On July 19, 2016, I received a phone call from a London-based Kashmiri man, Shehzad Ahmad, who had no clue why he was not able to speak to his family members in the Hazratbal-Srinagar area of Kashmir.
He said he had been desperately trying to call all them for over a week, but he could not reach any of them. Ahmad told me that a few weeks ago, he and his colleagues had Googled my contact details for a professional reason. “So, we had your phone number and we thought since you are a journalist, your number might work. Luckily it did,” he said. He sounded incredulous at actually being able to talk to someone in Kashmir. “Thanks for speaking to me and giving me a sense of how things stand there. I feel so relieved,” he said. “How come none of the numbers I tried are working?” he asked innocently.
He had no idea that none of those phone numbers, as I made out from their initial four digits, were postpaid numbers from Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Postpaid cellphone connections from BSNL were not blocked during the current turmoil. Unfortunately for Ahmad, his family were all with private carriers.
During the first four-five weeks of the ongoing political upheaval in Kashmir, following the death of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander, Burhan Wani, local newspapers would carry small news reports every day about dozens of desperate people like Ahmad who were worried about their loved ones given the communication crisis. Volunteers outside Kashmir, most of them Kashmiris, were constantly sharing their contact details through Srinagar-based newspapers offering help to Kashmiris away from their families.
When Wi-Fi passwords become priceless
As the “e-curfew” or mobile-internet blockade continues to remain in place, many jokes have been doing the rounds. With an oblique reference to certain tactics used for power pilferage by unscrupulous people, a senior journalist friend posted in Kashmiri on his Facebook page: “Dapan WiFiyas Teche Laend Travan (I heard WiFi passwords are also being stolen!” He was not far off the mark. When I asked an acquaintance how he was able to update his status on Facebook at midnight, given that he has no broadband at home, to my amusement he said his 12-year-old son had managed to crack the password of the WiFi connection of a neighbour.
There have also been stories about Wi-Fi passwords of government offices being leaked, including the state secretariat in Srinagar and at least two deputy commissioners’ offices in Kashmir.
If you type “e-curfew” in Google, all the search results which appear on the first three pages are newspaper headlines about recurrent internet shutdowns in Kashmir. The results clearly indicate that the term e-curfew has been primarily used by news-desks in Kashmir and has lately been picked up by some Delhi-based newspapers as well.
Curfew, which restricts movement of people for ‘security’ reasons, is not new to Kashmir. It has been imposed here countless times since the inception of armed conflict in 1989 though one of the rare curfews of pre-conflict era still enjoys infamy given its hyphenation with the name of then Jammu & Kashmir chief minister, Ghulam Mohammad Shah – ‘Gul-curfew.’
Kashmiris have become depressingly familiar with the frequent cessation of even the virtual world for them
Kashmir’s armed conflict were the leitmotif of I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight, one of the famous poems of late Kashmiri English poet, Agha Shahid Ali, which later gave Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer the title, Curfewed Night, for his memoir on the Kashmir conflict.
But now, Kashmiris have become depressingly familiar with the frequent cessation of even the virtual world for them in the form of communication shutdowns during political uprisings — the ever-recurring e-curfews.
Here’s a timeline of the most prominent shutdowns on mobile telephony and internet services (including broadband services) in the Kashmir Valley.
Every year, security authorities in Kashmir block mobile phone networks and mobile internet with monotonous regularity on the occasion of Independence Day and Republic Day — avowedly as a “precautionary” measure for stopping “anti-national” activities through mobile telephony and social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
According to a 2015 report by Freedom House, internet users in Jammu & Kashmir had no access to the internet for 18-25 days from January 2012 to November 2015. Before that short messaging services (SMS) to prepaid cellphone subscribers were withdrawn for four consecutive years from June 2010 to May 2014 while such services remained inaccessible to postpaid subscribers for six months.
But what has now come as a shocker is the recent ban on prepaid mobile telephony — though call-receiving facility was restored after August 16 — and the persistent mobile internet blockade continuing since July 8 following the killing of Wani.
Wani’s killing sparked off an enormous emotional outburst in the form of protest demonstrations. More than 8,500 people have suffered injuries while 70 others have lost their lives so far in protests.
But what has now come as a shocker is the recent ban on prepaid mobile telephony
According to a report released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in May this year, as many as 94% of internet users in India get internet access through mobile internet. It is no different in Kashmir. Despite this, mobile internet is throttled in Kashmir every time there is even a slight hint of ‘abnormality’ like strike calls from pro-freedom leaders. Elsewhere in India, it is odd instance that this happens with the few examples limited to north-eastern states of Nagaland and Manipur and in Gujarat during the Patel agitations in September 2015 and April 2016.
Ironically, the kill-switches of mobile telephone services for prepaid connections and mobile internet services for both prepaid and post-paid connections in Kashmir were pushed barely a week after United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) passed a resolution on June 27 condemning the blocking of internet services by various countries under the garb of security concerns.
No Wikipedia for Kashmiri students
Thousands of students, who had to appear for competitive exams like MBBS entrance tests, couldn’t download admit-cards until the government provided some help. Some had to walk miles braving curfew and barricades erected by protesters to get printouts of admit cards. They had to go through it all over again when they had to download answer keys after the examination.
All schools, colleges and universities have been closed for the past 52 days. For students, one way of taking classes or getting access to learning material was through the internet. But the absence of mobile internet has blocked that option as well.
A few days ago, a few prominent private schools started distributing study material online. But, Kashmir’s school education director, Shah Faesal has ruled out this possibility for government schools. “Some private schools have organised online study material, but we know our students don’t have access to the internet in the villages these days,” Faesal was quoted by a newspaper as saying.
Journalists and local media houses were particularly affected.
Travel agents, professionals who work with IT companies, and those who had to take online classes or appear for online interviews for jobs saw their work lives disrupted, more so after broadband services were withdrawn between August 13 and 17. Journalists and local media houses were particularly affected. Newspapers could not fill all their pages and had to reduce the number of pages as despatches from district correspondents dried up. They even had to resort to narrating stories over phone.
A few weeks ago, on August 13 to be precise, I found myself in a funny situation. I was about to complete and send off a story to one of the publications I write for when my broadband internet connection stopped functioning. I finally had to dictate the text of my news story, word by word, to a friend in Coimbatore. Then, since the story had to reach the editor the same day, I had to tell her my email password so that she could send the story on my behalf. Over the next few days, she kept briefing me at regular intervals whenever there was a new email for me and even responded to a few with me dictating the reply on the phone.
Thankfully, since then broadband internet has been restored (or you wouldn’t have been reading this), but unfortunately, thousands of Kashmiris cannot afford broadband connections. For them, mobile internet is a lifeline — and it is still unavailable to them.
Athar Parvaiz is a senior journalist based in Srinagar, and writes regularly for Thomson Reuters, Inter Press Service, Scroll.in, Rediff.com, and Dawn. The views expressed here are the author’s own.