Blackout! Kashmir and network shutdowns

 Doamuslims on TwitterKashmir, March 2016. Source: Doamuslims on TwitterSince July 2016, Kashmir has seen one of the longest, largest and most unified movements against human rights violations by the military, along with demands for demilitarisation and autonomy for the region. This movement met with misfortune after a local rebel, Burhan Wani, was killed in an encounter. His funeral saw people in the hundreds and thousands coming out onto the streets, the very day that Kashmir saw the beginning of the 2016 uprising. With 87 deaths and 15,000 injured, this protest is recorded to be one of the largest and most violent in the history of the region.

One of the tactics used by the state to contain the violence has been a massive internet and mobile network shutdown, which at the time of writing has been in effect for 72 days. This virtual curfew was accompanied initially with a three-day ban on the print press after reports of the rape of an 80-year-old woman by paramilitary forces.

This is not the first time such an action has been taken by the state. Kashmir, like many other conflict-stricken areas, is prone to network shutdowns and curfews. Previous shutdowns have been imposed on Independence Day or on the occasion of the prime minister’s visit, although those shutdowns have been far shorter in duration.

The current network shutdown was primarily put into effect to quell the spreading of information about protests. However, the chilling effect has not just affected the protesters but citizens as a whole, and has served to increase the distrust and apathy towards the government. The shutdowns have crippled communication in the state and have affected Kashmiris living outside Kashmir as well, due to their inability to stay informed of the well-being of their relatives. Local newspapers’ internet pages saw many queries regarding the situation in particular areas, along with non-residents of Kashmir appealing to the government to lift the ban so that they can contact people living in the area.

Legitimate forms of communications have been markedly affected, with the added issue of the disruption of essential communication in the Kashmir Valley, which now has a large number of citizens injured in the hospitals. The Kashmir Valley has also borne witness to an increase in the number of emergency deaths due to the barriers to communication for seeking essential services.

It is thus evident that network shutdowns not only affect freedom of expression and information, but they also can and do impact the very right to life so preciously guarded by the constitution. In times of disaster, ICTs can play a crucial role in saving lives and mitigating damages, which the government of India must take into account. Livelihoods and education have also been affected as a result of these arbitrary and prolonged network shutdowns. Moreover, these shutdowns take away the precious space for counter speech and the ability of the government and civil society to prevent the spread of misinformation.

The importance of ensuring access to emergency services at all times is a prerequisite of any government, especially in a state which is prone to natural calamities such as earthquakes, floods and landslides, which can happen at any time. Unfortunately, the legal backing used by the authorities to impose such blockades is discretionary in nature, allowing the government to use it as it pleases.