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Kashmir's internet shutdowns hit schools and businesses but fail to quash dissent Open in fullscreen

Aamir Ali Bhat

Kashmir's internet shutdowns hit schools and businesses but fail to quash dissent

Local Islamabad youths trying to connect to the internet during recent ban [Aamir Ali Bhat]

Date of publication: 24 January, 2018

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Decree bars civil servants in Indian-administered Kashmir from using social media for any personal political activity.
Declaring internet access a basic human right, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in July 2016 that "condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online".

Yet, in Indian-Administrated Kashmir (IAK), blocking the internet and depriving people of social networking sites are becoming more common trends of government.

The most recent order, released by the government in IAK on December 26 warned public sector employees of legal punishment, including disciplinary action, early retirement, demotion and even termination, if they violated new additions to the 1971 Government Employment Rules.

The order states that no government employee "shall engage in any criminal, dishonest, immoral or notoriously disgraceful conduct on social media which may be prejudicial to the government".

"Employees shall also not use their personal social media accounts for any political activity or endorse the posts or tweets or blogs of any political figure," the rule states.

The government's social media gag on its employees drew strong flak, from secessionist leaders and government workers alike. Decrying the government order, secessionist leaders called it a "form of state terrorism" and "despotic".

"Ordering gags and threatening punishment to state employees for expressing their opinion on social media completely exposes the aversion to truth or its disclosure by the occupation regime and its unscrupulous local agents," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a separatist leader in the Hurriyat Conference.

"The charade of 'normalcy' in Kashmir will continue to be maintained by silencing people through bullets, jails, gags and bans," he tweeted.

Internet shutdowns

According to the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a Delhi-based non-profit organisation, internet service in Indian-administered Kashmir has been cut 62 times since 2012.

Authorities often justify blocking the internet by claiming social media is a platform for spreading "anti-national elements", "provoking people toward agitation", and "inciting violence".

The data compiled by SFLC reveals internet shutdowns have been becoming more prevalent every year. Internet access was shut down three times in 2012, five times each in 2013, 2014 and 2015, ten times in 2016 and 32 times in 2017. In more recent shutdowns, internet services were cut twice in three districts during the first 12 days of 2018.

The internet was shut down, in most cases, following the killing of militants or on the eve of India's Republic and Independence days.

The longest shutdown, lasting five consecutive months, was imposed during the 2016 civilian uprising, which was sparked when popular student-turned-rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed.

After 2016, the government had refrained from imposing valley-wide bans; instead they started shutting down internet access to the specific districts where it most feared trouble - usually in the wake of a gunfight between rebel and Indian armed forces. Pulwama district in south Kashmir witnessed the most frequent internet bans.

Condemnations

Alongside online shutdowns, the government for a month outlawed use of 22 social media platforms - including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, WeChat, QQ, QZone, Tumblr, Google+, Baidu, Viber, Line, Snapchat, Pinterest, Telegram, Reddit, Snapfish, Vine, Xanga, Buzznet, Flickr and YouTube - from April 26 to May 27, 2017.

It was an ineffective move, with citizens easily getting around the restrictions by using Virtual Private Networks.

Many international rights groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, as well as the United Nations, have condemned the government's blanket bans on internet in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Two UN experts, David Kaye and Michael Forst, condemned the frequent bans on internet service in IAK in May 2017. They called on the government of India 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 internet and telecommunications bans have the character of collective punishment and fail to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression," the statement read.

"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 scope of these restrictions has a significantly disproportionate impact on the fundaments rights of everyone in Kashmir.

"We call on the Indian authorities to guarantee freedom of expression in Jammu and Kashmir and to seek a solution for the social and political conflicts of the region through an open, transparent and democratic dialogue," the UN experts said.

But the UN statement has not seen much of a reaction on ground. Despite the strong condemnations, the bans on internet services show no let-up.

The frequency of the cuts have strongly hit the education, business and media sectors. Students, traders, researchers and journalists often complain about facing problems in their work without the internet, but the shutdowns have been increasing apace.

Impact of internet shutdowns

Because of the frequent internet bans, students have lost scholarships, fellowships and job opportunities. Some have missed out on applying to take crucial examinations. Teachers and students have not been able to access key online study and research materials.

"Internet has become a joke here. We no more count it as a reliable tool, because they put ban on it anytime," says Monisa Qadri, an assistant professor at the Islamic University of Science and Technology. "We are not living in pre-historic times that our education will remain strictly in classrooms. Our students are being deprived of oceans of knowledge which is available online nowadays."

Tabish Afroz Beigh, studying for a Masters in Business Administration, faces difficulties in completing his assignments and projects. "The internet is an essential source of information and knowledge in the contemporary world," he says. "Constantly barring this important source not only deprives students from accessing the latest trends in knowledge but also makes virtual socialisation impossible in a war-torn region, where conventional methods of socialisation remain inaccessible."

The frequent suspension of internet services severely affects business life. Most businesses depend on internet access, and shutdowns mean no online transactions or internet banking.

"The regular internet ban diminishes our business. More than 50 percent of our business is dependent on internet. We lose major chunk of our business whenever they impose ban on internet,” says Bashir Ahmad Rather, president of the Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation.

Ruhial Rajab Wagay, the manager of a clothing store in Kashmir's Islamabad district, faces tremendous difficulties in selling products online, responding to customers through social networking sites and contacting outside retailers when the government enforces its internet blockade.

"Internet bans have disrupted my business. In this modern era, it makes us uncompetitive. It becomes difficult for us to compete with the super-advanced world that is equipped with modern technologies," he says.

Journalism is another sector that has felt a strong impact from the shutdowns. Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, a reporter with Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir, says he once had to travel 32 kilometres during one shutdown to file his story on deadline. "It has happened with me a couple of times. Sometimes in the absence of internet I miss filing my story," he adds.

But New Delhi must know it only strengthens the Kashmiris’ resolve and adds to their hatred for India, says Hussain

Shabir Hussain, editor of Kashmir Newsline, a Srinagar-based magazine, says internet gags amount to a serious human rights violation. Apart from trying to block the ground realities by forcing these bans, it has also been seen as some kind of punishment meted out to Kashmiris.

But New Delhi must know it only strengthens the Kashmiris’ resolve and adds to their hatred for India, says Hussain.

"Frequent internet bans in Kashmir are yet another indicator of how miserably New Delhi has failed in Kashmir," he says. "Banning internet in Kashmir is a result of abject failure on the part of India and it only exposes its insecurities in Kashmir. In today's age of advanced technology you can't hide the truth; it will find ways to sneak out."

Another magazine editor, who wished to remain anonymous for his security, says the shutdowns have become a new normal for government in Kashmir. "We can't transfer money to our creditors and that blemishes our credibility. We have lost count of losses which take place due to e-curfews," he adds.

"Internet blockades are for the poor. Elites have broadband connections and private vehicles coupled with contacts. Poor students and poor businessmen are devoid of both."

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