Jammu and Kashmir is passing through history’s biggest communication blockade

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A scene of Lal Chowk Srinagar in August and September 2019. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

A middle aged person, a businessman, had somehow managed to get admission for his son in a Dhaka medical college. He had promised his son that his Eidhi along with his monthly requirement would be sent together. By the time the amount was ready, Kashmir witnessed a clampdown. Living in a locality that lacks a bank, they somehow managed to reach one bank where the systems, they were told, were not working.

The second option, the couple thought was to go to the airport and request somebody to take the cash and deposit in their son’s account. It proved to be a risky affair as nobody was willing. Finally, a paramilitary official, who was flying home, agreed. He gave them their cell number and told them to get in touch with him, a day later.

Now the issue was how to talk. They finally reached a government facility where one can talk to a person outside the state in the presence of an officer. The man was in one line with the objective to talk to the BSF official. In another line and in another office, the lady was in line with the objective to talk to her son. Both, on their turn, could manage dial the numbers. The son did not pick up, most probably, according to the lady, because he is supposed to be in his class. The official could not get connected for some reason.

“We are sure that the official would have done what we requested him,” the man said. “But we still wanted to check, if it happened or not…There is always some crisis as things go off the script.” After spending three days in managing the “operation” that would normally take five minutes, the couple is keeping their fingers crossed.

In yet another case, a south Kashmir engineer serving a Kuwaiti major was caught home during the lockdown along with his daughter, also studying in Dhaka. She had three flights to change in less than 12 hours – Srinagar to Delhi, then Delhi to Mumbai and finally from Mumbai to Dhaka. It involved a protracted night halt at Mumbai airport.

After ensuring travel to Srinagar, a day ahead of the take-off from Srinagar, the parents managed to reach airport in time and the late evening take-off was a no-frills exercise. The tensions started once she was in the air. Just to see that she landed safely and managed to get a connecting flight to Mumbai, the couple almost scanned all the possibilities between the airport and Lal Chowk to see if they get a facility to get in touch with the daughter. Finally, a medico friend of the engineer – at the middle of the night, took the engineer to SMHS hospital where it was rumoured that SMS is working at two specific spots. They visited and check from all the spots but could not get a signal.

It was next evening when somebody came knocking at the medico’s uptown home with a message. It had come from Patna where the engineer’s elder daughter is pursuing her MD. She had, somehow, managed to get the number of a doctor and delivered a message that her younger sister has actually reached Dhaka safely and she had talked to her. By then, the engineer was feverish with a severe headache. Once the safety message reached, he stopped taking medicine. He is back home and is planning an early flight to his Middle East to resume his routine.

The ongoing Kashmir lockdown became unprecedented for various reasons. But the communication blockade is something that made it historic. This is for the first time in the history that the authorities closed all modes and tools of communication after ensuring that they stay connected with each other using the satellite.

Though the mobile phones are quite a newer introduction, the fixed-line telephones across Jammu and Kashmir were never closed, even during the wars of 1947-48, 1965 or 1971. Even during the 1999 Kargil war, when the internet was quite new to Kashmir and was available through fixed lines, one was able to access the MTNL and work. This time, it was and continues to be unprecedented.

Understanding the crisis that society will face in absence of the basic tools of communications, the authorities did create facilities of free telephones at specific spots across the state. By average, a few thousand people would be able to utilise the service but the communication blockade was complete.

Jammu and Kashmir is one of the few states – now to be a UT, has utilised the communication systems hugely, in comparison to the other states. J&K’s merely makes one per cent of India’s population but the way it has accepted the IT systems, it is emerging distinct demography. In 2011, Census Organisation put the total population at 12.5 million. By December 2018, mobile penetration was more than 10237929GSM cell phones operated in the state. For every 100 people, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) statistics suggest, there are 109.19 phones. There are 13.84 million phone subscribers in Jammu and Kashmir which means it has crossed the number of people living in the state, according to TRAI that has numbers to suggest that Jammu and Kashmir hold 1.14percent share in India’s total subscriber base.

Even 10,000 free phone calls in distress do not even make even one per cent of the traffic that the communication systems in Jammu and Kashmir would normally witness.


A typical Srinagar street in August 2019. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The entire communication blockade was apparently aimed at preventing people to communicate with each other. This was done to avoid a law and order situation that the authorities anticipated.

But this hit certain sectors that are solely depended on this. The media, for instance, lacks any communication mechanism that would enable them to work. While most of the media has ceased publication, a few are attempting to bring out newspapers, with hugely skirted number of pages.

Given the fact that scores of media persons have landed in Srinagar to report the aftermath of the downsizing decision, they also faced the tensions. It was finally in a hotel that the information department managed connectivity. Now, reporters have to be in the line and wait for their turn to log in and file – something that they are used to doing on their cell phones.

At the time of filing this copy, there are reports that the authorities have started unlocking the fixed lines in certain areas. Jammu has already come out of the black side of the digital deficit. The media in Kashmir, however, may have to wait for some more time to gets its basic facility back.


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