For the last four months, millions of people in Kashmir have been shut off from the world by the Indian government’s blanket internet shutdown. Now, their WhatsApp accounts are being systematically shut down, taking away a vital method of communicating with each other and potentially erasing years of photos, videos, and cherished memories.
Kashmir’s virtual lockdown began four months ago, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special autonomy given to India’s only Muslim-majority state. The government deployed tens of thousands of troops to the region to quell resistance and impose severe restrictions on travel. It also cut off virtually all phone and internet communications.
Reports of accounts being deleted began to filter through on social media on Wednesday when WhatsApp account holders in other parts of India began to notice that friends and relatives they had not heard from since the internet blackout began on August 5 suddenly started to disappear from their contact lists, as first reported by BuzzFeed.
“We haven’t used our family group chat since Aug. 5, but today it was heart-wrenching and mildly tear-jerking to see all my people ‘leave’ our group,” a Twitter user called Soprich said. “Those who still have access to their family’s idiosyncrasies should consider themselves privileged.”
WhatsApp says the decision to delete the accounts was an automatic one.
“To maintain security and limit data retention, WhatsApp accounts generally expire after 120 days of inactivity," WhatsApp said. “When that happens, those accounts automatically exit their WhatsApp groups. People will need to be re-added to groups upon regaining access to the Internet and joining WhatsApp again.”
A WhatsApp spokesman told VICE News that the account holders would be able to reactivate their accounts once they regained access to the internet and said that if they were using the same phone then all their old content, which is stored on the device, would be restored.
He warned, however, that the deletion of the account posed a security risk as people in Kashmir are not able to receive SMS messages, then it's possible someone could register your account if they know the number. The spokesman could not say how many accounts had been affected.
WhatsApp is the main messaging app in India where it has over 400 million users. The app has been used to spread hate speech and linked to multiple violent attacks and lynchings, but it remains a vital communication tool for not only for family and friends, as well as for businesses, which use it to communicate with customers.
It is also used by charity organizations to coordinate relief efforts in the region.
“People who used to run NGOs supporting orphans, disabled people or the poor used to only communicate on WhatsApp groups,” Muneer Mustafa, an IT engineer from Tral in Kashmir, told VICE News. “There were hundreds of virtual groups who used to support needy people through WhatsApp only.”
Khalid Shah, a Kashmir expert with the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think tank, said he has seen hundreds of accounts leave groups based in Kashmir and points out that those groups — which can have thousands of members — may not recover as the administrators are also based in Kashmir and are having their accounts revoked.
“The mass exit of the Kashmiris from WhatsApp reminded us once again of the undemocratic, unilateral decision taken by the government of India to snatch the land rights of people of Kashmir, while their leadership is jailed, protests are banned, communications are snapped,” Shahnawaz Kaloo, a Kashmiri doctor who now works in Delhi, told VICE News. “It reminded us all how we were reduced to nothing in the darkness of night between Aug. 4 and Aug 5.”
WhatsApp has not said how many account holders have been impacted, but one estimate suggests that well over a million account holders may have suddenly been wiped from the platform.
“Given that it was users in the Valley region of the state who were hit by continued internet disruption for straight 120 days, it is safe to assume that roughly 1.5 million WhatsApp users may have got deactivated on a single day on Wednesday,” Faisal Kawoosa, founder of telecom consulting firm techARC, told the Times of India.
But whatever the numbers, many people have lost access to their main form of communication, and the consequences will be devastating. For people like journalist Baba Umar, whose sister disappeared from the platform on Wednesday, the account deletion will have a profound and long-lasting effect.
“It means she doesn’t have access to years of pictures, videos, and, fundamentally, memories, that we shared with each other on the app. India's control of technology is coming in the way of Kashmir's memories.”
Cover: Kashmiri journalists hold placards and protest against 100 days of internet blockade in the region in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Internet services have been cut since Aug. 5 when Indian-controlled Kashmir's semi-autonomous status was removed. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)