By Hilal Mir
SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir (AA) – A communications blockade imposed by the Indian government in disputed Jammu and Kashmir will be 100 days old Tuesday, the longest in the insurgency-ridden region.
On the night of Aug. 4, hours before abrogating 76-year-old legislation granting autonomy to the Muslim-majority state, the Indian government blocked phones and the internet and deployed tens of thousands of soldiers "for maintaining law and order".
A few thousand landline phones were declared operational in early September and postpaid mobile phone services were restored on Sept. 14. Text messaging was restored the same day but was withdrawn hours later. Broadband and mobile internet services remain suspended.
In the Kashmir valley alone, with a population of about 7 million, there are 2.6 million prepaid cellphone subscribers and 4 million postpaid users.
Local authorities frequently order service providers to suspend mobile internet services whenever they apprehend anti-government demonstrators to apparently prevent these demonstrations from escalating into regionwide unrest. Besides the ongoing communications blockade, the internet has been shut 64 times since January this year either in troubled areas or the entire state.
Indian authorities have justified the communications restrictions by saying separatists might use social media to trigger anti-government agitation. The Indian government has been criticized for the blockade both at home and abroad.
Journalists have been affected the most. To access the internet, they have to rely on 10 desktop computers installed in one of the rooms of the government Information Department dubbed the “Media Facilitation Centre”.
On Oct. 3, on the 60th day of the shutdown, journalists held a demonstration inside the Kashmir Press Club and displayed placards that termed the government internet facility the “Media Monitoring Centre”.
“It seems the internet blockade has been pushed into the realm of normal. Nobody even speaks about it now,” said a journalist who works for an international news agency. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
On Monday, dozens of freelance journalists and those working for local periodicals were barred from using the government internet facility. An official in charge of the facility center, whose name has been withhold due to security reasons, told them that only a journalist with 25 years of experience can work freelance while others were told that they do not need to scan the internet every day because they worked for weeklies and monthlies.
“The mess at the so-called Media Facilitation Centre is the government’s own creation. Now that they can’t deal with it, they have barred journalists from the only place from which the internet could be accessed,” said a journalist who works for an Indian online publication.
A similar facility comprising eight counters has been set up at the government Tourist Reception Centre for booking airline tickets, which is entirely done through the internet. Only eight tour and travel operators from about 150 are selected by drawing lots every week to operate their businesses at these counters.
Education has been another major casualty of the internet ban. Manzoor Ahmad Mir, a government employee, said thousands of rupees he had paid for a popular online tutorial for his two school-going sons aged 9 and 12 have gone to waste because the program could only be accessed online.
A teacher who works at Kashmir University and supervises doctoral students said they faced problems submitting research papers to journals, which in turn leads to delays in submitting their PhD thesis.
“They have to constantly check their email to access peer reviews of their papers. They have to upgrade their knowledge. Is it even possible without the internet these days?” he said on condition of anonymity.
Online shopping sites like Amazon have stopped delivering items to buyers in the valley, leaving hundreds of delivery boys jobless.
Irfan Ahmad, a 20-year-old resident of Srinagar who worked for a local warehouse dealing in online goods, said he has been doing odd jobs since the internet blockade.
Social media, which was widely used to articulate dissent in the absence of independent media, has been the primary target of the internet shutdown. Media expert and filmmaker Arshad Mushtaq believes that like the political vacuum created by the jailing of the political leadership, there is a communications vacuum which could have dangerous ramifications.
“Social media was like alternative media in Kashmir, an alternative to propaganda dished out 24/7 through compromised TV channels and newspapers. People have no access to what is being written about them, how the world is reacting to this catastrophic situation. Their frustrations are rising,” he said.