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Digital lockdown: The untold story of Kashmir’s longest internet shutdown

Ground Report Exclusive: Jammu and Kashmir internet broadband services restoration soon
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The internet shutdown in Kashmir which lasted 168 days is the longest globally. A time marred with anxiety and uncertainity in the valley already on the edge of meltdown

Wahid Bhat | Srinagar

It was the midnight of August 4-5, when Twitter went berserk over reports of something big about to unfold in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, already on the edge of a meltdown. As the night darkened, Kashmir went into digital paralysis, as the government blocked internet access. 24-hours later, the state was stripped of its special status by abrogating Article 370, and its status reduced to a union territory by Centre under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The blockade lasted over five months for 168 days. 

Sources told Groundreport.in “Broadband facility is being restored to get essential service functioning properly and tourism restarted. However, there will be a total ban on social media. A call on extending the facility to the general public will be taken after January 26 depending on the security situation.” 

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According to Access Now, a group that tracks internet shutdowns globally it was the longest internet shutdown in a democratic country anywhere in the world. As the government resumed broadband services in the valley, the damage to the state has already been done.

Billions lost in trade and commerce  

As per a study by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Internet shutdowns in India from 2012-2017 resulted in the economy suffering a loss of $3 billion (approx ₹87,000 crore). The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) has earlier said, “In our report, which we compiled after 120 days [of shutdown], businesses suffered huge losses. Internet-based industries such as tourism, export, silk carpet industry, e-commerce, and social entrepreneurship are completely shut. The ban hampered our day-to-day trade.” 

Amid an uncanny calm and uncertainty, shops and businesses have started opening after months, and the public transport system is crawling back to life.

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Tourism takes a major hit

Post-August 5 developments, tourism suffered the worst blow in the picturesque valley as numbers of domestic tourists fell by 87 per cent between August and November compared to the corresponding period a year before. Just 32,411 domestic tourists visited Kashmir as against 2.49 lakh during August-November 2018. The number of foreign tourists fell 82 per cent during the four-month period from 19,167 in 2018 to just 3,413. 

Hotels, houseboats and allied sectors such as transport and handicrafts have incurred huge losses due to cancellation of bookings. The withdrawal of the tourist advisory on October 31st has failed to lure them back to Kashmir, despite some attempts by the tourism department.

The department launched publicity programmes like ‘Back to Valley’ which entailed roping in tour operators outside Kashmir, especially in states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, to lure tourists to Kashmir. The officials have suggested full restoration of the internet to tour operators, hoteliers, and houseboat owners. They believe they have the contacts and resources to improve confidence and tourist traffic into Kashmir, as they had done in the 90s. 

Blackout marred with protest and police action

In a report, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a local human rights group, said there were “mass arrests, torture, killings, use of excessive force, harassment, and intimidation” after the abrogation of Article 370.

“The year witnessed at least 366 killings in different incidents of violence,” the report added, pointing there were “extrajudicial executions of at least 80 civilians, besides killings of 159 militants and 129 armed forces” in 2019.

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Among the 80 civilians killed in 2019, 69 were killed after August 5. Twelve of those killed in 2019 were women and eight children, according to the JKCCS report.

“Besides becoming victims of extrajudicial executions, several also faced illegal and unjust detentions, ill-treatment, including torture, at the hands of armed forces during detention,” said the report. harassment, and intimidation” after the abrogation of Article 370. 

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The government is yet to release any data over the issue. Apart from economic and physical impact, these shutdowns have a far-reaching social and psychological impact as well.

Internet to be restored in phases 

Access would be first allowed in central Kashmir including capital Srinagar, which will be followed by north Kashmir (Kupwara, Bandipora, and Baramulla) two days later. Acces in South Kashmir (Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam, and Anantnag) comes last, after another two days later. 

A review will be conducted after a week and the Lieutenant Governor will then take a call on the restoration of cell phone internet.

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India: The global capital of internet shutdowns

According to a Delhi based software freedom law center, India shuts off internet more than any other country in the world. In  2019 the government blocked access 106 times across the country and 55 times in Jammu and Kashmir alone.

According to data compiled by internetshutdowns.in, India has witnessed 106 shutdowns in 2019. In 2016, J&K registered the longest internet shutdown when services were snapped for 133 days. Web services remained suspended between July 8 and November 16 in 2016 after the encounter of Hizbul militant Burhan Wani. 

India leads the world in the number of Internet shutdowns, with more than 100 incidents reported in 2018 alone, as per a report by Freedom House a US-based non-profit organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.