Gag Capital

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As the internet shutdown continues into 2020, making it the longest internet gag in the history of democracy, reports Umar Mukhtar

Art Work by Yasir Malik

By the year-end when the internet gag would cross 150 days, it will be the longest ever shutdown in a democracy. There will not be ‘Happy New Year’ messages jamming the cell phones while 2020 gets in.

Fearing backlash, authorities on August 5, enforced blanket ban on communication. It is still in place on pre-paid mobiles, SMS and the internet. The first fixed line phone came to life on August 17.

As the crises deepened, authorities had set up a handful of landline telephone booths for around seven million people living in Kashmir. “My son is studying in Delhi, I could not contact him for weeks together,” said Fayaz Ahmad, Srinagar resident. “To simply ask for his wellbeing, I had to travel almost 4kms and wait for almost five hours on a designated booth for my turn.”

Sirajuddin, 68, another parent, however, was not fortunate like Fayaz. He could not connect to his son for three months even after landlines were restored. His son works in the Middle East. The ISD calls remained barred for many weeks after the fixed-line set up was restored. “We used to talk to each other via WhatsApp but we no more have access to it,” he regretted.

After 72 days, Rohit Kansal, the spokesman of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, on October 14, announced the restoration of the post-paid cell phones. Even the SMS worked for a day it got barred again without assigning a reason.

Kashmir has almost 40 lakh, post-paid phone users. Almost 26 lakh using pre-paid SIM cards are still waiting for their phones to ring up. Iltija Mufti, who uses her mother Mehbooba Mufti’s Twitter handle termed the restoration of phone network as “half-hearted step” to stave off “international pressure”.

Suddenly getting into the wrong side of the digital divide run riot with every sector of life. Media was a principal casualty. Though a media facilitation centre (MFC) was immediately set up for the media, the limitation of nodes for the entire sector makes them rely on bits and pieces of information from diverse media. Most of the newspaper in Srinagar still lack access to internet for uploading the data. At least one news portal has closed for the time being.

“It is devastation,” one editor said. “The entire revenue stream from the digital side has gone and now we are even losing the readers.”

The internet ban has dictated its own trends. Before August 5, the Kashmir press Club used to be crowded. Now journalists spend most of their time in and around the MFC house in the Directorate of Information and Public Relations.

“We rely on the internet provided by the government within the government premises on the government owned computers,” said Kasier Andrabi, a young reporter. “It is insulting when reporters have to wait hours to send their photos or stories to their respective organizations.”

The journalists protested several times against the blackout seeking restoration of broadband. In September they marched from the Club to the Lalchowk carrying placards reading “free us from media facilitation centre”.

“As soon as they announced the MFC, we realized that all the content entering or leaving Kashmir would be closely monitored,” Hilal Mir, a journalist was quoted by the RSF saying.

Forced by the curbs, Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of The Kashmir Times went to the Supreme Court. Based in Jammu, the newspaper has a Srinagar edition that remained paralysed for almost a month. Foundation for Media Professionals and Indian Journalists Union filed intervention applications in Bhasin’s petition challenging the communication shutdown. However, what shocked the media was when Press Council of India moving an application in support of the gag, a petition they withdrew in wake of the condemnation by journalist bodies. More than 1215 days later, the case is still waiting final orders.

The Council later decided to send a team to Kashmir to report on the media scene. After dithering for many months, when it finally sent the team, weather gods helped the team to spend a few days in Jammu and return!

Gag on internet is the key factor responsible for the adverse reaction to the happenings in Kashmir from the rest of the world. “The blackout is a direct and grave violation of the people’s right to know about the decisions that will impact them,” UN special rapporteur on free speech David Kaye has said. The blockade, he added, has denied access to Parliamentary debates and the Prime Ministerial address on the issues critical to the future of people in Kashmir, and it’s “wholly excessive and unconstitutional”.

The protracted ban gave the dubious distinction of being longest in the history. Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director of Access Now, a portal that details the internet shutdowns, has termed the ban “unprecedented” for a democracy.

Ban apart, the internet outage makes Kashmir its literal capital. In 2019, there were shutdowns for as many as 55 times, the highest in any state or Union Territory of India, according to internetshutdowns.in that tracks the Internet outages across the country.

As the shutdown completed 120 days, most of the Kashmir was off the WhatsApp. This mass exodus from the key platform made global headlines. Since 2012, Kashmir has 180 shutdowns, according to Software Freedom Law Centre. Mostly for preventative reasons, imposed in anticipation of a breakdown in law and order, still accounted for nearly half of the suspensions across India.

The ban had a crippling impact on economy, governance and education. The students suffered the most. Those appearing in the national level and global competitions and the scholars who had to check their submissions, would either move out of Kashmir or simply catch a train to the highway town of Banihal. People now call it as the ‘internet train’.

The government did set up internet kiosks to help students seeking to register for these exams. These were always crowded. “I went to Srinagar DC office for registering my form but I had to wait there for almost six hours in a queue and there was no guarantee if I could have still availed the facility so I decided to catch train and went to Banihal,” said Shahid, a student who appeared in NET.

Part of the loss is that, Kashmir economy suffered had some contribution of the internet shutdown. The entire e-commerce sector collapsed. “Sometimes, I feel we are living in a democracy or an authoritative regime,” asks trader Shahid Bashir.

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About Author

Umar Mukhtar is a Srinagar based journalist. He is covering human rights and the changing political landscape of the valley.

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