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How Kashmir's extended internet shutdown has created a 'digital apartheid'

A new report on the data restrictions in Kashmir since August 2019 highlights its impact on lives, livelihoods, and more. Lounge looks at 5 key takeaways

Kashmir Valley (Photo: AP)
Kashmir Valley (Photo: AP)

On 25 August, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a federation of human rights organisations and individuals working in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, released a report titled Kashmir’s Internet Siege. For over a year, since the Union government revoked the region’s special status, the valley has been without access to high speed internet. For close to half that time even 2G speeds—which were only allowed partially since January and across the valley in March—were not permitted in Kashmir. The JKCCS report has called this situation a "digital apartheid" and "collective punishment" against the Kashmiri people.

The report studies the historical, legal and human aspects of digital shutdowns—there had been 54 internet shutdowns in 2019 alone before the ongoing one since 5 August 2019, as reported in Mint. Divided broadly into 6 sections—livelihood, education, justice, social participation, press freedom, and health, Internet Siege also contains a granular timeline of internet shutdowns in the valley and is punctuated by first-hand accounts and case studies on individual reliance on the internet.

“Taken as a whole, Kashmir’s Internet Siege argues that the multi-faceted and targeted denial of digital rights is a systemic form of discrimination, digital repression and collective punishment of the region’s residents, particularly in light of India’s long history of political repression and atrocities," the report states. “The promise of lasting peace, freedom and justice for the people of Jammu & Kashmir is inextricably tied to digital and human rights in the region."

Here are 5 key takeaways.

Shutdowns within a shutdown

As the report points out, even 2G internet access in Kashmir is disrupted by localized shutdowns. “As this report goes to press, there have been 70 separate shutdowns in 2020. Technology researcher, Prateek Waghre estimates a loss of around 3.5 billion hours (and counting) of disrupted internet access for approximately 12.25 million people." These kinds of shutdowns are largely ordered on on "high security" days, most recently on Indian Independence day, and otherwise if the authorities anticipate protests or public gatherings.

“In one instance, following the July 2020 incident of enforced disappearance and alleged extra-judicial killings of three civilians in Amshipora, Shopian, the police authorities issued an emergency temporary internet suspension order, officially shutting it down for 30 hours throughout the district."

Lack of access to justice

As per the report, 99% of habeas corpus petitions filed since the abrogation of Article 370 are still pending even after one year. “The mass incommunicado detentions of children and young adults, the absence of access to news and information about their names, locations or numbers, combined with the lack of means to contact lawyers or judicial or law enforcement officials, created widespread panic." The e-courts and court cause-lists, which are accessible a day in advance, were also difficult to get hold of for people in the valley.

Several detenus after 5 August 2019 were flown out of Kashmir to jails in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana—families were left in the dark about their whereabouts, JKCCS highlights. These undertrials, since they were away, could not appear in court on the assigned dates, as mandated by law, leading to deferments in hearings.

The human impact and a pandemic

The report studies the effect on every aspect of human life—livelihood (losses suffered in the first 5 months since the shutdown alone were Rs178.78 billion, with more than 500,000 people having lost their jobs), health (hospital visits dropped by upto 38%), education (students have not attended school for over a year), justice, and press freedom. Aside from these, the impact on social media and other uses of the internet as a means of expression and strengthening community—which are qualitative in nature—have been studied.

These restrictions, when considered in the backdrop of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, have been looked into as well. “As this report is being written, Jammu & Kashmir is under lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic," it states. “Yet, unlike the rest of the world, currently 12.5 million people in the region can barely video call their friends or family, attend online classes, webinars or conferences, use apps to have their groceries or medicines delivered, entertain themselves by streaming a film, or download the latest World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and health guidelines."

Photo courtesy: JKKCCS
Photo courtesy: JKKCCS

The legalities of internet shutdowns

“Digital rights violations" in Kashmir occur in various forms—complete telecommunication blackouts, throttling of speed, partial and localised shutdowns or content blocking affecting certain kinds of access or users, "white-listing" and "black-listing" of websites, "shadow bans", and the unauthorised use of surveillance and jamming technologies.

The legal basis of these restrictions, however, have not always been made public. Last year, Jammu-based Anuradha Bhasin, the editor of Kashmir Times, filed a petition in the Supreme Court urging that the restrictions on journalists be lifted. As the report highlights, “despite repeated demands by the Petitioner and multiple ‘opportunities’ from the Supreme Court, the government of Jammu & Kashmir failed to disclose the specific legal basis and grounds for the complete and indefinite telecommunications shutdown and continuing restrictions".

JKCCS claims that the recent judgments in both Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Foundation for Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir have “somewhat ameliorated this position in the law". “The climate of deniability and lack of accountability for violations is compounded by the multiplicity of legislation, broad discretionary executive powers, and the lack of effective judicial redress." So far, extension orders have been issued every two weeks. Between January and August 2020, there have been 17 such orders.

The impact on the State and military

The report also brings out the reliance of the authorities on the internet—with complete communication clampdowns, intelligence channels were completely cut off. A report on BuzzFeed is cited, where a senior intelligence officer, who follows the links between narcotics and arms in northern Kashmir, says, "Whistleblowers would rarely call or text us… because those things aren’t encrypted." He adds, “The official reasons for shutting down the internet such as to prevent anti-national activities are true," but "shutting down the internet also impacts your ability to track the bad guys."

Also highlighted is the inability of the armed forces deployed in the valley to communicate with family members. “Authorities have usually been tight-lipped about this aspect of the massive military presence in Kashmir," it states. “In the midst of claims that criticism of the armed forces, and demands for criminal prosecution and accountability for human rights violations by soldiers, demoralises the troops, it must be noted that more soldiers die due to suicides and fratricides in Jammu and Kashmir every year than in combat." There have been “18 suicidal deaths and 4 deaths due to fratricide" of the Indian armed forces in Jammu and Kashmir since August 2019.

Disclaimer: The writer assisted with inputs in the report.

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