On Wednesday, Kashmiris began disappearing from WhatsApp — and no one is quite sure why. Citizens of the disputed geographical territory whose autonomy the Indian government revoked in August, abruptly and inexplicably began departing WhatsApp groups in which they had long participated, leaving only a “[Phone number] left” message behind.
Facebook-owned WhatsApp is used by some 400 million Indians, making the country the company’s largest market in the world. WhatsApp groups dominate online conversations in India, and most Indians with access to a smartphone participate in a few. So when Kashmiri people began disappearing en masse from groups to which they belonged, a lot of people noticed.
After all, it has been four months since India’s government had shut down Kashmir’s internet services, cutting off the region from the rest of the world — which suggests that the Kashmiris who’ve been disappearing from their Whatsapp groups this week did not do so on their own and may not even know that anything has changed.
“I initially thought that internet services had been restored in Kashmir and maybe these people were just removing themselves from WhatsApp groups on their own,” Mudasir Firdosi, a London-based Kashmiri doctor who is in half a dozen WhatsApp groups with friends and family in Kashmir, told BuzzFeed News. “But I quickly realized that’s not the case.”
WhatsApp has not yet responded to a request for comment, but it’s possible that the company’s policy on inactive accounts may be at work here. “If an account is unused for 45 days and then becomes newly activated on a different mobile device, we take this as a sign that a number has been recycled,” the company explains in a FAQ. “At this time, we’ll remove the old account data tied to the phone number — like the profile photo and About.”
That said, the internet has been shut down in Kashmir since August 4 — that’s 123 days, not 45.
Shahnawaz Kaloo, a Kashmiri doctor who lives in New Delhi and is part of half a dozen WhatsApp groups with friends and family who live in Kashmir, told BuzzFeed News that Kashmiris who were entirely cut off from the internet were automatically evicted from every WhatsApp group that he was in with them. “It didn’t happen with people that used the internet [because they traveled out of Kashmir or briefly got internet access somehow].”
Suhail Lyser a Kashmiri student who lives in Dehradun, a city in northern India, told BuzzFeed News that he saw more than 150 Kashmiris in a WhatsApp group that shared news and updates about the region that he was part of suddenly get kicked out from the group.
“When I first saw what was happening, I thought it was the government of India that was doing this,” he said.
In February, Nasir Khuehmi, a 21-year-old student, set up a WhatsApp support group for Kashmiri students around the country who faced violence and backlash in the wake of an attack by a suicide bomber in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, which killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. On Wednesday, the group, which had hundreds of young Kashmiris, emptied out instantly.
“I was shocked and disappointed,” said Khuehmi. “It was heartbreaking.”