CAUGHT IN A VIRTUAL TRAP

  • Aamir Ali Bhat
  • Publish Date: Dec 8 2017 8:51PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Dec 8 2017 8:51PM
CAUGHT IN A VIRTUAL TRAP

Frequent internet shutdowns are causing enormous damage in Kashmir

 

Since January 2012, internet services in Kashmir have been shut down 53 times, running into a total of 280 days, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre, Delhi. Kashmir, in fact, accounts for just under half of the 114 internet shutdowns across India in this period.

“Internet is a key enabler of many fundamental rights, including freedom of speech and expression,” the Law Centre points out on its website. “Family life is now dependent on the availability of digital communications throughout Indian society as are all the aspects of human relations in business processes, within and between firms.”

Yet, in Kashmir, internet services were suspended 12 and 24 times, respectively, in the last two years, a sharp rise from less than half a dozen instances in each of the preceding four years. The longest shutdown, lasting about five months, was imposed during the 2016 uprising. 

This year, however, the government has abstained from imposing valley-wide bans and instead restored to cutting off services to the specific districts where it fears trouble, usually in the wake of a gunbattle with militants. 

Aside from internet shutdowns, the government banned social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube from April 26 to May 27 this year. The ban proved ineffective as people started using Virtual Private Networks to sidestep the restriction. 

In May, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs David Kaye and Michel Forst issued a statement condemning the frequent internet bans in Kashmir and calling on the Indian government to protect the right to freedom of expression of Kashmiri people. “Denying such access disrupts the free exchange of ideas and the ability of individuals to connect with one another and associate peacefully on matters of shared concern,” the statement read. “The scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir.”

Clearly, the authorities in Kashmir were not moved given that the shutdowns have continued unabated; there have been 17 since the statement was issued. 

And the bans have hit hard education, business, media and other spheres of life. 

 

Impact on the media

The award-winning photojournalist Showkat Nanda said he recently had difficulty sending back a grant proposal he had received for evaluation because the internet was suspended. It took him 10 extra days to complete the work. 

“Life without the internet today is very difficult,” Showkat said. “Because of frequent internet bans, I get emails from foreign organisations very late, which hampers my work. Sometimes, I fail to submit my assigned work on time. Everyone has the right to use internet. Banning the internet is a grave human rights violation.”

Umar Lateef Misgar, a contributor for the Qatar-based The News Arab said, he cannot send emails or pictures to his editor without high-speed internet. “The internet ban is not about maintaining so-called peace in Kashmir,” he said. “Disinformation can, in fact, cause panic and violence, whether legitimate or illegitimate. But the ban is more about demonstrating military control and making the population dependent on the whims of the authorities.”

Journalists who work locally too face hardship in the absence of the internet. “Throttling internet services is an indirect ban on the media and on freedom of speech and expression of the people,” said Saqib Mir, a reporter at Kashmir Life. “Since internet bans prevent many reporters from filing their stories, a portion of our immediate history remains undocumented. Besides, journalism is the basic source of income for me. Internet bans not only stop me from submit my stories on time, they prevent me from earning my livelihood as well.”

 

Impact on education

Frequent internet shutdowns deprive students and teachers in Kashmir of access to study and research material, and scholarship and employment opportunities. Many have missed applying for examinations. 

Ruheela Hassan, head of the Islamic University’s Journalism and Mass Communication department, rued that uninterrupted access to the internet is pushing Kashmiris back to old methods of learning and teaching. “When our students lost time in 2016, because of the long strike, we decided to provide them video lectures on our university website, but it could not be done because of non-availability of internet services,” she said. “My students have complained that they find it difficult to complete their project work because of lack of the internet. The frequent internet bans are hurting the future of our students.”

Ufaq Fatima, a student of journalism, is currently working on her dissertation and she is struggling to access research material because of the internet bans. 

 

Impact on business

“A substantial part of our business is dependent on the internet. So, whenever they impose a blanket ban on the internet, we lose 70% of our business. Without internet we can’t contact with our sellers or buyers,” said Bashir Ahmad Rather, president of the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation. 

Internet shutdowns prevent businesses from using online trading and banking facilities, and, more importantly, registering for and filing the newly-introduced Goods and Service Tax. 

Abdul Majid, president of the Kashmir Hotels and Restaurant Association, said, “Internet bans have pushed us to the brink. Most of our hotels have online booking facility but we often fail to respond on time to customers who book online. Our business drops almost 80% whenever internet services are snapped. Because tourists often complain about the lack of internet services in Kashmir, and many don’t come because of this.”

Amil Nazir Keen, who runs a store in Islamabad, finds it difficult to contact his retailers outside Kashmir when the internet is shut. “Being the owner of a modern retail online clothing store, my business comes to a halt every time the internet is shut down. Online banking, selection of goods through photographs, selling products on social media, keeping in touch with customers and taking feedback are the areas of my business that are affected during internet bans,” he said. 

Hilal Ahmad Khan, who runs Hilal Tour and Travels in Pulwama, said he was “looking for another profession”. “They often suspend internet services in Pulwama,” he explained, “how am I supposed to book tickets for my customers?” 

A few shops away, Umer Amin Mir runs a photo studio. “I can earn good money if the authorities stop banning internet every other day,” he said. “The internet bans really hurt my income. How do I support my family?”