Before her husband leaves home for evening prayers, Razia (name changed), a 37-year-old woman in a Srinagar locality, keenly awaits his departure so that she quickly approaches her female friend next-door to make a call to her parents from the neighbour’s post-paid number.
Razia’s husband, a government employee who currently spends most of his time at home because of the over two months long strike in Kashmir, has developed strong differences with Razia’s parents and siblings and has threatened her of severe consequences if she tries to get in touch with any of them.
It has been a year since her husband has issued the threat. But she would manage attending to his ego as well as speaking to her parents and siblings on the sly until she could make calls from her pre-paid cell-phone connection.
That amenity is not available to her anymore! Ever since the pre-paid mobile connections were shut-down, and later partially restored (to receive incoming calls), she finds it hard to call her parents from her own device or receive calls from them because they also have pre-paid cell-phone connections in their home.
Sometimes they could save Razia the trouble of approaching her neighbours and make calls to her from their relative’s number, but it is not possible for them to be sure about the timing when her husband is not around.
“So, she finds it advisable to establish the contact with her parents from her side only,” one of Razia’s close friends told this writer.
All pre-paid cell-phone connectionsand all post-paid connections except BSNL as also mobile-internet services were suspended in Kashmir on July 8 following the killing of militant commander, Burhan Wani.
Wani’s killing sparked off an enormous emotional outburst in the form of protest demonstrations. Around 9,500 people have suffered injuries while 80 others have lost their lives in action against protesters by government forces.
When you type e-curfew on Google search bar, all the search results which flash on the first three pages, are newspaper headlines about recurrent internet shutdowns in Kashmir. The results clearly indicate that the term e-curfew has been primarily used by news-desks in Kashmir and has lately been picked up by some New Delhi based newspapers as well.
Curfew, which restricts movement of people for ‘security’ reasons, is not new to this idyllic valley — ironically, often described as paradise on earth and Switzerland of Asia.
The region has witnessed a simmering armed conflict for over a decade since 1989 followed by recurrent political uprisings which entailed death, devastation and curfews.
Kashmir’s armed-conflict [and its curfews] was the leitmotif of I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight, one of the famous poems of late Kashmiri English poet, Agha Shahid Ali, which later gave Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer the title, Curfewed Night, for his memoir on Kashmir conflict.
But now, Kashmiris have become depressingly familiar with the frequent cessation of virtual world for them in the form of communication shutdowns during political uprisings. Newspaper headlines in Kashmir define them as e-curfews.
Annual ritual of e-curfews
Every year, security authorities in Kashmir block mobile phone networks and mobile internet with monotonous regularity on the occasion of ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Republic Day’ avowedly as a “precautionary” measure for stopping “anti-national” elements acting against the state through mobile telephony and social media.
This prompts newspapers in Kashmir to flash headlines like “e-curfew imposed in Kashmir” while social media responds with hash-tags like #ecurfew and #InternetBlockade.
According to the 2015 report of Freedom House, internet users in Kashmir had no access to internet from 18 to 25 days from January 2012 to November 2015. Before that short messaging services to prepaid cell-phone subscribers were withdrawn for four consecutive years from June 2010 to May 2014 while such services remained inaccessible to post-paid subscribers for six months.
But what has now come as a shocker is an unending ban on prepaid mobile telephony — though call-receiving facility was restored after August 16 for such connections — and the persistent mobile internet blockade continuing since July 8.
According to a report released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in May this year, as many as 94 per cent of internet users in India get internet access through mobile internet. It is no different in Kashmir. Those getting access to internet through broadband internet connections are almost negligible with most of these connections availed by government offices.
Despite this statistical reality, mobile internet is throttled in Kashmir every time there is a slight hint of ‘abnormality’ like strike calls from pro-freedom leaders. Elsewhere in India this happens quite rarely though there have been a few examples from north-eastern states of Nagaland and Manipur. Gujarat’s was the rarest of the rare examples of mobile-internet muzzling for a few days in September 2015 and April 2016.
Ironically kill-switches of mobile telephone services for prepaid connections and mobile internet services for both prepaid and post-paid connections in Jammu & Kashmir were pushed barely a week after United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) passed a resolution on June 27 condemning the blocking of internet services by various countries across the globe to their citizens under the garb of security concerns.
The resolution said that UNHCR “is deeply concerned [also] by measures aiming to or that intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of international human rights law.”
A throwback to primitive ways!
Ever since the arrival of cell phone services in 2003 in Kashmir, people of the region have heavily become dependent on mobile phones for communication, especially on the services provided by private service providers, as landline telephone penetration was quite poor in towns other than Srinagar when mobile services were introduced here. And many of those, who had landlines, have discarded them giving preference to mobile phones which, for them, also meant the end of the headache of calling linemen for fixing the line upon breakdowns.
This becomes quite crucial when the government suspends mobile telephony and mobile-internet during political turmoil. Most often, like in the prevailing blockade, prepaid cell phone services and mobile internet remains completely affected while landline phones, post-paid Bharat Sanchar Nigham Limited (BSNL)cell phone services and broadband internet are only withdrawn in ‘extreme situations’ as all the government offices have BSNL landline telephone and broadband connections while government officials have post-paid cell phone connections.
During the first four-five weeks of the on-going political upheaval, local newspapers used to carry small news reports about dozens of anxious people who were worried about their loved ones either in Kashmir or outside Kashmir given the communication crisis. Volunteers outside Kashmir, most of them Kashmiris, were constantly sharing their contact details through Srinagar-based newspapers offering help to Kashmiris away from their families in Kashmir.
Thousands of students, who had to appear for competitive exams like MBBS, found it almost impossible to download their admit-cards tillthe government provided some help while some students had to walk miles together braving tough security situation like strict curfew or barricades erected by protesters. They had to repeat this for downloading answer keys after the examinations.
All schools, colleges and universities are closed for the past 65 days. For them, one way of taking classes or downloading learning material during strict curfew restrictions and shutdowns, was through internet. But absence of mobile internet has blocked that option as well. Thankfully, volunteers in various localities across Kashmir have set up make-shift community schools where they engage students locally. These schools have come to be known as curfew schools!
Two weeks ago, a few prominent private schools, where children of the middle-class families study, have started distributing study material online. But, Kashmir’s school education director, Shah Faesal has ruled out this possibility for government schools.
“Some private schools have organised online study material, but we know our students don’t have access to Internet in villages these days,” Faesal was quoted by a newspaper as saying.
Travel agents, professionals who work with IT companies and those who had to take online classes or appear for online interviews for jobs, were in a desperate situation especially after broadband internet services were also withdrawn from August 13 to August 17.
Journalists and local media houses were particularly affected during the five-day broadband internet shutdown. The newspapers could not fill all their pages and had to reduce the number of pages drastically as dispatches from district correspondents suddenly started drying up with none of them in a position to file dispatches. They had to resort to the archaic methods of narrating the stories over phone, enough discouragement for both the narrator and the writer to go for the details.
I personally got into a funny situation. I was about to complete and send off a story to one of the publications I write for when my broadband internet connection stopped functioning. I finally had to dictate the text of my news story, word by word, to a friend in Coimbatore. Then, since the story had to reach the editor the same day, I had to share my email password with her so that she could send the story on my behalf. Over the next few days, she kept briefing me at regular intervals whenever there was a new email for me and even responded to a few with me dictating the reply on the phone.
Thankfully, since then broadband internet has been restored (or you wouldn’t have been reading this), but unfortunately, thousands of Kashmiris cannot afford broadband connections. For them, mobile internet is a lifeline — and it is still unavailable to them.
As e-curfew or mobile-internet blockade continues to remain in place, many jokes have been doing the rounds. With an oblique reference to certain tactics used for power pilferage by unscrupulous elements, a senior journalist friend posted in Kashmiri on his Facebook page satirically: “Dapan WiFiyas Teche Laend Travan (I heard WiFi passwords are also being stolen!” He was not far from reality. When I asked an acquaintance how come he was able to update his status on Facebook at around midnight given that he has no broadband facility at his home, much to my amusement, he said that his 12-year-old son had managed to crack the password of the WiFi connection of a neighbour!
“In that sense, we are unfazed by the suspension of mobile internet services,” he quipped. There were similar numerous stories of leaking of passwords like those of government offices, shopping complexes etc.