Partial internet access offers no relief to Kashmiris

SRINAGAR (AA): The partial restoration of internet services in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has brought no joy to people in the blockaded region.

With connectivity severely limited and social media websites still off-limits, Kashmiris say New Delhi has only “played with their emotions” and left them further frustrated.

From a crippling information blackout to missed academic opportunities and devastating businesses, the internet ban enforced by India for over half a year has wreaked havoc on residents’ lives.

The Modi government’s decision to partially restore postpaid internet services was greeted with cautious optimism, and Kashmiris’ fears were validated by the minimal connectivity they have experienced since January.

Zeeshan Mukhtar, a postgraduate in mathematics from Srinagar, waited patiently for months to apply for a coveted scholarship.

He was confident of success but his dream is all but shattered due to the restricted internet access on offer.

“The scholarship application was my first priority when internet service was restored for postpaid mobile users. I was excited and dared to dream again, but soon realized my folly. The scholarship webpage simply wouldn’t load; I tried for hours and hours until I knew there really was no hope,” Zeeshan narrates in a talk with Anadolu Agency.

‘Dreams crushed, careers destroyed’

Kashmiris say the ban on social media has destroyed the careers of hundreds of online entrepreneurs in the region.

Social media platforms are vital for their businesses — it is impossible for an online venture to survive, let alone flourish, without Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other tools.

“For months, I did not lose hope and was eager to rebuild my business once internet services were restored. But Instagram and other sites are still not accessible, and I feel the chances of my business surviving are growing slimmer by the day,” says Iqra Ahmed, founder, and owner of an online clothing store, Tulpalav.

“I cannot explain how distressing all of this has been; they [Indian government] are playing with our emotions and our careers.”

Sheikh Ashiq Ahmed, head of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agrees that India’s social media ban has cast a dark shadow over young Kashmiris’ future.

“With the blanket ban on social media sites, the government has snatched away the livelihood of online entrepreneurs in Kashmir. These youngsters are effectively jobless; they cannot wait for internet access any longer and their businesses cannot operate without it,” says Ahmed.

‘Against the constitution’

On Jan. 10, the Indian Supreme Court ordered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to restore internet services in Jammu and Kashmir within a week.

It told officials to make public all restrictive orders issued over the past six months so they could be legally challenged.

The court was also clear in conveying that suspension of free movement, internet access, and basic freedoms “cannot be an arbitrary exercise of power”.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a law professor at the Central University of Kashmir, sees the continued ban on social media as a constitutional violation.

“The government is restricting people from expressing what they want and that is against the constitution,” he says.

A practicing advocate of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, Zahoor Ahmed, agrees with Hussain’s view.

“The government order prohibiting access to social media is against the spirit of the constitution,” he says.

“In times of emergency or war, the president is empowered to impose certain restrictions that may violate fundamental rights. Even then, though, he or she cannot curtail the basic freedoms of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.”

Ahmed believes that no government anywhere in the world can trample these core freedoms, particularly when the restrictions also affect people’s livelihoods.

‘Tossing crumbs to Kashmiris’

Although most of Kashmir’s political leadership remains under detention, critical voices have been raised against the limited restoration of internet access.

On Jan. 29, a post on former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s Twitter timeline slammed the government’s “ludicrous” claims of restoring internet services.

“Claims of internet resumption in Kashmir are ludicrous. Even an archaic technology like 2G isn’t functional. This ‘gift’ after 6 months of a net blockade is akin to tossing crumbs to Kashmiris. Are these the ‘equal rights’ we enjoy now?” reads the post.

Mufti is among the leaders detained since August last year and her account is operated on her behalf by her daughter, Iltija Mufti.

Arjun Sethi, a human rights lawyer and activist, also criticized the conditional restoration of internet access in a tweet: “Democracies don’t pick and choose what websites you can visit. Democracies don’t ban social media. The Kashmir blackout remains in place & is the longest internet shutdown ever imposed by a ‘democracy’.”

Sethi’s assertion is backed by the global watchdog, Access Now, which confirmed that the internet blackout in Indian-administered Kashmir is the longest-ever imposed in a country that identifies as a democracy.

A permanent ban?

There have been reports that New Delhi will eventually restore mobile and broadband internet services.

However, online portal Newsclick has also reported that India is mulling a permanent ban on all social media websites — a move that will contravene basic rights and prove disastrous for Kashmiris.

Anadolu Agency tried to contact Indian government spokesman Rohit Kansal to verify the report but several phone calls and text messages went unanswered.

The Indian Home Ministry has justified the months-long internet shutdown as a measure to stop “cross-border terrorist infiltration” and Kashmiris believe it can come up with more such excuses to validate even graver rights violations.

“There are no rights in Kashmir, let alone equal rights. The government has constantly kept us in the dark. They are obliged to tell us exactly what they are up to but they have shown us that they have no regard for right and wrong,” says Omaira Jan, who runs an online business.