Barely four days ahead of the platinum jubilee of the communication lockdown, when the phones returned to life, not every call was a happy talk reports Muhammad Younis


October 14, was an interestingly different day in Kashmir. At noon, when almost four million phones broke their 71-days long silence, people talked to each other in disbelief. An emotionally surcharged man in Kupwara broke down while talking to his daughter, married and settled in Srinagar: “I was worried if at all you had anything to eat!”

But the worst was the Facebook post that a former journalist Irfan Rashid, now coaching in Delhi for IAS, who announced his friend Basra’s death. “Dialled her (Basra’s) number after 70 days with all the energy, strangeness, eagerness, but above all with love. It was 3pm. A different voice answered from the other side. I understood it is her mom. I said salaam to aunty and enquired about Basra,” he wrote. “I assumed phone network is weak that is why aunty didn’t hear what I said. The moment I repeated my sentence, she bursted (sic) into tears, sobbing like a child, crazy like a lunatic, tears flowing with cries. Basra is dead. Today is her 40th day.”

It was such a vital occasion that every media organization of any substance across the globe reported the partial undoing of the communication blockade. The Hindu ran a special story from Kozhikode where from more than 100 Kashmiri students enrolled in Markaz Higher Secondary School talked to their parents for the first time in 72 days. “One of the teachers at the school lent them a phone, and the students took turns to contact their beloved ones back home,” the newspaper reported. “None of them was able to talk to their parents during EidUlAzha either. And, they were consoled by their friends at school.”

Since 2004, when Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Syed and Markaz Chancellor Kanthapuram A P AboobackerMusaliyar inked an agreement, the number of Kashmiri students is increasing with every passing year.

Kumud Jenamani reported in The Telegraph the telephonic communication of shawl traders in Jamshedpur with their families in Kashmir. “I was anxiously trying to connect with my family in Srinagar from my post-paid Jio service since 1pm, “Abdul Rashid, one of the 150 shawl sellers in the region was quoted saying. “Finally, my cell-phone rang around 1.30pm with my wife at the other end. I was much relieved having talked to her for a few moments.” Rashid operates from Dhatkidih in Bistupur.


A group of young Kashmir women talking on their cell phones in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“Just before noon on Monday, Athar Rather’s phone rang in New Delhi. On the other end was a voice he hadn’t heard in weeks: his younger sister Rizwana in Kashmir,” The Washington Post reported from Delhi. “The siblings choked back tears, overcome by the simple act of being able to reach each other.”

It quoted an old city shawl dealer Feroz Khan, who talked to his outstation clients, saying: “It is like telling them that we, too, exist. It is unimaginable for people living outside Kashmir to understand how we managed to live without communication for 70 days.”

Though the impact of communication blockade consumed terabits of data in 10 week across the globe, it was the New York Times report about Amir Farooq Dar, a 22-year old college student from a Baramulla village who was bitten by a snake while working in his orchard on August 13. The family struggled for 16 hours to get an antidote for the bite.

Saja Begum cinched a rope around her son’s leg, hoping it would slow the poison. “She then ran, with her son leaning against her, to the village public health centre, which usually stocks the antidote. The centre was closed,” Sameer Yasir reported about Begum’s struggle. Somehow, she reached Baramulla district hospital but the doctors failed to locate any antidote. While driving to Srinagar, the ambulance was stopped by soldiers many times. The SKIMS also lacked the antivenin.

“In Srinagar, the family travelled frantically from pharmacy to pharmacy pleading for the antidote. Nothing. They arrived at the gate of an army camp, which normally stocks the antivenin, but were told to come back the next day,” the newspaper reported. “What the family did not know then was that the first hospital they had visited, in Baramulla, actually had the antidote in a locked storeroom. But the clerk who controlled the storeroom had not been around and could not be reached by phone.”

Well before they could get the antidote, Dar died.

Doctors admit that many people died for lack of access to emergency medical care, especially in cardiac sector. A visit to the Oncology department in the SKIMS or the cardiac wards of the SMHS gets countless cases of struggles by the serious patients to somehow manage reaching their doctor.

The absence of the cell phone pushed Kashmir back to the old good days. The people started writing letters, the communication between the people stopped being a mere whatsapp message and the inter-family communications improved.

BBC’s Soutik Biswas discovered an interesting story of VikarSayed, a young man, who, in Delhi put a message on his facebook that people wishing to send any message to their families back must in-box the details. He returned with 17 messages on his phone and spent many days in delivering them!

“Back in Kashmir, Mr Sayed became an itinerant messenger,” Biswas wrote. “He drove out of Srinagar to deliver the messages to homes in shuttered towns and villages. His lifeless mobile phone had turned into a carrier of precious tidings.”

What was an instant relief was a TV network actually started accepted pre-recorded video messages from people living outside Kashmir that it would play on a loop during and between news bulletins. This service added to the reputation of the Gulistan News in Jammu and Kashmir.

Tensions reduced to an extent after around 44000 fixed line phones were restored. While some good men invited commoners to their homes to use their facility for free, quite a few made quick bucks by selling a call at Rs 50 a minute.

Finally when the phone returned to life, it was the emotional aspect of the disconnect that figured prominently in the coverage. A lot of reportage from Srinagar explained the costs that young lot of people had to pay for the enforced disconnect. Students studying outside Jammu and Kashmir spoke to their parents for the first time and the lovers getting reconnected while being literally on edge of heartbreak. Even the governor Satya Pal Malik took the love route to celebrate the ringtone noise.

“People used to make noise that there is no telephone. We stopped telephone services because terrorists were using them for their activities, mobilisation and indoctrination,” Malik said in a function in Srinagar. “Young boys and girls were having difficulties earlier but now they can speak to each other. Now, there are no issues. Very soon, we will restore internet services.”

Officials manning Kashmir have told reporters that internet restoration is under consideration but only after they are sure that there is a technology available that can prevent access to social media on mass scale.

Telecom is a huge sector providing livelihoods to tens of thousands of people directly and indirectly. The sector that employs more than 5000 people directly suffered a lot of business losses. No operator, however, laid off any staff. “We were expecting that the resumption of the services would lead to mass use on the very first day as traffic will pick up so fast that the networks would get jammed,” one key executive in a mobile network said. “That we did not witness. People were happy but that did not lead to any jamming because of increased traffic.”

Jammu and Kashmir is a talkative sector for telecom operators fetched them good business as well. The soon to be Union Territory (UT) has huge cell phone penetration. By December 2018, Jammu and Kashmir had more than 10237929 GSM cell phones operating. For every 100 people, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) statistics suggest, there are 109.19 phones.

Inside view of media centre Srinagar.
Inside view of media centre Srinagar.

While the government restored the post-paid phones, it still is partial restoration as more than half are still in the hibernation mode. Unlike Jammu and Ladakh, the internet which is lifeline for trade, commerce, education and health care is still blocked. Within hours of the restoration of voice calling, authorities switched off the SMS on the cell-phones. Cell phones went silent almost 10 hours ahead of Home Minister Amit Shah’s introduction of the Jammu and Kashmir re-orginsation bill in the Rajya Sabha. Its passage binned the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, albeit through a presidential ordinance, and downgraded the state and bifurcated into two UTs.

The restoration of the service triggered a quick business. Customers who had their bills outstanding and the clients wishing to jump from pre-paid to post-paid were seen in long queues in select offices of the operators. BSNL that normally has remained the least preferred network got most of the new business because it has official patronage. The networks’ 8000 phones that form the ‘white-list’ comprising police and civil administration continued working for most of the last 70 days. These select phones were activated after the government’s 400-odd satellite phones did not perform well.

Jio network, one of the fastest growing networks having more than a million customers in Kashmir had to depute special sales persons who used their handsets to recharge against cash payments, something the network had never done in past.


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