550 days too late. That’s what headlines should read. But I think that’s too much to expect from our esteemed press.
5 August, 2019 started with the suspension of internet and communication services in the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir. The morning saw PM Modi talk about a “bold” and “historic” move; the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, and the State was divided into two union territories.
Days before this, speculations were rife about something “big” happening in Kashmir. Additional paramilitary forces were being deployed in the valley. On 3 August a security advisory ordering tourists to suspend their stay was issued. On the other hand, the administration kept calling the rumours false, and even on 4 August people were ensured by the administration that nothing would happen.
With communications and cable TV suspended in the night of 4 August, some people took out their dusty radios to get a semblance of what was happening on 5 August. Amit Shah announced in the Rajya Sabha that Article 370 had been “modified” (made redundant), PM Modi said it would “usher in a new dawn” and analysts called it a necessary move that would give people more “freedom”; all while most people were unaware and those who knew had heard it on the radio.
People were unable to reach out to their loved ones and had to flock to a few designated places to contact people out of the State. Internal communication remained impossible with Section 144 imposed and BSF personnel deployed on the streets to curb transportation.
While cable services resumed in the evening in most places, it was only after a month that landline services (which many people don’t have) were restored. And after more than 2 months, only postpaid mobile calling services were restored.
Calling and 2G mobile services on all phones were restored after almost 6 months, but that came with its caveat. People were only able to access sites whitelisted by the administration, social media sites were excluded.
There have been 468 instances of Internet shutdowns in India (the highest in the world) since 2012 and more than 250 of those have occurred in Jammu and Kashmir. The suspension of internet services after 5 August, 2019 is considered the longest in a democracy. Grounds of “national sovereignty” and “public order” are often used by the administration to implement internet restrictions.
Thousands were detained under the PSA after the abrogation of Article 370 and most were released only after over a year (some still remain detained). Widespread allegations of torture and excessive force by security officials were also reported during the blockade. The internet shutdown had a clear aim, to stop information from going outside the valley.
People detained under the PSA were held in jails outside the State and were unable to present their cases for months. Families had no information on where their family members were being taken and for months were unable to speak to them. Other criminal proceedings like those of family disputes and child support were being delayed due to the clampdown on services.
Doctors were unable to contact their patients. Cases of people suffering from mental health issues increased and these people were unable to reach out to anyone.
With schools and colleges closed, students lost their education. College students have had to wait almost a year longer to complete their degrees (a 3-year degree taking 4 years). With the internet being suspended, students could not study online (as has been made normal during the Covid lockdown) or fill out online forms.
Mining rights for minerals were auctioned online in December 2019. Due to internet restrictions, most of the mining rights that locals previously held were auctioned off to non-local contractors. The locals who managed to bid in the auction had to queue outside district headquarters to access the internet.
Some businesses and people were allowed to access the internet but were made to sign personal bonds of “good behaviour” to restore their connections.
Economic development in the valley was a key talking point of the BJP for abrogating Article 370 and 35A. But Businesses have been hit hard during this period. According to the President of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the first 3 months after 5 August, 2019 saw businesses lose over 10,000 crores in the Kashmir region due to the restrictions imposed.
Another report by the KCCI estimated that the Kashmir economy lost more than ₹17,000 crore and 5 lakh jobs in the 4 months after the abrogation of Article 370 due to the lockdown and restrictions.
Many IT businesses that relied on the internet had to shut up shop or relocate after the prolonged internet curb. Most start-ups too were unable to function and had to wind up operations.
Around 90,000 artisans in Kashmir’s famous handicrafts industry lost their livelihood during the initial phase of the 5 August, 2019 lockdown and the industry has lost about ₹1,000 crore. The tourism sector lost more than ₹10,000 crores and more than 1,40,000 people were rendered unemployed.
On the other hand, companies like BSNL and Reliance have been able to exploit the crisis. There were only 45,000 BSNL landline connections in the valley. When landline services were restored, only BSNL connections were allowed and since then they’ve added around 14,000 connections in the valley. Reliance used the restrictions on high-speed internet to roll out Jio fibre in Jammu and Kashmir and have been able to extensively add to their user base.
Farmers had to sell their produce in local markets at cheaper prices as local Mandi’s were closed and their produce was rotting. Some farmers lost most of their crops due to early snowfall in November and weren’t compensated for it. People in the horticulture sector often use WhatsApp to send photos of their produce to traders outside the State. With the internet being suspended Apple and Saffron farmers had to sell their produce at cut-short prices to traders who couldn’t see what they were buying.
The media faced many restrictions in terms of rights to freedom of speech and expression and profession. Even after the restoration of internet services, the UAPA has been used to detain several journalists and social media users.
For months journalists had to queue outside a government-designated facility where almost 200 to 400 journalists were given access to the internet on eight laptops to file their stories.
The Covid-19 pandemic added more difficulties for people. Students have been unable to attend online classes. Doctors have had a hard time accessing guidelines by the WHO on curbing the spread of the virus. It has taken them hours to download specific material online.
Even though services have been restored, internet shutdowns are nothing new in the valley and it won’t take long for the next restriction to be imposed.
The government hasn’t done us a favour by restoring high-speed internet. They were the ones that suspended a service that is considered a right and is taken for granted in the rest of the country. We don’t need to thank the government for anything.
Rights abuses continue in Kashmir and the idea that everything is “normal” fails to recognise how the alienation has turned even the most staunch supporters of the Indian State in Kashmir around.
The government can use puppets like Altaf Bukhari and Shah Faesal to paint rose-tinted glasses on the rest of the country regarding Kashmir, but the people who live here, who’ve been forced to walk on those shards, understand the reality; we’re not a democracy.
Refer to report titled Kashmir’s Internet Siege by JKCCS for an in-depth understanding.