Police in Jammu and Kashmir have started recruitment for a special task force of ‘cyber volunteers’ who will patrol social media and flag posts demonstrating a tendency towards radicalisation and ‘anti-national activities’, an initiative which has caused considerable concern among human rights activists.
Earlier this month, the Jammu and Kashmir police issued a press release inviting people to sign up as volunteers who would keep an eye on social media in “identifying online illegal, unlawful content” and report cyber crime to the government.
Citizens, the statement said, could register in any of three categories of cyber volunteers – cyber volunteer unlawful content flagger, cyber awareness promoter, or cyber expert.
There will be no verification process for volunteers who sign up as unlawful content flagger. However, the background of the individuals who join as cyber awareness promoter or cyber expert will be checked, police said.
“The cyber volunteers will act as an extra set of eyes and ears in the virtual world for the police force,” a senior police officer told RFI, requesting anonymity.
The idea of cyber volunteers for law enforcement, however, has worried free speech activists and rights organizations who believe the concept of cyber volunteers is part of a larger enterprise of creating ‘vigilantes’.
“The move will in all probability become a witch-hunt and this is a dangerous trend that could be replicated in other states,” Kavita Krishnan, a civil rights activist told RFI.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for instance, which is ruled by the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, vigilante groups have been peddling a theory of ‘love jihad’ which claims that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to convert them to Islam. This has effectively curbed inter-faith marriages in the state.
“By having an army of cyber volunteers, the government is only trying to legitimize vigilantism,” said Harsh Mander, a social activist who works with survivors of mass violence.
Moreover, the move comes at a time when the government has intensified a crackdown on the media and public dissent against the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
It recently requested that social media platform Twitter suspend accounts that were reportedly sharing misinformation and provocative content around the ongoing farmers’ protests.
People of Jammu and Kashmir have faced unprecedented cyber curbs since the scrapping of its special status and after the state was bifurcated into two union territories in August 2019.
The move is also timed with the restoration of high-speed mobile internet services in the region last week. The 4G mobile internet services were suspended across Jammu and Kashmir. Though 2G services were restored in several places, high-speed services were not restored.
The government had reportedly cited separatists and Pakistan-based terrorism as the reason to restrict high-speed internet in the region.
Journalists in the Kashmir Valley already have a tough time operating under trying conditions and there have been several instances where they have been summoned to police stations and forced to present themselves to explain their news reports.
In July last year, authorities unveiled a new media policy that gives authorities the power to give accreditation to Kashmiri journalists and news outlets, distribute government advertising and determine what constitutes false news or incitement.