramulla when he goes to college in 2018.

Naveed is typical of Kashmiri teenagers in another way, too. He has never heard of Virtual Private Network (VPN). He once heard of VPN, though. “Is it maybe like Twitter?” he asked one recent afternoon, referring to dominant search engine.

In August last year, the Central government unilaterally annexed the portion of  territory under its control by stripping the region of its semi-autonomy and statehood and imposed a total communications blackout.

The communication ban also involves a gag on popular social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

Since the internet ban was partially lifted on January 25, this year, some Kashmiris have shared access to banned sites through VPNs and taken to the web to denounce the government’s annexation on the disputed region.

Many international social media websites are banned in Jammu and Kashmir, and using special software called a virtual private network (VPN) to access them can one sometimes lead to jail time.

One who describes himself as patriotic, optimistic is Naveed, 21, Studies in the media department in Govt. run College in northern district of Baramulla. He believes India is a great country and will do his best to make it stronger, he says.

Every evening, he watches one to two hours of movies on his phone. He does not have any news apps on his smartphone, despite being in Journalism, because, he said, he is no more interested in politics. He daily travels  to north Kashmir by train to attend his classes,  he said, when he took admission in College, first time, he then used Google Maps to reach the exact point.

“Social media is a tool which can put all the sensitive things very quickly. That’s the very thing that the central government doesn’t want to see in Kashmir,” said one blogger, Syed Shakir, who had predicted Social media would not be allowed for long time in  the Valley.

“They (Central government) needed time to put Jammu and Kashmir on track and whether it needed to be restored.”

He added: “I don’t know whether they will reopen Social media. I hope they will, for Twitter and Facebook it is a crucial in the new internet era on which many innovations emerge. Central government can’t block the young generation of Jammu and Kashmir from the future.”

While most Kashmiri internet users rely on Social media, which are heavily monitored and controlled, Facebook had become hugely popular among the Vallians. They used the platform to share information on various sensitive issues.

People have resorted to virtual private network (VPN) apps in a bid to bypass the firewall to access social media websites. VPNs use proxy servers that allow users to change their location to circumvent regional internet blockades.

“I have downloaded 28 VPNs, and when one is blocked I will simply switch to the next one,” says Aaqib Nazir, who identified himself as ethical hacker from Baramulla who is travelling back to home from Punjab.

Aaqib has downloaded too many VPNs on his smart phone to access the blocked websites. “It is not only about blocked websites. Being a student I need access to internet, as my exams are coming in next  March.”

“I have been looking for study material in order to pass my coming exams. I will have to go to the  various websites to find material. What if that website has not been put in the whitelisted list? This is where VPN becomes necessary,” Aaqbib told Counter Currents.

But while the people in the Valley were cut-off from the outside world. After the government restored 2G internet services across Kashmir Valley, majority of the users are seen on Social media, despite the ban, and are sending their complaints about the Scraping of ‘Article 370’ and internet ban.

“We netizens are living in stone age by a ‘big blow’. So many famous websites are not accessible … This time, it is huge,” said a Srinagar based Web Security Analyst, Yasir Zargar.

Kirmani Aafaq, a budding photo journalist, said he no longer is able to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He said after the government restored 2G internet,  a friend of his brother’s had told him that those Social media and majority of websites are blocked because some of their content “wasn’t appropriate with Kashmir characteristics”.

“I need them,” he says.

Now when Kirmani moves to Delhi  for holidays, he said, it is hard, not to be able to use useful websites and Social media in Kashmir. When young Kashmiris spend time outside the state, many have to learnt an entirely different internet ecosystem. That happened to Zuhaib Abbass, 24, who moved two years ago from Anantanag in south Kashmir to study Radiology in one of the top University in Delhi. In Delhi, he learned a whole new set of freedom of using internet.

Most important websites become useless as soon as you move towards Kashmir,” he says.

Kashmiris are now widely using VPNs to access social media sites, prompting the J&K administration to work on a plan to prevent them from using such networks.

There’s a new crackdown on Social media users in Kashmir. That many national and international media outlets reported after the Jammu and Kashmir Police  sent a warning to Social media users to avoid “unfavorable statements or postings on social media.” So should you worry about using Social media through VPN in Kashmir valley? As with most things, the answer isn’t clear-cut. After all, Social networking sites are  officially blocked in entire region and inaccessible to locals without a VPN.

Though, funnily enough, most state-run Kashmiri media outlets have Social media accounts- to post stories to readers from outside the state.

The current ban on Social media also seems targeted at local critics of the government.

One entrepreneur (who wished anonymity),  said that using  social media is not a worry when you do not write about Kashmir. Those that do write about Kashmir – even about topics about  human rights – seem to be even more cautious. As one put it, “you’re safe until you’re not safe.”

Social media has been banned in Kashmir. However, many people have been reportedly accessing social media using VPN.

Recently, after J&K Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbagh Singh said at a press conference that those found misusing internet Virtual Private Network (VPN) will be dealt with strictly. So far according to reports, one person from Handwara in north Kashmir has been arrested for misusing the VPN by spreading fake news and rumours on social media. He has been identified as Waseem Majeed Dar.

While, the officials in J&K administration told  this reporter that, “Internet users in the Valley have gone a step further and seem not to be afraid to flaunt their newly acquired ability (VPNs) to access social media. ”

To prevent Kashmiris from using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to access social media, the Jammu and Kashmir administration prepares to create a firewall, but the VPN developers from across the world are tweeting solutions. The VPN develpers are asking Kashmiris not to worry and are also suggesting Kashmiris the way to breach the firewall.

Mir Suhail is a Srinagar based Journalist. He tweets at @KashmirukSuhail 


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