Who will be prosecuted for longest internet restrictions in Kashmir?

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The Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) administration announced the restoration of high-speed internet in the erstwhile state after eighteen months of continued restrictions. Simultaneous with the much-awaited announcement, mobile internet was completely shut in Kashmir’s southern districts.

The restoration of high-speed internet in Kashmir is not a favour granted to J-K, it was a basic necessity and right denied to the regions’ more than 12 million residents for a year and a half.

This shutdown had an economic cost too. As per a United Kingdom-based VPN service, the economic cost of internet shutdowns in India, with a majority of them in J-K, in 2020 was $2.8 Billion. 

On the morning of 5 August 2019, residents of J-K woke up to what would become the longest shutdown of the internet in a democracy as New Delhi unilaterally abrogated the region’s limited-autonomy and bifurcated it into two federally governed territories.

As the clampdown unfolded over much of the remaining part of 2019, international scrutiny of New Delhi’s measures in Kashmir intensified. Several international rights groups, free speech and press freedom advocates, even medical associations criticised New Delhi and called for the removal of restrictions on the internet. 

But the J-K administration, under New Delhi’s direct oversight, didn’t budge. 

Urgent litigations in the Supreme Court (SC) weren’t met with the emergency on the ground. In one of the recent petitions in the apex court argued that these “Impugned Order [that extends the ban] treats all residents … with suspicion of criminal activity”. Yet, the SC didn’t order the restoration of J-K’s internet but it observed that suspension of telecom services couldn’t be indefinite and ordered the J-K administration to constitute a special committee for timely review of restrictions.

What followed was a volley of orders. Over 150 official orders ruled that high-speed internet was detrimental to “the security and sovereignty of India”. Further justifications evolved over time — from speculating over the death of Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the high voter turnout in local elections — but Pakistan as a bogeyman remained constant.

Even as the government’s own narrative of the “improvement” in and threats to the law and order situation in the region contradicted their justifications for banning the internet, the administration was unbothered.

Fast forward to 2020, just days after India again became the focus of international attention over dealing with mass protests by the country’s aggrieved farmers, Kashmir’s internet was restored.

This begs the question: what led to the sudden change of heart?

Unlike the detailed justifications they used to continue the ban, the official order announcing the restoration was curt. On Friday, J-K’s New Delhi appointed Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha expressed his gratitude to New Delhi — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his de-facto deputy Amit Shah — for “acceding to our request and restoring 4G services in the entire J-K”. 

From a threat to India’s sovereignty, Sinha said the restoration of high-speed internet is a “move [that] will fulfill the aspirations of the people, particularly the youth.”

It still begs the question why. Beyond denying the local administration the authority to take actions before a central diktat, the longest shutdown of the internet has set another undemocratic precedent in Kashmir — the collective punishment of a people denied free access to the internet for what can only be described as thoughtcrimes.

Correspondingly, Kashmir’s social media chatter was flooded with images and memories of the clampdown than thanking the government for restoring a basic right denied for more than a year. This is evident of the trust deficit between New Delhi and Kashmir — ages-old but repackaged time and again.

The track record of justifications and the inexplicable logic behind allowing wired connections have also led to widespread speculation. While millions struggled to get hold of a stable internet connection, Reliance Jio rolled out its fixed-line service in September 2019 with 4,128 subscribers. By November 2020, this number of subscribers shot up to 57,451.

Barely a week before restoring the high-speed internet, the J-K police called for registration of private citizens as volunteers to police the internet and flag “online illegal/unlawful content like child pornography, rape/gang rape, terrorism, radicalization, anti-national activities”.

The Kashmir Walla reported that this program further renewed concerns of deteriorating freedom of speech in Kashmir, already reeling under intense government scrutiny since the August episode.

The ongoing petition in the Supreme Court provides an opportunity to examine the federal government’s stranglehold over the regional governments — anathema to regional empowerment and decentralisation of power.

The SC must hold the Government of India accountable on the cost-benefit calculation behind the world’s longest internet restrictions — borne out of unbridled and unaccounted power, and the lack of foresight that brought international shame.

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