Not locked out: Youth near Dal Lake use smartphones and new social media options to connect.

Tech-savvy teens develop alternative social networking platforms for the Valley

A bright and windy day, when tourists were out and about in Srinagar, turned dark in minutes. Shops and schools shut, children rushed home, police swarmed the streets and internet links snapped, as news of top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Sabzar Bhat’s death broke. But amidst the chaos, two teens were busy making plans to attract more traffic to their ‘business projects’.

“We need to plan, during calm and chaos…call me later,” said one of the teenagers, Zeyan Shafiq. Three days later, the 15-year-old met this correspondent in one of Srinagar’s swankier cafes. Zeyan’s ‘projects’ are rooted in the successful model of giants like Facebook, and WeChat of China. Along with Uzair, a second year engineering student, he has created Facebook’s alternative for Kashmir – Kashbook.

The site, Zeyan claimed, has over 10,000 users since it launched in mid-May, in the wake of the April 26 social media ban. Facebook is among 22 top social media sites blocked in the valley.

“People miss Facebook. I was toying with the alternative since 2013, and the ban spurred Kashbook’s launch,” said Zeyan. Registering on Kashbook is “as simple as Facebook” and the site looks attractive with a blue-white theme. While the user base seemed smaller than what Zeyan claimed, Kashbook does connect many people. Several posted comments; a few videos, some with disturbing scenes were added. Zeyan considers blocking “incendiary material against any country” his key responsibility.

“Anything anti-national will be removed,” said Abid, Zeyan’s cousin, and a lawyer. But not events like stone pelting. That is “news”, Zeyan argued. He has not got a call from the police for running Kashbook.

Things went differently for Usman Tareen, founder of, a social networking site. Police said he had been questioned, but Usman denied it. The 16-year-old said since Class VII, he had been learning to develop the “perfect app and interactive platforms.” He plans to launch a YouTube-like site. Both entrepreneurs have messaging apps.

“I learnt from friends and on the Internet,” he claimed. Usman, with an untrimmed moustache, is preparing for a polytechnic entrance test, and wants to study web and application development outside Kashmir.

“Most of our sites are modelled on WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter, and about half a dozen cannot be accessed frequently,” he said. “Often, the site is under maintenance and on other occasions, the internet is down or blocked.”

Since the death of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, in July 2016, there has been a sharp rise in protests. South Kashmir virtually spun out of control and even now many villages sport plaques with his name. A senior Cyber Cell official of the Kashmir police told The Hindu that there are “214 militants — alive, recognised and registered [on social media]” as of May, of which “120 are locals.” The social media blockade came due to “largescale circulation of anti-India publicity material.”

VPN usage on the rise

The blockade has made it tough to download from WhatsApp. But such applications are still accessed by those who are technology savvy. A telecom operations manager said, “Many started using Virtual Private Network, bypassing the ban.”

It is impossible to identify a user on a VPN as the Internet Protocol address is masked. Yet, the ban is quite effective. Interestingly, while the use of social media sites and apps has dropped, data usage has not.