25 January, last week, was auspicious for Auliya Bano. The 65-year-old resident of Lal Bazar, Srinagar, received a frantic call from United Kingdom; it was her son – an excited 45-year-old British citizen – telling that the internet connection has been restored in Kashmir.
The longest internet blackout in any democratic country had seemingly ended and the idea of finally seeing each other had filled the mother-son duo with joy. Ms. Bano was one of the millions of Kashmiris who had lived a life without internet since August 2019 – when the central government stripped region’s semi-autonomy and snapped all lines of communication.
She cut the call and asked one of her grandsons to help her out. “Yeth chuna WhatsApp Facebook chalani, (WhatsApp and Facebook doesn’t work)” he had replied. The 13-year-old shattered the hopes of Ms. Bano, yet again.
She had several questions – the grandson answered a few, but couldn’t tell when the social media will work.
Back in August 2019, Ms. Bano could not talk to her son for more than a month – it wasn’t sorted before she rang a call to London from a local police station and spoke for thirty-five seconds. When landlines were restored, she would talk at length to her son abroad – but, for
the old lady, a glance at her son would do wonders.
But, she couldn’t do it; for her, it was unfortunate and sorrowful.
Social media has become an indispensable part of our lives and adds to dimensions of our relationships. It almost acts like a third element to these bonds and the nature of interactions between humans has been
reshaped – all credit to video calls, and interactions through other such social media applications. In other words, these applications and the new-age technology have also lessened the distance between two humans – separated by seas and kilometres.
When the Home Department of Jammu and Kashmir administration announced the restoration of 2G internet services – it also made clear that a Kashmiri would only be able to access about 300 “whitelisted websites” on this turtle pace internet.
A view at the list of these websites gives a sense of being cruelly mocked – nothing else. The whitelist websites include streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon prime; a joke.
Grandmother wanted her grandson to push an extra mile; it was not just about a glance at her parted son – she wanted to see pictures and videos of her granddaughters. Every part of their lives; achieving milestones in education, crying, laughing, making faces, and everything – she wanted to witness them growing up.
Before she would bury her hopes in a grave, again – her 23-year-old helper, Amina, came back from Budgam, central Kashmir, as a messiah. Ms. Amina has a keen interest in smartphones – hence, she had a way out for Ms. Bano; Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Ms. Amina didn’t know technicalities of an VPN application, but had understood that it would help her sail through the government imposed restrictions on internet. Much like Ms. Amina, every other person in Kashmir is taking to VPN as oxygen for smartphones – which have been bereft of internet for over 175 days in the besieged valley.
VPN established an encrypted connection over the internet from Ms. Bano’s device to a public network – hiding her identity – to securely connect her to the world, and her son.
In Kashmir, VPN applications are the talking point – “Which VPN are you using? Are there any VPNs to enhance internet speed? Is your VPN still working? Bring along VPNs whenever you return to Kashmir.”
Since August 2019, the world – from India and Pakistan to Turkey and US – has been speaking about Kashmir; but not Kashmiris who were muted in social media space. Via VPN, now Kashmiris are telling their own stories; while a few shared how they survived the clampdown, others
started with laughing off at the face of the government.
However, amidst all the pain that is showing up on social media, their unmatchable humour that has seemingly irritated the government stands out. Memes are making fun of the inability of the government to keep Kashmiris away from social media and how VPNs have turned into saviours. The rumours of re-imposing internet ban are again around, too.
This week, the government had reportedly called out the telecom service providers on VPN applications. The government flew software engineers from Bangalore and Noida to build a firewall to bar social media.
While it remains to be seen what the government does, the fact remains that Kashmiris will find a way to keep their humour and decades-old nature of laughing it off intact.
Back in Lal Bazar, Ms. Bano’s eyes lit up when she noticed one of her elder granddaughters’ ears piercing among the slew of photographs that made it through one of the many VPN applications. However, seeing her other granddaughter falling as she learns to walk remains a distant dream. Even VPN couldn’t help her to connect a video call – the speed is too low for that.
For now, Ms. Bano is happy and sad. As the government refuses to restore broadband internet – unless they find a way to block social media access through VPN – she retries downloading the videos. But, it isn’t happening.
Saqib Mugloo is a News Editor at The Kashmir Walla
The story originally appeared in our 3 – 9 February print edition.