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Roti, Kapda, Makaan & 4G: How Insidious is Jammu & Kashmir's Internet Clampdown?

The ‘Internet Express’ is the name given to the train in J&K that shuttled out thousands of internet deprived citizens per day from Srinagar to Banihal, the nearest town with a steady connection, so that the people in the state could have access to internet even for a few minutes. The place would be crammed with students who were there to fill up their examination forms, professors who just had to check an email or tax consultants who were there so that they could file some retails.

Imagine a world where you can’t call home. You pick up your phone to call your family to let them know that you are safe or that you are in danger and need help only to reckon that your phone doesn’t work – you are stranded.

The internet blackout began last year in August 2019, when the Government of India went ahead to repeal the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and converted it into two separate Union Territories. Initially, the internet shutdown was imposed for a period of five months, but soon after, Kashmir became witness to the longest period of internet shutdown in a democracy.

After receiving thousands of petitions -including human rights organisations and civil societies the Supreme Court of India in January 2020 went ahead to direct the Jammu and Kashmir administration to review all orders suspending the internet services in the valley within the week and put them in the public domain. “ The Internet is a major means of information, therefore, Freedom of Speech and Expression through the Internet is part of Article 19(1)(A) and restriction on it should be in accordance with restrictions to this right”, the court said. The judgement was preceded by the Kerala High Court’s judgement in the  Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala, wherein the said court declared the Right to Internet as a Fundamental Right forming a part of the Right to Privacy and the Right to Education under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, becoming the first state in the country to do so.

Finally in March 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir administration decided to lift the ban on access to social media sites but permitted internet usage only on a 2G speed. This was followed by a vast amount of petitions yet again, emphasising the need for a higher internet speed given the challenges posed by the pandemic.

This partial clampdown of the internet significantly affected the healthcare professions in the region. The petitions asserted, “With limited and restricted access to the internet by allowing only 2G speed in the UT, patients and doctors are unable to access latest information, advisories, and guidelines”. The petitions highlighted the difficulties being faced by health care personnel in the UT and states, "Various public health practitioners, medical professionals, and doctors have repeatedly expressed their concern about wasting precious time trying to download the latest studies, protocols, manuals and advisories on treatment and management of COVID 19. In some cases, doctors are not able to access these resources at all, due to the internet speed being too slow to download heavy files."

In a counter affidavit, the J&K administration informed the apex court that right to access the internet is not a Fundamental Right and that free speech and expression, including the fundamental right to trade, business and occupation over the Internet, can be restricted by the State in pursuit of general public interest.

Many human rights organisations were enraged when the Supreme Court of India, on May 10, declined to restore 4G services in the territory and called for the formation of a Special Committee to determine the necessity of the ongoing restrictions on 4G internet in J&K. While pronouncing the judgement, the apex court noted that it needed to ensure a calculated balance of national security and human rights.

The importance of high-speed Internet services was never as critical as it is in the ongoing pandemic. The judgement shows an unwillingness to understand the fundamental role the internet plays in the lives of individuals and communities. 

Unavoidably, covid-19 pandemic has shown the necessity of universal internet access by how it has become the safest way to stay in touch with our family, a medium to carry on our work online and most important of all, the fact that it has been helping the students in saving an academic year. In contrast, for the people in J&K, the transition through the pandemic has become relatively more gruesome and has exposed the sheer violation of human rights and civil liberties. Students are not able to take their online examinations and check their results, traders cannot receive orders, tour operators cannot continue working from their websites, the platform of online payments is essentially defunct and finally the buffering internet is taking away the right to work from people in the state pushing them to the brink of unemployment.

In July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning measures by countries to prevent or disrupt online access and information and called for free speech protections under articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR. In 2015, Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN experts and rapporteur declared that, even in times of conflict, “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.”

In lieu of limitless cyber blackouts and repression of non-violent dissent, authorities should use social media as a tool to provide transparent information so that they can deter and effectively diffuse the very source of violence. Marginalisation and deprivation are the main causes of the barbaric cycle of violence in the valley. The untold stories of gross violation of human rights in Kashmir are a blot on the face of Indian democracy. In a statement, Amnesty International India executive director Avinash Kumar said: “Over the last one year, the Government of India has been systematically dismantling all avenues for justice for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. With zero representation, protracted Internet restrictions, arbitrary use of some of India’s most stringent laws, verbal orders of detention and crippling of the local media — most of this disproportionately higher in Kashmir — it’s been a complete year since we have heard the people of Jammu and Kashmir speak.”

Any legitimate process of conflict resolution in Kashmir needs to take into account the real aspirations of the people by treating them with the dignity that they have always deserved.