The Centre must immediately restore 4G internet connectivity in Jammu and Kashmir. To deprive citizens of direct access to information and instructions during a global pandemic is unjustifiable.
Moreover, it is outright inhuman to do so at a time when there is no indication of trouble on the ground and when the forces and security arrangements in place are adequate to meet any challenges.
In any case, shutting down communications, including telephone connectivity, did not prevent agitations in 2010 or in 2016. If people are determined to protest, they will resort to primitive ways – including whistles, birdcalls and beating utensils, to communicate.
Early shock gave way to acceptance
All kinds of communication facilities were suspended on August 5 last year when Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy was scrapped. Telephone and 2G internet services have since been gradually restored, but this restoration has been way slower than needed.
To be sure, people were extremely anguished and restless when Article 370 was suddenly scrapped and almost the entire political leadership of the erstwhile state was put under detention and silenced.
However, that initial shock, bordering on grief, eased in a few weeks, and gradually gave way to resignation. Particularly, since there has been no demographic change yet, people have, by and large, gotten used to the new set-up.
There was no protest over the silencing of the state’s political leaders. Most people were already overwhelmingly cynical about politicians of the so-called ‘mainstream’ and ‘separatist’ type.
While latent angst over the constitutional changes, perceived as humiliating in the Valley, could still lead to an eruption of public rage, a sudden uprising would be most unlikely amidst the prevailing paranoia over the pandemic.
Cycles of rage
Conversely, anger over the continued deprivation of communication facilities could become the trigger for wider public anger. As I have previously argued in my book, The Generation of Rage in Kashmir, the continuation of the apparatus of counterinsurgency – commonly believed to be intrusive and humiliating – after the insurgency that began in 1988 and ended around 2006, was a significant reason behind the militancy of this past decade.
The book also argued that the tendency of bureaucrats to play safe impedes state machinery, thereby preventing it from taking bold steps. So, once preventive measures such as cutting off communication services are put in place, officials balk at removing them, fearing negative consequences on their careers in the event that anything were to go wrong.
I have also argued that, living as they do behind bullet-proof glass and surrounded by obsequious toadies, policymakers generally have very little sense of ground realities or the public mood.
Internet connectivity ought, in fact, to have been restored in Kashmir by October, and telephone service even before that. There was never any good reason to deprive Jammu of communication facilities in the first place.
As things currently stand, businesses have suffered a lot. Some have had to suspend their operations or even shut down altogether.
Students and researchers have faced great problems. Many have faced terrible difficulties to complete mere applications and registrations.
Life-savers face frustration
Doctors and other health care personnel have also faced significant predicaments. With concerns arising over the coronavirus pandemic, the risks to life and lungs have increased.
A Kashmiri doctor recently tweeted his frustration over not being able to download the ICU guidelines for COVID-19 even after an hour of trying.
Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are gearing up to work round-the-clock when this pandemic kicks in with full force. Every moment will deal a frantic life-or-death situation of urgency. Slow internet services in such a context are unacceptable.
In this situation, some Kashmiris have begun to publicly describe the communication restrictions imposed as a form of collective punishment.
Strong effort to sanitise
The Kashmir Valley has taken the pandemic threat more seriously than most other parts of the country. Over the past few days, large parts have voluntarily decided to undergo a lockdown after a couple of positive coronavirus cases were reported.
The Srinagar municipality has put in a lot of effort to fumigate, clean, and sanitise vulnerable points in Srinagar. No doubt their efforts are based on guidelines gleaned from the internet.
Some of the most valuable articles on the pandemic are long and filled with charts, graphs, and tables. They call for extra-fast connectivity.
David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir (2019).