Wahid Bhat | SRINAGAR
Days after internet services were restored in Jammu and Kashmir, the 2G broadband services are yet to bring much-hoped relief to the people.
With connectivity severely limited and social media websites in suspension, Kashmiris say New Delhi has only “played with emotions” and raised frustration.
From crippling information blackout to missed academic opportunities and the devastating businesses, the internet ban enforced by the Centre for over six months has wreaked havoc on local lives.
The Modi government’s decision to partially restore postpaid internet services was greeted with cautious optimism, and the fear was validated by the minimal connectivity offered in January.
Kashmiris say the ban on social media has destroyed the careers of hundreds of online entrepreneurs in the region. Social media platforms are vital for their businesses, it is impossible for an online venture to survive, let alone flourish without Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other tools.
“For months, I did not lose hope and was eager to rebuild my business once internet services were restored. But Instagram and other sites are still not accessible, and I feel the chances of my business surviving are growing slimmer by the day,” says Iqra Ahmed, founder, and owner of an online clothing store, Tulpalav.
“I cannot explain how distressing all of this has been; Modi government are playing with our emotions and our careers,” he added.
Sheikh Ashiq Ahmed, head of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agrees that India’s social media ban has cast a dark shadow over the future of Kashmiri youngsters.
“With the blanket ban on social media sites, the government has snatched away the livelihood of online entrepreneurs in Kashmir. These youngsters are effectively jobless; they cannot wait for internet access any longer and their businesses cannot operate without it,” says Ahmed.
There have been reports that New Delhi will eventually restore mobile and broadband internet services.
However, some media reports have also pointed out that the government is mulling a permanent ban on all social media websites, a move that will affect basic rights and prove disastrous for Kashmiris.
However, the administration increased the number of white-listed sites to 481 from 329 listed on January 31. The decision has been taken “upon re-assessment of the restrictions on mobile data services with respect to its impact on the overall security situation and after due consideration of the reports of law enforcement agencies”.
The agencies have, “among other things, brought out the usage of internet for carrying out terror activities including those at Nagrota (Ban Toll Plaza), Partap Park (Srinagar), Srinagar-Baramulla National Highway (Shalteng), as well as use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for this purpose despite measures taken by Telecom Service Providers”, read an order issued by Principal Secretary (Home) Shaleen Kabra.
“It is absolutely necessary to do so in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state and for maintaining public order,” the order read, adding that the “directions/restrictions contained in the Government order dated January 31 last shall continue to remain operative till February 15 unless modified earlier”.
On January 31, except for increasing the number of white-listed sites for purposes of internet connectivity to 329 from 301, the UT government had only extended its January 24 order whereby it had restored the mobile and broadband fixed-line internet connectivity to 301 white-listed sites in all the districts of Jammu and Kashmir.
The government had on January 18 restored pre-paid cellphone service (voice and SMS) across the UT, besides 2G mobile internet connectivity to 153 white-listed sites on post-paid cellphones in all the 10 districts of Jammu and two revenue districts of Kashmir — Kupwara, and Bandipora.
Internet services, landline, and mobile phones were snapped across J&K on the eve of the Centre’s August 5 announcement to scrap the special status of the erstwhile state under Article 370 and its bifurcation. While most of the services were restored in Jammu by the end of the month, landlines, postpaid mobile services, and internet facilities to essential services like hospitals were restored in phases in Kashmir.