India restores full Internet access in Kashmir for 2 weeks
Indian authorities on Wednesday temporarily revoked a ban on social media sites and restored full Internet access in disputed Kashmir for two weeks, seven months after they stripped the restive region of its statehood and semi-autonomy and enforced a total communications blackout.
Internet access over mobile devices, however, will remain restricted to slow speed.
The restoration of the Internet will remain in effect till 17 March, a government order said. It gave no explanation of the time limit. A recent Supreme Court order had said the Internet ban could not be indefinite.
The order issued by the region's home secretary, Shaleen Kabra, said Internet access over fixed lines will be restricted to registered customers. A.K. Srivastava, an official at state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd., the leading broadband service provider in Kashmir, said it has begun implementing the new government order.
When it imposed the Internet ban in August, the government said it was necessary to head off anti-India protests and attacks by rebels who have fought for decades for Muslim-majority Kashmir's independence or unification with Pakistan, which administers the other part of Kashmir. Both countries claim the Himalayan region in its entirety.
Digital rights activists denounced the tight Internet restrictions and said they represented a new level of government control over information allowing it to further restrict freedoms in Kashmir. They were also criticised by lawmakers in India itself, Europe and the U.S., who called on the government to end the curbs.
Authorities in January slightly eased the Internet ban, allowing the Indian-controlled territory's more than 7 million people to access government-approved websites over slow-speed connections. They heralded the decision as a step toward normalcy.
The portion of the divided Kashmir region that Hindu-majority India controls was already one of the most militarised places in the world before the government scrapped its statehood, began pouring in more troops and imposed harsh curbs on civil rights and information, including a blackout on the Internet, cellphones, landlines and cable TV.
The Internet lockdown inflicted heavy losses for the region's economy, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which said at least 150,000 jobs were lost. Local tech companies had to close or relocate to other areas of India, suffering heavy losses.
During the service blackout, critically ill patients couldn't access government healthcare or seek insurance reimbursements online, students couldn't apply for fellowships or scholarships and distraught families couldn't contact relatives outside the region.
Kashmir: Living with the curfew
Since the leadership in New Delhi revoked the special autonomy status, previously laid down in the Indian constitution, for the state of Jammu and Kashmir at the beginning of August, the region has been subject to punitive restrictions. By David Ehl
A unique state: Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state in which the majority of the population is Muslim. Since its independence in 1947, India has seen itself as a multi-ethnic state. However, this self-image is shifting towards a Hindu nation-state: Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist BJP dominates politics, and in May it once again became the strongest political force
Under house arrest: Since 5 August, a curfew has been in force for the people of the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir. The central government has imposed it because it fears an uprising against it: the Hindu nationalist government has rescinded the special status of the majority Muslim region and extended its control over the state
Information blackout: Internet and telephone lines are dead. If you are lucky, you may be able to make a quick phone call to a few government agencies. Many have not heard from their relatives since the curfew began. A handful of local newspapers nevertheless continue to be published, albeit under adverse conditions – and they are quickly sold out
Behind bars: not all Kashmiris are at home, like this family in Srinagar. Police reported 300 arrests last week, partly as "preventative measures". According to Reuters, there are rumours of 500 people being arrested. Activists distributed a video of an 11-year-old boy reporting alleged police violence in custody – and the existence of even younger detainees
Tears of despair: Jameela, the mother of 28-year-old Koran teacher Irfan Ahmad Hurra, reports in tears that her son was arrested on 5 August. "I don't know what he is accused of. We don't know where he is." She said he was ill and needed medication. According to his family, Hurra had been in custody in the past, accused of causing unrest and property damage
It's good to be a soldier...: While the Indian soldiers can move freely, the more than four million inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley are officially not even allowed to go shopping in the city. The Indian army has cultivated a strong presence in the region for years. In the days before the announcement at least 10,000 additional soldiers were transferred to Kashmir
Everyday life in a state of emergency: photos like this give the appearance of normality despite the blockade. Most inhabitants of the region have experienced such curfews several times, for example in 2008, 2010 and 2013. Back then there were mass protests against the Indian government, with curfews being imposed as a result – but never as extensive as today: it is the first time that the landline telephone network has been switched off
Where are the customers? The provincial capital Srinagar with its one million inhabitants is actually a lively place. But because of the curfew, it's not just these bakers who lose the customers for their goods. Only for the Muslim Eid festival were the inhabitants allowed to go shopping more extensively. The curfew leads to supply bottlenecks, even for medicines
In Srinagar, residents now refer to their location as an "open-air prison": in some places there have been demonstrations, which the police are said to have dissolved with tear gas – but this is not officially confirmed. Many Kashmiri are increasingly frustrated about "haalat" – "the situation". One man told a news agency that his mobile phone was only good for throwing at soldiers
Resentment under wraps: journalists who were able to talk to the local population reported increasing frustration. Phrases like "we will fight against India" are often heard. Many people exchange information about where uprisings could take place. There have long been armed rebels in the region fighting for free Kashmir. In 2018, 256 of them were killed
The long arm of New Delhi: While the Kashmiris remain at home, they fear that their region may change and that they may become a minority: The special status abolished by the BJP government prevented investors from the rest of the country from settling in Kashmir. Days before the announcement, Hindus were removed from the region, but in the long run they could have a major impact
Is Kashmir on the brink of new violence? The children who stand with these soldiers only carry toy guns – but in the region the fear of real armed violence is great: Pakistan, which also claims to be the whole Kashmir region, sees a "danger for world peace". That is why the third riparian, the People's Republic of China, has now, at Pakistan's request, brought the issue before the UN Security Council
“They have finally restored the Internet, but after destroying so many businesses and ruining so many careers,'' said Khurshid Ahmed, a university student in Srinagar, the region's main city. “Though late, the international shaming has worked.''
Internet shutdowns are a favoured tactic of the government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During protests in New Delhi against a citizenship law passed late last year that fast-tracks naturalisation for immigrants of all South Asia's major religions except Islam, Internet and cell service were frequently disrupted.
Since Modi came into power in 2014, the Internet has been suspended more than 365 times in India, according to the global digital rights group Access Now. In Kashmir, Internet bans have been more frequent. More than a third of India's Internet bans in the last six years were imposed there, some lasting months.
In 2017, United Nations experts said a ban on social media sites that year had “the character of collective punishment''. (AP)