Kashmir’s Internet Bane Is A Battle For Balance

People from all walks of life bear the brunt as the administration adopts a strange pattern of unannounced internet shutdown in parts of the Union Territory.

The chase is on in Kashmir. No, we are not talking about terrorists or encounters here, but ordinary people who hunt for the elusive commodity of internet connectivity from alley to valley day and night. Internet ban/restriction has become a bane for businesses, industries, students, journalists, and people from other walks of life in Kashmir. Over time, the frequency of such interruptions citing security reasons has increased at an alarming rate, which has made many wonder whether the Digital India initiative does not apply to this region at all.

The first major mobile internet shutdown of 133 days was triggered by protests following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8, 2016. Another round of digital blackout was initiated on August 4, 2019, a day before the Narendra Modi government at the Centre revoked the special status and statehood of Jammu and Kashmir. Both landline and data services were suspended fearing trouble, but the former was restored by September the same year.

When data services were revived in January 2020, only 2G internet was available. And when 4G finally made a comeback in August, it was working only in Ganderbal and Udhampur districts, which were both perceived as at low-security risk. By the time of full-fledged restoration of services in February this year, many businesses had shut shop and the debt-laden entrepreneurs had become workers themselves, trying to earn whatever little cash they could to at least stay afloat. For those who were still in the fray, the good news was shadowed next month by another slump in the form of COVID-19 restrictions.

In short, the ban on high-speed mobile internet for 18 months meant nothing but loss of customers for businessmen, orders for industries, information for journalists, school hours and educational resources for students and academics, and ease of transaction for clients.

Life was slowly getting back on track when a series of targeted attacks on civilians derailed connectivity again. This time around, the government came up with an ingenious way of unofficial area-wise internet shutdown, which kept, for example, mobile data up and running at Fateh Kadal, but inaccessible at Nowhatta, which regularly witnessed stone-pelting incidents. Since mid-October, intermittent disconnection has been imposed in several parts of the Srinagar district, including Anchar, Qamarwari, Soura, MR Gung, Eidgah, Safa Kadal, Nowhatta, and Bagyass. The Litter area in Pulwama and Wanpoh and Qaimoh in Kulgam have also faced the same plight.

“This is the sorry state of internet in Kashmir. 15 MB file is going to take 38 mins to upload,” a Twitter user bemoaned. “Internet has been snapped in several areas from 3 pm. This happens daily and they usually restore it at 10.30 pm. There has been no notice issued for the specific problem. Many people are suffering in this so-called New Kashmir,” another social media user wrote.

The new rules governing internet suspensions were codified by the Ministry of Communications in August 2017, under Section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. According to the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, the order passed by the competent authority must specify reasons for the suspension of services, and a copy of the same shall be forwarded to a review committee – comprising Cabinet Secretary and Secretaries of Legal Affairs and Department of Telecommunication if the Centre constituted the panel – by the next working day. The committee should meet within five working days to assess whether the suspension conformed to the provisions of Sub-section (2) of Section 5 of the Telegraph Act.

Such a streamlining is of great importance in a country, which has the dubious distinction of being the internet shutdowns capital of the world. The Internet Shutdowns (IS) Project of the Software Freedom Law Center India (SFLC.in) has recorded 548 instances of data crippling since 2012, with Jammu & Kashmir seeing the highest number of 317 cuts.

A quantitative assessment of the economic impact of such shutdowns by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations projected an economic loss of approximately US $3.04 billion between 2012 and 2017. According to Statista, India is home to 560 million internet users as of Q1 of 2021, next only to China with 854 million users. In short, the economical, psychological, and human rights issues that circle internet shutdown are bound to only increase with each passing year.

But can the administration shrug off criticism over the frequent, unannounced, power cut-model internet gags? Kashmir residents have repeatedly challenged the restrictions on both internet availability and speed in the Supreme Court of India.

Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times that was sealed a year ago, was the first to challenge the restrictions imposed under Section 144 of CrPC in the wake of abrogation of Article 370, on August 10, 2019. While pronouncing judgment in the petition on January 10, 2020, the Supreme Court held that the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) (a), and the right to carry on any trade or business under 19(1) (g) using the medium of the internet were constitutionally protected.

However, the court did leave room for restrictions, if need be, when it said suspension orders can only be for a temporary duration and not indefinite. Terming an undefined restriction “illegal”, the apex court maintained that such orders must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality. Reasons for restrictions should be clearly stated. Further, all such orders should be published so that their validity can be challenged in courts of law.

Sadly, the administration seems to have now scuttled the very possibility of a judicial review by not publishing service suspension orders in official domains in the first place. As Kashmiris claim, the new area-wise restrictions suit the government’s intention to suppress the legitimate expression of opinion. Things could have been far better if the court had not shied away from making internet access a fundamental right. Though the court took pains to find a balance between the rising threat of cyber warfare and the rights of Kashmiris, the recent spate of internet restrictions demands more clarity.

What criteria determine the “necessity” for internet gags, what defines “temporary duration” and who decides on the “proportionality” are matters that require careful consideration. The fact remains that what may seem as an absolute security necessity for the Kashmir administration, may appear to be a gross inconvenience and human rights violation for the common man. As such, an intermittent network outage is a lesser evil than a full-fledged shutdown. The only thing that needs to be ascertained is what purpose does it serve, if any at all.

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