Order of the absurd: What is behind J-K’s internet restrictions?

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In the last year alone, the Jammu and Kashmir administration passed at least 144 officials’ orders to suspend the internet in the region. Several such orders were passed before the Supreme Court mandated the public availability of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (TSTS) orders to ban or restrict the internet — countless times, no such order was issued.

The orders are signed by Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer Shaleen Kabra, the Home Department’s Principal Secretary to the Government. Each order has the same justification: “…in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state,” before elaborating further.

The Indian Telegraph Act 1885 also mandates the suspension of communication services through a written order whereas the TSTS Rule 2017 further lays down that the directions can’t be issued except by an order made by Secretaries in the Union Home Ministry (MHA) or State Home Departments and that the order shall “contain reasons for such direction and a copy of such order shall be forwarded to the concerned Review Committee latest by next working day”. 

Yet, in Kashmir the review committee has a strangely consistent behaviour: extending the bans citing newer reasons, be it the spread of rumours during COVID-19 lockdown earlier in the year or the success of the elections later on. For Kashmiris, each order now comes as a reminder, at regular intervals, of the absurdity of the administration.

Parallel Kashmirs

Before the District Development Council elections, the first direct electoral exercise after the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy in August 2019, Kabra “apprehended the misuse of data services by the anti-national elements to disrupt the polling process”. 

But after the DDC polls concluded in December 2020, Kabra believed that the “high voter turnout … has not gone well with elements inimical to peace”. The next day, the Director-General of Police boasted in a presser that the state was “able to give a much better environment to the people of J-K”; an environment, where, he said, “Peace is further getting stabilized and enemies of peace are getting neutralized.”

On the same day, the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, too, flaunted the poll results. In a video conference, he claimed that “Kashmir witnessed the most peaceful period since 1990 and it will be remembered in the history of J-K” since Narendra Modi took over New Delhi in 2014. “Not a single drop of blood was shed during polling which also recorded a heavy turnout,” he added.

Since 5 August 2019, when a total communication blackout was imposed in Kashmir, the J-K administration — under direct federal oversight — has continued to blame Pakistan for pushing militants, who they claim rely significantly on the internet and anti-India propaganda.

However, more than sixteen months have passed and the reports suggest that the year 2020 was the second-highest year for militancy recruitment in the last decade. Till the first week of November, 145 militants picked up arms. While at the same time, 191 militants, including twenty foreigners, were killed by the government forces. More than fifty others were, the police claimed, either arrested or surrendered. 

While, for instance, in 2017, a year after the killing of a commander Burhan Wani and the civilian uprising, 192 militants were killed as 139 boys joined armed groups.

Talking to News 18, a top anti-militancy officer claimed that even though the officials had hoped that the restrictions in the internet speed would create friction in the new recruitments, “but it seems new recruits are not keen on announcing their induction into militancy. The Jaish and Lashkar operatives usually refrain from doing so. Maybe the new trend is not to show up and be discreet”.

The last Lieutenant Governor, GC Murmu, had even confessed that his administration doesn’t see 4G as “an issue”. On 26 July 2020, he had said: “We have been making representation for this. Pakistan will do its propaganda, whether it is 2G or 4G. It will always be there…but I don’t see an issue.”

Next month, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Manoj Sinha took over. 

The half-truth

All sectors from Kashmir — medical, educational, press, advocacy, and rights groups — called for the restoration of high-speed internet in Kashmir but the administration claimed that the sluggish data speed impacted none. 

Fire isn’t felt till it reaches home: in a hilarious yet unfortunate incident, after declining to restore the high-speed internet services, the High Court of J-K found itself buffering — in the middle of the crippling coronavirus pandemic that had already shut the Court’s doors. On 14 July 2020, a division bench of then Chief Justice Mittal and Justice Sanjay Dhar expressed concern over urgent issues involving the rights of the people. 

That time, the Court found that “despite best efforts on the part of our IT experts, it has been impossible today to have even a bare semblance of a hearing” as they “struggled to have virtual/or audio connectivity”; “even the learned Advocate General has expressed grave difficulty in joining the hearing,” the Court mentioned in an order that asked for Kabra’s appearance.

The Court also referred to an order passed by the Supreme Court in May that had called for the constitution of a committee at the highest level to undertake a review of connectivity restrictions imposed by authorities.

Even before that, in April 2020, the HC had asked for a status report on the restoration of 4G internet facility when it was informed that it hampered studies of children as schools remain out of bound amid COVID-19.

From citing the rumours around the health of a veteran pro-freedom leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, to the “extensive campaigning” by the candidates in DDC polls, Kabra has seen them as “a question of national security” and extended the restrictions.

There was a popular saying during the clampdown of August 2019: this internet is gone, and it is not coming back. It was only half-true

And in another totally unrelated news, before the decade ended, on 8 December, Reliance Jio assured that it will “pioneer the 5G Revolution in India in the second half of 2021”.

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