Sixteen months on, admin denies free access to internet in Kashmir

The J-K administration has continued to deny internet access to a large chunk of the public by disallowing high-speed internet over mobile phones, compelling many – who can afford it – to subscribe to fixed line services from companies like Reliance Jio and other local internet service providers.

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Sixteen months after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy and statehood on 5 August 2019, during which the erstwhile state witnessed the longest internet shutdown — anywhere in a democracy globally, it continues to be restricted under similar pretext.

More recently, as J-K entered the election mode with the eight-phased District Development Council (DDC) elections, however, the internet shutdowns have become more frequent in southern districts of the Kashmir Valley — for instance, the internet has been shut down nine times in the past eighteen days in the Pulwama district alone.

Despite claiming to have restored the internet, the J-K administration has continued to deny internet access to a large chunk of the public by disallowing high-speed internet over mobile phones, compelling many – who can afford it – to subscribe to fixed line services from companies like Reliance Jio and other local internet service providers.

However, the large majority continues to wait for the restoration of not only high-speeds but times when mobile internet isn’t frequently shut down at the whim of the government. In the absence of which, the public in J-K continues to struggle as digital dependency increases — be it for education amid the pandemic or accessing government schemes and benefits.

The struggles are real

Samreena Nazir, a freelance journalist from Anantnag woke up on 7 December to find that her phone had, again, showed no network coverage. Her instinct was that a gunfight had broken out somewhere in the district. However, she realised that “it was because of the ongoing DDC Elections.”

Nazir said that she has often found it difficult to respond to editors and meet her deadlines owing to the lack of reliable internet. “Even when the DDC polling started, I covered the first few phases, but since the fourth phase and the following phases will be more concentrated in local towns we will now have to live with snapped internet for those days” she added.

Students based in south Kashmir, however, are seemingly the most affected. Sheezan Sabzar for one, a student of medicine at the International School of Medicine in Kyrgyzstan, who is currently home due to the pandemic, said that he has barely been able to attend online class. He is a resident of the Kulgam district.

“Medicine in itself is a difficult subject to study, so studying online isn’t only difficult, it is a pain when we have to do it on 2G,” he said. “We would have managed that as well but the frequent shutdowns have made it next to impossible.”

Restricted internet has also hampered the work of researchers. “9 out of 10 days, the internet is down here,” said a doctoral candidate at the Kashmir University, who refused to be named. He has shifted to Srinagar city from his home in south Kashmir’s Shopian because “I’m not able to connect with my mentor or sometimes I am not able to read up on what I am going to discuss with the students for the class I am teaching.”

The orders

High-speed internet was restored in two districts — Udhampur in the Jammu Division and Ganderbal in the Kashmir Division — after the intervention of the Supreme Court. The court had noted, on 10 January 2020, that “Such suspension can only be for a limited time period and is subject to judicial review.” Since then the J-K administration has issued these orders, citing security issues but justifying it on different instances.

According to an official order, issued by the home department, on 30 September 2020, the following was cited as a reason for the continued restrictions: The “misuse of data services by the terrorist organizations, their sympathizers (OGWs) and anti-national elements for facilitating terrorist infiltration from across the border, reactivating the cadres through fresh recruitment of youth, coordinating and sealing up terror acts by communicating effectively with the OGWs and handlebars from across the border through the use of encrypted messaging and VOIP services.”

In a similar order issued on 12 November 2020, while the reasons cited were the same as before, barring one, the administration argued: “The recently announced elections of 280 DDCs… which are witnessing a high level of interest amongst the people and it is apprehended that the terrorist and separatist elements shall make every possible attempt to disrupt the democratic process.”

The latest order issued on 11 December 2020 stated that “the mobile internet services had to be suspended although for limited periods of time and in specific areas, due to likelihood of misuse of the data services by the anti-national elements to disrupt the democratic process by creating a scare among the voters.”

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