No web, no jobs: Kashmiris board the 'Internet Express'
Braving the snow and cold, Abrar Ahmad, 18, is one of thousands of Kashmiris who regularly spend hours journeying on a packed train just so that they can go online as the region grapples with the longest Internet blackout imposed by a democracy.
Stepping off the crammed train – dubbed the "Internet Express" by Indian Kashmiris – in the nearby town of Banihal, the passengers make a beeline for cafes where they pay up to 300 rupees ($4.20) for an hour's broadband.
"I couldn't have afforded to miss this opportunity," Ahmad told journalists after filling out an online job application at a teeming Internet cafe, where dozens of others hit by the 162-day Internet shutdown queued behind him.
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 The central government has imposed it because it fears an uprising against it: the Hindu nationalist government has rescinded the special status of the majority Muslim region and extended its control over the state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
"There is no one else in my family to take care of my three younger siblings and me," he said, adding that his father, a mason, lost his leg in a road accident last year.
Indian-administered Kashmir has been without broadband and mobile data services since 5 August when India's government revoked the special status of its only Muslim-majority state, splitting Jammu and Kashmir in two.
Despite a United Nations declaration in 2016 that the Internet is a human right, shutdowns have risen in recent years as governments from the Philippines to Yemen said they were necessary for public safety and national security.
Kashmir is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it. Each rules parts of the scenic Himalayan region.
India said it cut communications to prevent unrest in Kashmir, where a separatist insurgency has killed more than 40,000 people since 1989. The lockdown has cost Kashmir more than $2.4 billion since August, with sectors directly dependent on the Internet such as e-commerce and information technology worst hit, the region's main trade organisation said.
"Doing trade without the Internet is unimaginable in the present day world," said Abdul Majeed Mir, vice president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which estimates nearly 500,000 jobs have been lost. "Irreversible damage has been caused to the economy."
Kashmir's Internet ban has impacted everything from relationships to access to healthcare, said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at global digital rights group Access Now. In addition to introducing the democratic world's longest Internet clampdown in Kashmir, Access Now said India also accounted for two-thirds of global shutdowns in 2018.
"Punishing an entire population on the basis of saying potential violence or terrorism might occur is extraordinary," said Chima.
The home and information ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
At a noisy cyber cafe in Banihal, Danish stepped out to catch his breath as people elbowed past to get on the web. Diesel generator fumes filled the cramped space to keep computers and laptops running during frequent power cuts.
"I felt suffocated inside," said Danish, a Kashmir University scholar who declined to give his full name. "This Internet gag is driving me crazy."
But he prefers the lengthy trek to Banihal to trying to get online at one of the hundreds of Internet kiosks the government has set up in Kashmir, where demand hugely outstrips supply.
New Delhi said the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir state's special status was necessary to integrate it into the rest of India and spur development. It has done anything but that, say locals.
Outside a courier company in Kashmir's main city, Srinagar, two delivery executives chatted idly by a bonfire, saying no Internet meant no packages.
"We are the only two who still come to the office. Some 50 boys have lost their jobs," said Touseef Ahmad. "If the Internet is not restored soon, I can lose my job."
Tourism – for decades the backbone of the scenic region's economy – has been badly hit. Every year, people from across India flock to Kashmir to enjoy its snow-capped mountains and scenic Dal Lake, home to hundreds of ornately-carved houseboats whose owners rely on tourism.
Bashir Ahmad Sultani, president of Kashmir's Shikara (Boat) Association, said there was no work for more than 4,000 boatmen.
"We are going through very bad times. Some of us are not even able to arrange two square meals for our families," said boatman Mohammad Shafi. "We are looking at a dark future."
The restriction has served a major blow to tour operators, hoteliers and artisans as well.
"I mostly buy things on credit from local shopkeepers," said Ghulam Jeelani, a hotel manager in Srinagar, who feared being laid off with no online bookings or transactions.
Jeelani, 52, said he has been struggling to pay for his daughter's tuition and daily groceries since his monthly salary was slashed by three-quarters to 6,000 rupees in October.
"I have been told that I can't get even this amount if tourists don't start arriving in a few weeks," he added.
The government has not said when Internet will be restored, despite calls from civil society and the United Nations. Without it, many locals say they may have to take up manual jobs such as on construction sites – or even pack up and leave.
But for Danish, the Kashmir University scholar, frequent trips to Banihal are the only way forward.
"I would have moved to some other city but I can't because my (supervising) professor is in Kashmir. How can I exchange emails with him when there is no internet?," he said. "Such a long blackout ... amounts to playing with our future. We are losing precious time." (Thomson Reuters Foundation)