In a restive region, new government employees whose past social-media posts reveal political opinion may lose salaries or jobs. With politically aware young people, high unemployment, and government jobs now open to outsiders, opportunities for locals, especially Kashmiri Muslims, are at risk
Srinagar: Misbah* is 25, a junior assistant with a government department and was an outspoken political commentator—as many young people tend to be, particularly in restive Kashmir—on issues affecting the former state, including domicile laws to allow outsiders previously reserved government jobs and human-rights violations.
“Being a Kashmiri, it’s impossible not to have an opinion about these issues, which affect you deeply,” she told Article 14.
But since 3 March 2021, when the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government announced it would not clear salaries and allowances to new government employees who do not pass security clearance by the criminal investigation department (CID) of the J&K Police, Misbah, who joined government service in 2020—she requested her department name be withheld—has shut her Twitter account because the new guidelines include scrutiny of social media.
Misbah’s WhatsApp and Facebook accounts are active, but her subjects have changed from politics to Urdu poetry and official updates issued by her department.
The latest in a series of crackdowns over two years to ensure government employees toe the official line, the new order, said experts, may further reduce employment opportunities, especially for Kashmiri Muslims, in a region where thousands recently lost jobs, the unemployment rate is higher than the Indian average and the government is the largest employer.
The undivided state of J&K, with 12.5 million people, hired nearly half a million people, about the same as Bihar, which has a population about eight times as large (lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha had said 11 times, in a much-quoted comparison). Kerala has nearly 516,000 government employees for a population about three times as large.
The issue of perceived radicalisation in J&K employee ranks is not new.
On 4 March 2021, a day after the latest order, Aditya Raj Kaul, a journalist, made public what he said were conversations with Sinha, expressing “amazement” over “how radicalism has been ingrained into the bureaucratic levels; how recruitments have happened of radicals...into mid-level and junior level positions in J&K police...in several departments of J&K government as well.”
As per “my information,” Kaul said, “there would be action taken against them...perhaps in the next six months”. Article 14 could not independently verify these claims.
The attempt to hire employees with a social-media history devoid of political opinion comes at a time when government jobs, once reserved for locals under a now-scrubbed special constitutional status, are now open to outsiders.
“Already there’s a lot of distress concerning unemployment in Kashmir,” said Ejaz Ayoub, a Kashmir-based economist. “The tumultuous political situation has turned Kashmiri people risk averse when it comes to doing business, making state service an attractive and secure option. That’s why when merely 200 government posts fall vacant, applications to fill them come in lakhs.”
Like other new government employees, Misbah is worried. If police background checks on old social-media content reveals political posts, their departments could now potentially stop salaries or dismiss them from service.
The Move Against Free Expression
A number of serving and former employees told Article 14 the new rules reinforced a sense of siege.
A former director of school education said while there was “no doubt” that employees should “adhere scrupulously” to service rules, the new order confers unqualified and unlimited powers to the executive”.
Employees in J&K are already subject to a three-stage verification process after getting an appointment letter: by the local police, the CID and police counter intelligence.
The latest move follows earlier orders restricting government employees from making political comments and getting involved with “proscribed groups”. It also appears to be part of a move to tighten restrictions on free expression, including on the media, which, as Article 14 has
“My father has since been pleading with me to delete all my social media,” said Misbah. “Recently, I shared a story on WhatApp on (Pakistani prime minister) Imran Khan’s speech after he won (a recent parliamentary no-confidence motion). There was nothing seditious about it. It was all over the Internet. But my colleagues immediately rang me up and asked me to remove it.”
Although government employees were already subject to security verifications since 1997, the new order made checks more stringent and called for scrutiny of social media handles on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for new employees.
The government order expressed concern that since “mandatory CID (criminal investigation department) verification pertaining (sic) character, conduct and antecedents have not been initiated or completed...many individuals with dubious character...have been paid salaries”.
On 9, 10 and 26 March, Article 14 sought comment over phone and text messages from the bureaucrat who signed the 3 March order, Manoj Dwivedi, commissioner/secretary to the J&K. There was no response. If he does respond, we will update this story.
Dwivedi’s order draws up a “simplified mechanism of verification process (sic) devised in consultation with (sic) Criminal Investigation Department” that, among other details, seeks information pertaining to “social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc)”.
The order directs all “administrative secretaries, divisional commissioners, deputy commissioners, heads of the departments and managing directors of all PSUs/corporations to identify such cases and ensure that...no new entrant...is paid salary/allowances...till the verification is completed expeditiously”.
Few Job Opportunities
With an post-graduate degree in humanities, Misbah hoped she would become a journalist and advocate fundamental rights and spoke on social issues, but with J&K’s employment rate in general twice as high as India’s average—the last reliable estimate by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) was more than 22% in August 2019—she was happy to land a government job.
But it is clear a plunge in employment began with a lockdown that lasted 68 days nationally—announced on 25 March 2020 with a four-hour notice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—and was exacerbated when on 5 August his government reduced the former state to a union territory and rescinded Article 370, the special constitutional provision that allowed J&K’s accession to India.
For 60 days after, the Kashmir Valley was subject to a stifling security lockdown and the Internet was cut to bottle unrest. The Internet was partially restored on 25 January 2020 but 4G services on cellular phones were suspended for 550 days. The result was that Kashmir’s economy went into a tailspin, losing an estimated half a million jobs and taking an economic hit of Rs 40,000 crore.
“Locked in their houses, Kashmiris face no jobs, no income, no freedom but (sic), no employment,” CMIE managing director and CEO Mahesh Vyas wrote on 10 September 2020, a month after Article 370 was abrogated.
A Slow Tightening Over Two Years
The latest order fits a pattern in vogue since 2019, when the government forbade its employees from voicing opinions perceived to be against India or having links with proscribed groups or individuals.
In March 2019, the J&K police prepared an “adverse” list of 654 government-school teachers with kin involved in militancy or those against whom they had registered cases for anti-government protests.
The list also included names of teachers who were acquitted by the courts. Many were perturbed to find their names in the list just because their siblings had been militants at one point of time in the past.
The 2019 “verification drive”, according to government officials, was intended to “disincentive every activity, small or big against the state”.
The following month, in April 2019, the government warned employees against associating “directly or indirectly” with “unlawful associations,” referring to Jamaat-e-Islami, a social-religious group and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), both of which were proscribed in February and March 2019 in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing that left 50 CRPF personnel dead in Pulwama, south Kashmir.
The term “association” was not defined and both the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JKLF had been a part of Kashmir’s political scene for decades.
In June 2019, the J&K government formed a “multi-disciplinary group” to take action against “hardcore (militant) sympathisers amongst the government employees, including teachers who are providing covert or over support to (militancy-related) activities”.
In August 2020, after J&K was reduced to a union territory, the government said it would dismiss about 1,000 government employees for “posing a threat to security and integrity of the State”. A special provision that discards the need of prior investigation before any such dismissal was invoked so that courts could not interfere.
The government in 2020 modified civil service regulations to allow it to retire government servants who served at least 22 years or reached the age of 48 years based on “performance of employees”. Suspicions have abounded that the order would allow the government to terminate employees—without allowing them recourse to appeals in tribunals or courts— who might hold private opinions that go against the official line.
In February 2021, those suspicions appeared to be confirmed when the government ordered deputy commissioners of all districts in the Kashmir Valley to forward the details of all employees who would complete 22 years of service or attain the age of 48 by December 2021 and specify whether they are involved in any “political activity”.
In November 2020, the UT administration had decided to prematurely retire Fayaz Ahmad Siraj, an orderly, on grounds that he had completed 27 years of service, the first retirement under revised the rules. The Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education, where Siraj worked, only said he was being retired in the “public interest”.
Widening Crackdown On Social Media
The new government order is in line with a growing clampdown on social media to weed out public expression of anger, sorrow or demands for settlement of the 70-year-old political dispute over Kashmir.
The police have summoned users for “anti-national” tweets and rappers for YouTube videos with lyrics about slain militants; filed cases against Instagram users posting photos of slain militant Burhan Wani and cases using the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, against those who accessed the Internet through proxy networks to “propagate secessionist ideology”.
In July 2020, police filed criminal cases against Tahir Nazir Shalla, a government lecturer from Sopore in North Kashmir for posting “anti-national” and “seditious” content on Facebook. Nazir had expressed his anger against police after Bashir Ahmed, a Srinagar man, was shot dead, allegedly during cross fire.
Security forces were criticised on social media for converting Ahmed’s death into a public-relations exercise by placing three-year-old grandson of Ahmed on his motionless corpse and photographing him while he was crying.
Article 14 visited Shalla at his home in July 2020 but he refused to comment, citing bail terms.
In March 2021, J&K police filed UAPA charges against Abdul Bari Naik, PhD, a college professor in Udhampur in Jammu, citing alleged evasion of arrest under a slew of old cases. Bari accused the police of acting against him because he drew attention to the alleged “desecration” of the Quran by the army.
“All this has struck a sense of fear,” said a lecturer at a Srinagar government higher secondary school, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “I am now trying to search my old posts on Facebook. I don’t know what I may have written that could attract action. I cannot even delete the account, as I believe such an act arouses suspicion.”
Wider Implications For Kashmiri Muslims
Legal experts said that the new order and others before it have objectives beyond intimidation of employees and reduce representation of Kashmiri Muslims in government.
“First, they are coming from a government that is not elected,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a scholar of human rights and international law. “Second, this administration consists of bureaucrats who are mostly non-natives.”
The under-representation of Kashmiri Muslims in power structures after the loss of semi-autonomous status and the cleaving of the former state are contentious issues in the Valley.
These anxieties were underscored by an February 2021 speech in parliament by Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, on the declining levels of representation for Kashmiri Muslim representation in the J&K government.
Owaisi said Kashmiri Muslims—who make up 68% of the population in J&K and 97% in Kashmir—occupy five of 24 secretary level posts, 12 of 58 Indian Administrative Service posts, seven of 66 Indian Police Service posts and 108 of 248 tier-two posts.
The Centre’s decision to reduce the share of native candidates promoted to the all India civil services from the state services from 50% to 33% is also likely to result in an increase of non-J&K officers who will run the civil and police administration in the union territory.
The liberalisation of domicile rules in April2020 also means that more non-locals will compete for employment in state services in J&K where, as per Sinha, the governor, natives already enjoy higher levels of participation.
“J&K and Bihar have similar numbers of government employees, whereas Bihar’s population is 11 times that of J&K,” Sinha told The Hindu in November 2020.
Hussain said the government’s order to search old social-media posts of new employees will disadvantage Kashmiri Muslims, who have traditionally expressed their opinion over their disputed political status.
“In such a scenario, it’s likely that there are people who have said or opined something in the past that is deemed objectionable by authorities,” said Hussain. “By making the verification process so strict, the entry of Kashmiris into state service will be further restricted.”
*names have been changed on request
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist based in Srinagar.)