India’s longest communication blackout was partially lifted with the restoration of short messaging services (SMS) in the Kashmir Valley on 1 January after a nearly five-month suspension. The ban on landlines, mobiles, internet and broadband that was imposed on 5 August 2019, when Kashmir’s special privileges under Article 370 of the Constitution were withdrawn, was truly an anachronism in the Digital India that the government is so proud of.
The hardest hit were hospitals, students and the media. The restoration of mobile SMS in the new year came with its problems as several service providers remained unreachable, with only BSNL services functioning normally. The restoration of broadband services in hospitals too was only partial, prolonging the inconvenience of patients and doctors. When the avowed aim of the revocation of Kashmir’s special status was to integrate it with the rest of the nation, it defied logic to keep the people of the erstwhile state, now a Union Territory, virtually out of bounds.
The reasons for the communication clampdown were ostensibly to prevent terrorist activity or unrest over the government’s sweeping changes in Kashmir’s status. Along with the prolonged detention of political leaders, this unprecedented communication blockade appears to be an unfair assault on the rights of a section of the citizenry. Of late, Internet shutdowns have become the favourite tool of the government whenever it anticipates any trouble. The claim that it is a bid to curb fake news and dangerous rumours is disingenuous at best because the fake news factory is working at full speed, spewing toxic hate and lies.
These internet blockades militate against the tenets of a healthy democracy where dissent is the essence of its being. Comparisons with China and North Korea are specious because they do not profess to be democracies. The recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens saw disruption of internet services in vast swathes of Uttar Pradesh and, in a first, some areas of the national capital too. India leads the world in Internet shutdowns with more than a hundred shutdowns in 2019 alone. The economic cost is enormous.
According to one study, the shutdowns between 2012 and 2017 led to a loss of over 3 billion dollars. More insidious and less quantifiable is the impact on the media and the human rights of people. Access to communication is a basic need in this day and age, denying it reeks of a mindset that goes against the grain of a democratic polity. It should be the last resort of an elected government for which the people’s voice should remain supreme. One can only hope that the decision to at least partially lift the communication curbs in Kashmir will lead to an easing of all restrictions.