Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Kashmiris and High-Speed Internet: A Tragic Love Story

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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Kashmiris and High-Speed Internet: A Tragic Love Story


Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 6, 2021


People Protesting in Kashmir

People Protesting in Kashmir | Source: Countercurrents

Over sixteen months have passed since the India’s government imposed a ban on high-speed mobile data services in Jammu and Kashmir with the exception of two districts—Ganderbal and Udhampur. This ban has been extended. On 25th December, an order was issued by J&K administration stating that the ban has been extended till Jan 8, 2021. On August 5th, 2019, the central government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A and mobile internet services were temporarily suspended due to security reasons. However, the suspension of high-speed mobile data services is not seeing an end. This has taken a toll on several businesses and students especially during the pandemic.

Iqra Ahmed—a fashion designer—took over four years to build her fashion brand online. Her clothing brand, Tuv Palav had a great recognition online through social media where Iqra had over 50,000 followers. She used Instagram to promote Kashmiri clothing. In August 2019, when the government revoked the erstwhile state’s constitutional autonomy, the valley saw a communication blackout and Iqra lost a large portion of her customer base. About 5 months later, 2G internet was partially restored, that is in Jan 2020 but social media services like Instagram were still inaccessible.

Iqra Ahmed, fashion designer from Kashmir | Source: Gyawun

In desperation, Iqra and many others like her opted to use Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

VPN allows users to hide their location while browsing the web, effectively helping in circumventing the ban. Kashmir saw a sudden surge of interest in VPN applications a few months after the ban.

According to several residents of Kashmir, the use of VPNs created a tension between civilians and the army. In several regions of South Kashmir, Army personnel allegedly checked the phones of youth for VPN apps. If any such apps were found, the youth were either thrashed or their phones were seized and they were bullied and harassed to collect it from the army camps.

“I was traveling to Shopian (district in J&K) when our cab was stopped at a checkpoint. The army man asked the guy sitting beside me how many VPNs he has on his phone. The guy replied none. ‘You better not have VPNs, otherwise, you know what we will do,’” Shefali Rafiq, a local girl, narrated her experience on Twitter. Using VPN was not a choice made for entertainment but one that was made out of desperation. Several people hadn’t seen the faces of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings and other family members living away from Jammu and Kashmir in months.

For instance, 61-year-old Shameema Banoo hadn’t seen her younger son in over 6 months. Parray, her younger son works at Riyadh, Saudhi Arabia as a hotel manager. “Last time on the evening of August 4th, I saw him through a video call. It was only after six months, on 5th of February, that my elder son brought a VPN application in his phone, by which I got connected with my beloved son,” said Shameema with tears and a smile.

However, several Kashmiris were unaware about the security issues that come with free VPNs. Hackers have breached the bank accounts of several people across the valley. In some cases, when users used VPNs for e-banking, hackers have also managed to withdraw their money. Surfshark, a UK based VPN company conducted a research on free VPNs which revealed that these VPNs can potentially jeopardize more than just user browsing history. Free VPNs build a profitable business model by selling user information to bidders which includes government agencies or authorities. In some cases, third parties were directly allowed to access user information. On the grounds of their study, Surfshark stated that free VPN service providers were culprits of user data abuse.

The people of Kashmir seemed to be unaware of these issues. People who travelled outside Kashmir, came back with seven to eight VPNs as backups as authorities were blocking and barring VPNs every day. The government also cracked down VPN users by filing an open FIR under which over hundreds of suspected users were probed and arrested several for allegedly misusing social media to promote “unlawful activities and secessionist ideology.”

On 4th March 2020, use of social media was legalized in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiris didn’t forget about those who supported them during the times of restriction. Kashmiris have developed a strange love for VPN developers past the customs of law. They showed their hospitality and gratitude to all VPN developers. Among several VPNs, LetsVPN was widely used. Kashmiris expressed their kindness by sending chai samovar, a bundle of kangris sonn sund pond (golden coin), besrakh tooker (a basket of sweets) and other gifts to the Canadian based creator of LetsVPN. These are the items that are usually sent by the bride’s family to the to-be in laws as a token of respect.

Another user shared on twitter that the experience of using VPN applications was similar to the Islam holy month of Ramzan, at first, a little hardship is endured but as the days go by, one gets used to it and after the month is over, it is missed badly and dearly.

However, Kashmiris haven’t met their happy endings yet. The ban of high speed mobile data is taking a toll on students. Several students have missed an entire online semester and were even unable to take their exams. Several students wrote to the union education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal voicing their concerns about the apathy that universities all over India expressed toward the students of Kashmir.

Rashida Bashir, a 20-year-old sociology student from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi said that she and some of her friends were not able to join classes using 2G. “How can we appear in the online examination without any issues?” she questioned. She expressed that JMI asked the students to ensure high-speed, uninterrupted internet connectivity and also that owning a laptop was considered a necessity. She further stated that the students were asked to ensure that they have uninterrupted electricity while taking the exams. She mentioned that everybody did not own a laptop or WiFi connection and she mentioned that Handwara, North Kashmir, her place of residence experienced frequent power cuts.                                                                                  

“My classmates are privileged as the internet comes easy for them. But I have to go through a lot of issues and I’m suffering” said Masoodi. Durdana Masoodi, a student from Miranda House, Delhi said that she reached out to one of her professors for help who understood her problem and agreed to send her the lecture notes. However, that did not resolve the problem. It isn’t easy to download notes on the internet either. Anything over file size one-megabyte would take over an hour to download.

Many students, especially girls in Kashmir dropped out after 10th and 12th grade due to the pandemic which coincided with ban of high-speed internet. Students from Kashmir urged their schools and universities to scrap the autocratic decision to conduct online proctored examinations. They requested the union education minister and universities to consider their situation and sought help to resolve this issue.

It is important to deploy high level of security measures in J&K due to long standing issues with Pakistan and current impasse with China. However, the government must also consider the fact that education of students, careers of many, and livelihood of the people during this pandemic is at stake due to the ban on high speed internet. It should also understand that throttling the internet in J&K, instead of strengthening security, may prove to be more of a security threat by further alienating the people who are adversely impacted by it.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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