New Delhi: The residents of Jammu & Kashmir have collectively lost access to high-quality Internet connectivity for anywhere between 18 to 25 days over the last four years, according to an analysis of Internet shutdowns in the region.
Data from Freedom House reports, media accounts and government notifications shows that from January 2012, there have been at least 12 publically reported instances of the central or state government ordering a shutdown or partial blocking of Internet services.
The Internet block orders come in a number of shapes and forms. They range from the blocking of social media such as Facebook and YouTube (during the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ movie backlash) to the blocking of mobile Internet services in specific localities within Jammu & Kashmir.
The vast majority of Internet shutdowns, however, have affected the whole state and involve the shutting down of 3G services and broadband connectivity. The conditions under which Internet access is usually curtailed fall under two major categories: protests and agitations, and precautionary measures.
The vast majority of Internet shut-downs come right after there are reports of violent protests and agitations in the region. For instance, the longest publically reported instance of Internet shutdown (five days) happened from August 10 to August 15, 2013, after clashes between Hindu and Muslim communities took place in southern Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir. Internet services offered by multiple cellular companies, including the 3G networks of BSNL, Airtel and Reliance, were disconnected.
On similar lines, mobile Internet service and broadband connectivity were stopped for one day on June 18, 2013, and June 15, 2015, because protests had sprung up in the northern Peerbagh locality and the Jammu district. In the case of the former, violent protests had erupted in the state after reports circulated that “Indian border security guards had desecrated a copy of the Quran at a local religious seminary”, In the 2015 instance, broadband connectivity was blocked due to protests over the removal of banners of Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bindrawala in Jammu.
Curtailing Internet services as a precautionary, law-and-order measure is the second category. The most prominent example of this was at the height of the “beef ban” controversy in September 2015. Broadband and mobile data services were cut off for nearly four days (various reports peg it as anywhere between 65 to 85 hours) during the Eid–ul Zuha festival just in case something happened to upset normal, social order.
Other examples in this category the blocking of Internet services on February 8, 2014, the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging. Authorities feared that the occasion could lead to social unrest.
Another precautionary Internet shutdown happened on November 2015, when PM Narendra Modi held a rally in Srinagar. According to a PTI report, it was done to ensure the safety of the high-profile visit – ironic considering Modi’s steadfast commitment toward his government’s Digital India initiative.
Challenging the shutdowns
Currently, it appears that the government and law enforcement authorities clamp down on Internet services in one of two situations. The first is when they are presented with an information overload (e.g., motivated by social media rumours) during an agitation or protest. The second is when they are looking to thwart potential social unrest or terrorist attacks.
While there are potent arguments that address the legitimacy of both these scenarios (here and here) blocking Internet access has more importantly become a quick-fix solution in the hands of the government and law-enforcement authorities. From their perspective, there’s very little downside in resorting to this decision and a lot of advantages that are gained in shutting down communication services.
As The Wire reported and analysed earlier, there’s little in the way of a legal mechanism or instrument that allows the residents of Jammu & Kashmir to appeal against these Internet shutdowns; or after Internet services are restored, to question whether the shutdown was necessary in the first place; to request for monetary or social compensation.
A list of publicly reported shutdowns in the Jammu & Kashmir region is below. The exact length of each shutdown varies depending on the source, which is why the total number of days that Internet services have not been accessible could very well be over a month. When there are no known records of when Internet access was restored, The Wire has assumed that the shutdown occurred for 24 hours.
- Facebook and YouTube Blocked (1 day) – October 2, 2015. Source: IndiaToday
- Republic Day shutdown (1 day) – January 25/26, 2015. Source: Freedom House Report
- Militant leader death shutdown (1 day) – February, 2013. Source: Freedom House Report
- Quran burning shutdown (1 day) – July 18, 2013. Source: CPJ
- Kishtwar protests shutdown (5 days) – August 10, 2015. Source: Freedom House Report
- Afzal Guru anniversary (1 day) – February, 8, 2014. Source: Kashmir Life
- Terrorist hotspot ban (1 day) – March 11, 2014. Source: PTI
- Beef ban blocks (2.5 – 4 days) – September 24, 2015. Source: DNA
- Sikh leader banner block (1 day) – June, 5, 2015. Source: Law enforcement notification
- Animal carcasses block (2 days) – October 8, 2015. Source: IBTimes
- Modi visit shutdown (1 day) – November 7, 2015. Source: PTI
- Handwara protests shutdown (2 days) – April 14th, 2016. Source: Twitter