Almost six months after the Narendra Modi government changed the status of India’s lone Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, the region remains cut off from the world, despite official claims to the contrary.
Mobile connectivity and access to the internet remain virtually inaccessible, ensuring a near-total communication blackout.
On August 5 last year, the government removed Article 370, a constitutional provision that gave the former state a special status to maintain its special laws and demographic character.
The government also divided the state, cutting out the Buddhist-majority Ladakh and retaining the Kashmir Valley and the Jammu region as a union territory to be ruled directly by the federal government. It also cut off all mobile networks and internet connections and enforced a major lockdown.
With a bunch of petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the state’s change of status, the federal government finally agreed to switch the internet back on in parts, after facing a barrage of international criticism. However, research now shows that claims of a partial restoration of communications were not true.
Rohini Lakshane, the director (emerging research) of the non-profit The Bachchao Project worked with another researcher, Prateek Waghre, to explore the government’s claims about restoring communications. Their initial research showed that most of the claims were far from reality.
On January 18, the government announced it was partly restoring the internet to areas of Jammu and Kashmir. They declared that 153 websites could be accessed by citizens to ensure basic digital services. “We found that out of the 153, many were duplicate names, or incorrect URLs, or duplicates. So we narrowed it down to 134 websites and decided to check out how easily accessible these would be,” Lakshane told Asia Times.
The two researchers also used a special extension to Google’s Chrome browser that only allowed access to these 134 websites under restrictive conditions.
“It was a simulation to see how far we could actually access the pages on the websites that had been cleared by the government,” she said.
Most of the websites were government portals, banking websites with a smattering of information and services websites. All social media and media websites continued to be blocked, depriving residents of any access to news from the outside world.
“Since this was a simulation we were also aware that only 2G has been restored with broadband available in the five districts of the Jammu region only,” Lakshane said. Many websites, they found, could not be handled by 2G connections.
Many of them are optimized for 3G or 4G connections, and therefore contain a lot of data and imagery. As a result, many websites did not load properly.
They also found that the website whitelisted by the government could only load the homepages, since the sub-domains, or pop ups, usually found on banking websites for security reasons, were still blocked.
These would not load, making access to them virtually impossible. Most were not suitable for carrying out transactions due to the slow speeds and the blocks.
Political detentions continue
According to Kashmiris who live outside the state, their few visits back home revealed the real nature of the blockade.
“This has caused a major setback to businesses and students. Many of them can’t make payments online, so they are not being able to import or export goods outside the state. There are major limitations on going back to cash for large payments,” a journalist from Kashmir said.
“While we don’t have an exact estimate to the total loss of business, it is likely to be in the millions of Indian rupees. Students applying for higher studies are also suffering because they can’t apply online and when they seek to log into portals that need to send them an SMS. They find themselves locked out since mobile networks have also been switched off,” the journalist said.
In October last year, the government restored some mobile services. But these are no longer accessible. According to senior security officials, the advent of summer is also expected to see an upsurge in agitations and violence as the snow melts in the mountain passes.
“There could be a surge in infiltration by armed militants from Pakistan,” a security official told Asia Times. The government also suspects there will be an effort to rake up the Kashmir issue by Pakistan internationally as summer approaches.
As a result, the Indian government continues to ban access to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, so that those cut off cannot use them to reveal conditions on the ground in Kashmir. The US State Department and a host of European nations have already called on India to withdraw the communication lockdown.
Three of Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief ministers, who were taken into custody soon after the abrogation of Article 370, continue to remain in detention.
“This is unprecedented where all the elected members and leaders of the state remain under arrest without any charge,” a Kashmir-based activist pointed out.
The state remains one of the most heavily-militarized zones in the world and three wars have been fought over the area between India and Pakistan since 1947. The two nuclear-weapons capable South Asian states remain on edge over Kashmir, while its people remain cut off from the rest of the world.