The Pulse | Society | South Asia

The Human Toll of Kashmir’s Internet and Mobile Shutdown

Kashmiris speak about the impact of the communications blackout on their lives.

By Ishfaq Majid, Shazia Kouser, and Tawseef Ahmad Sheikh for
The Human Toll of Kashmir’s Internet and Mobile Shutdown

Kashmiri journalists hold placards and protest against 100 days of internet blockade in the region in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Nov. 12, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

On August 5, 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah moved the statutory resolutions abrogating Article 370, with the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Second Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019. That resulted in downgrading the state into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Before abrogating Article 370, the administration in Kashmir suspended mobile communication and access to the internet from midnight of August 4, which caused serious difficulties for the people of the valley.

“I was surfing the internet as usual on August 4, but after 8:00 p.m., the internet speed continued to decrease,” says Akash Adil Mohiuddin, a government employee from Awantipora. “I thought it is my issue and tried contacting my friends, who told me the same story. However, at 10:30 p.m., my internet stopped working. I again phoned my friend who was having the SIM cards of other mobile companies. They informed me that they have access to the internet. I slept and when I woke in the early morning, I checked my phone. It was showing “No Service.” Leave internet access aside, my phone was lacking the network coverage.”

With communication services down, heightened security checks, and no public transport, patients from various parts of the valley were unable to visit hospitals for necessary treatment. They were unable to contact the nearest clinics to confirm whether the doctors were available there or not.

Shoaib Wani (name changed) a student of Master of Library and Information Sciences, recounted the following experience: “On August 5, I was scheduled to go for my mother’s in Dialysis Center Anantnag. As I woke up in the morning, I saw the curfew in place. Still, I managed to go somehow on a motor bicycle up to Sangam, where the security forces stopped my vehicle and behaved in a rude manner. Though I pleaded with them, but their rude behavior forced me to fly back to my home.”

In an article written for Mainstream Weekly, Aijaz Ahmad Turrey, who is pursuing Ph.D., said bluntly that “Without communication, life is like hell. If a fire breaks out, people have to go by themselves to the fire service station, thus putting their life and property at risk.”

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The communication shutdown also threw up a big barrier among the local people, as they were unable to contact their relatives in the valley.

“The communication lockdown affected me and my family members to a great extent,” says Sheeraz Ahmad Sofi, a Ph.D. scholar. “My family was not able to communicate with our relatives to know their whereabouts. The recharge plan that I had activated few days before the lockdown also expired without any usage.”

The communication blockade in the valley affected many students and research scholars from Kashmir. Those who were studying in various educational institutions in different states across India faced a lot of trouble in communicating with their faculty members.

“The head of my department had asked to communicate with me regarding the submission of my thesis,” says Asif Mujtaba, an M.Tech. student studying in Haryana. “The college authorities informed me that they will intimate the same on their official WhatsApp group but as internet service and communication service went off, I had to visit the nearest police station to communicate with them for securing my future. Ultimately, I failed [in my attempt] due to the high volume of people waiting for making a call to their dear ones, which resulted in the late submission of my thesis and the charging of late fees.” As a result of the communication and internet blackout, Mujtaba added, he has had to extend the estimated time of completing his degree.”

It took more than 70 days after Kashmir was put under an unprecedented lockdown and all communication lines were snapped before the government restored postpaid mobile services in the valley. However, prepaid telephone networks, mobile internet, and broadband remained blacked out. The government authorities claim they have restored at least 4 million postpaid connections. However, over 2 million pre-paid connections have been kept deactivated.

The reason behind restoring only postpaid connectivity remains a mystery. How could a prepaid internet or mobile phone user be a threat to law and order when a postpaid user isn’t?

The move forced prepaid users to migrate to a postpaid connection, incurring hefty fees along the way. And a lot of users complained that their operator asked them to purchase a whole new connection rather than migrating their existing prepaid connections to postpaid.

“I contacted the customer care of a mobile service provider and asked him to migrate my prepaid number to postpaid. The person on call told me that you need to purchase a new postpaid connection and you can’t migrate your existing prepaid number as the SMS ban is in place and you will not receive the one-time password for migration,” says Sabzar Ahmad, a Ph.D. scholar.

That means to access communications networks again, users must give up on their old numbers, which they may have been using for 15 years to conduct mobile banking, SMS banking and other services.

The blackout continues to affect those who can’t afford to purchase postpaid plans. These users typically have very low monthly usage and they can’t bear the cost of the high-priced recharge plans provided by the service providers.

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During the recent round of exams applications, students faced a lot of trouble due to the prepaid and SMS ban, as they were not able to receive the necessary one-time password on their registered mobile numbers. Many resorted to calling their friends who were outside the valley to borrow someone else’s number for the one-time password when completing their application forms.

In light of the many problems faced by local people in the Kashmir Valley, it becomes the duty of the government to restore the prepaid mobile services at the earliest. Postpaid connections have been restored and the same should be done with the prepaid connections. It is high time for the government to think about the 2 million prepaid users and let them communicate with their loved ones and carry on with their careers.

Ishfaq Majid and Shazia Kouser are Ph.D. Scholars at School of Education, Central University of Gujarat.

Tawseef Ahmad Sheikh is Pursuing a Master of Library and Information Science at Central University of Gujarat.