Last week, India restored limited internet access in Kashmir after close to six months – the longest in a democracy – but major social media sites remain blocked for seven million residents of the Muslim-majority region.
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.
Widely popular social media sites like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram continue to be blocked.
Authorities in India-administered Kashmir resumed slow-speed 2G services on Friday but granted access to only 300 odd “whitelisted” websites, which include tax collection, education, banking and government department websites.
Sheikh Adnan, a film studies scholar based in the Indian capital New Delhi, could video call his parents back home in Kashmir for the first time in almost six months, thanks to VPN.
“It was very overwhelming. I hadn’t seen my parents all these months. When I learned about this VPN thing, I asked my friend to rush to my home and fix VPN for my parents. They downloaded half a dozen VPN applications before one eventually helped in connecting a video call through WhatsApp,” Adnan told Al Jazeera.
“I couldn’t hold my tears nor could I look into her eyes. The call was very brief owing to poor connectivity issues,” he said.
Fearing widespread protests, internet services had been suspended in the conflict-wracked region since August 5, when India revoked the region’s partial autonomy and statehood.
Almost after 175 days, 21 hours and 20 mins, I am able to tweet directly from my home; using some VPN and having this simple pleasure with so complexity! Because maybe we live where silence has a value and questioning is seditious! #Kashmir
— Quratulain Rehbar (@ainulrhbr) January 28, 2020
On Monday, many of the Kashmiris could be seen announcing their arrival on social media portals like Facebook and Instagram with messages like “Viva La VPN”.
“If you see this post, please rate VPN’s with 5 stars,” wrote Aaqib Junaid on his Facebook page.
“‘Which VPN you are using’ has replaced ‘Salam Alaykum’ [Muslim greetings] in Kashmir,” wrote another user, Irfan Mehraj, referring to the most asked questions on social media.
Since authorities keep on blocking VPNs as well, many Kashmiris are downloading dozens of VPN apps on their gadgets in a bid to enhance and prolong their chance of using social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
“I downloaded many VPNs, and when one is blocked I will simply switch to the next one,” says Tafheem Qadri, a materials engineer from Srinagar who is travelling back to the Himalayan region from New Delhi.
Qadri has downloaded 14 VPN apps on his mobile to access the internet. “It is not only about social media. I am a student and need access to internet. What they [government] have done is that they have given us access to websites like Gmail.
“I have been looking at universities in order to apply for my master’s degree. Now, for instance, if I apply and I get an offer letter, I will have to go to the website of the university. What if that university has not been put in the whitelisted list? This is where VPN becomes absolutely necessary,” Qadri told Al Jazeera.
Gowhar Farooq Bhat, from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that the ban on social media is primarily aimed at stopping the audiovisual content from the conflict zone to come out.
“People must have shot videos and audios on their mobile gadgets about what has happened in the region in last six months. Such content is powerful and often leads to mobilisation and social media helps in easy dissemination, so obviously government wouldn’t want it to go viral,” he said.
Despite the increasing use of VPN, many people from the region complain that owing to poor speed of internet they can hardly access it, leave alone social media.
“The speed is so slow, it takes a few minutes for a picture to appear on screen. A simple 10MB file would take you an entire night to download,” said Oman Ahmed, a resident of Srinagar.