Modi’s Digital India Comes Crashing Down in Kashmir’s Longest Ever Internet Gag

Sunday is the 49th day of the internet blockade.

Srinagar: On September 12, Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal justified the ongoing internet blackout by saying that there are fears that Pakistan might misuse the internet in Kashmir to foment trouble. He was confronted with a question by a journalist: “Pakistan will be there always. When has government ceded its authority to Pakistan over the issue?”

Kansal fumbled in his response. Ultimately, after facing a volley of queries on the unprecedented internet gag in the Valley, he winded up the interaction, saying: “This too shall pass.”

This was ten days ago. Since then, Kansal has not addressed the press.

Sunday is the 49th day of the communications blockade. With no word from the government on how long this will go on, Kashmir remains disconnected from the outside world, digitally.

Un-digitalising Kashmir

From ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi on August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a fresh push to his Digital India programme. “Yes to digital payment, no to cash,” Modi said.

More than 800 km away, Modi’s dream project of empowering the common man with the internet and transforming India into a digitally powerful society has come crashing down.

An official said that within hours of New Delhi’s move to read down Article 370 and bifurcate the state into two union territories on August 5, the police raided a number of internet service providers and even rounded up some of them in Srinagar to enforce the strict clampdown.

Since then, all mobile and internet facilities remain suspended.

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With no internet, four-year-old Aisha is unable to watch her favourite cartoon series on her father’s mobile phone. The television set in her house is also lying lifeless, as her parents have no way to recharge their set-top box.

Sixteen-year-old Mohammed Mohsen has missed the deadline for filling the Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineering form online.

Twenty-nine-year-old Imtiyaz Hussain, an IT professional in Srinagar’s Rangreth, has been sacked by his company.

“Even an ordinary Kashmiri has been robbed of the right to remain socially connected and updated about the happenings in the world of internet and social media,” said Azhar Baba from central Kashmir’s Budgam district. “Here if you are dependent on internet, then you can’t have the liberty to excel in your academic career, take a job with a private IT company or even just watch a series of your choice.”

Baba is preparing for the IAS exams. He said the gag has hit his studies badly.

“I’m now planning to move to New Delhi for some time,” said 27-year-old Baba. “With the internet snapped indefinitely, the word ‘netizen’ has no meaning in Kashmir.”

The media has been badly hit during the ongoing communication blockade.

Without an easy way to send news reports to their organisations within the country or outside, some journalists resorted to sending their reports on pen drives through flyers at the airport, as the government began the communication clampdown.

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“During the first week of the clampdown, I would send my report on a pen drive through anyone visiting New Delhi. There, people from our bureau would collect the pen drive,” said a journalist working with a foreign news agency. “The photojournalists working with outside news agencies too adopted this method to send their photographs.”

After criticism, the government set up a media centre in Srinagar. The Centre has nine computers with just one internet connection, and journalists have to wait for their turn to send reports and check mails.

Kashmiri youngsters, meanwhile, are craving to access social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp.

The gag has even frozen some of the government of India’s flagship programmes. Aadhaar registration, for instance, has come to a grinding halt, while various health schemes like AYUSH have been suspended indefinitely, leaving patients high and dry.

Businessmen and industrialists have been left crying for an extension in the last date for submitting income tax and Goods and Services Tax returns.

“This is the reality of digital India in Kashmir today,” said Abdul Majeed Bhat, a businessman. “I have not been able to file my returns since the imposition of the communication blockade.”

Longest-ever internet gag

While the internet being cut off is not new in Kashmir, this is the longest-ever blockage the region has ever witnessed. In 2016, when Kashmir saw five months of protests and unrest, the internet was blocked only for 10 days.

“That time (in 2016), the internet was suspended for around 240 hours to 280 hours, but during the ongoing gag, the internet has already remained suspended for more than 4730 hours,” said an official, asking not to be named.

Over the years, particularly after 2008 when the Valley witnessed its first mass uprising against the transfer of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board in Pahalgam, the region has seen most number of internet shutdowns across different states.

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Every time there is an encounter in a Kashmiri village, internet is snapped in the whole district. The gag usually lasts for four days.

During the last six years, frequent internet suspension has dealt a body-blow to Kashmir’s economy, resulting in losses of around Rs 4,000 crore, a recent study by Delhi-based think-tank International Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) revealed.

The study, ‘The anatomy of an Internet blackout: Measuring the economic impact of internet shutdowns in India’, also brought to the fore that of the 63 internet shutdowns in Kashmir, 34 alone in 2017 alone caused losses of Rs 1,776 crore.

Justifying the ban

In an interview, Union home minister Amit Shah said, “Yeh koi nayi baat nahin hai (This is nothing new)” when asked about the communication gag in Kashmir.

Shah justified his statement by saying that the internet had arrived in Kashmir 16 years after it was launched elsewhere in India, and mobile telephony 17 years after it was available elsewhere.

On August 28, J&K governor Satya Pal Malik too defended the gag, saying the facilities were abused as “a weapon” against the country and mostly exploited by militants to mobilise people. “Who uses phone and internet? It is of little use for us but is mostly exploited by terrorists and Pakistanis,” Malik said.

Also read | Eminent Persons Urge Govt to Reopen Communication Channels to J&K

In April this year, the Department of Telecommunications had sent an advisory to several states, including J&K, saying that internet shutdowns should be avoided “as much as possible”.

The frequent and prolonged suspension of the internet has cost cellular companies dearly. According to the Cellular Operators Association of India the overall telecom industry in Kashmir suffers losses of Rs 2 crore on a day when calling and data services are suspended.