This August marks two years since the contentious abrogation of the Indian Constitution’s Article 370 which granted Jammu & Kashmir special autonomy. Afterward, the disputed region would experience the longest Internet shutdown instituted in a democracy compounded by the eventual spread of COVID-19.
Hamera Shabbir | email@example.com
Seven months before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the territory of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) had begun a peculiar shutdown with no similitude in any other democracy. Beginning August 5th, 2019, Kashmir endured curfews during peacetime, received troops in the world's most militarized region, and lost access to communication networks as New Delhi revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Kashmiris would lack access to vital information and infrastructure for over half a year, inhibiting the region’s response to the eventual arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020. High-speed internet access returned this spring, but the consequences of a 552-day communications blackout have devastated a generation of educational, healthcare, and civil society efforts in an already underserviced region.
“Kashmir was thrown into this information black hole. We had no idea what's going on in the rest of the world. The people in the outside world had no idea what's happening in Kashmir,” recalled Ifat Gazia, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and host of The Kashmir Podcast.
Into the valley
Internet shutdowns serve as a lynchpin mechanism in silencing civil unrest in India—categorized as “partly free” on the net by Freedom House— and disproportionately target J&K, with 312 Internet shutdowns since 2012, per the Software Freedom Law Center India. Shutdowns in J&K disproportionately occur after periods of increased demonstrations, especially those related to what the Indian government deems militantism, and coincide with physical lockdowns that can paralyze social necessities such as education for up to 150 days. Hafsa Kanjwal, an assistant professor in the history department at Lafayette College, explained that the Indian government views the Internet as a space for militants, “or people who want to cause political trouble,” and therefore, cites the “rubric of terrorism” as a rationale to shut down communications.
This strategy has come under criticism from human rights observers ranging from Amnesty International to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In May 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye criticized a telecommunications shutdown precipitated by student protests and characterized it as “collective punishment.”
India, however, would not heed this warning and continues to limit access to the Internet ahead of its own initiatives. Early in August 2019, Indian authorities urged pilgrims, tourists, and students to exit J&K as at least 25,000 troops entered the region, escalating the region’s status as one of the most militarized zones in the world and heightening the fears of Kashmiri residents. On August 5th, the Indian government revoked Article 370—a fundamental amendment to the Indian constitution that protected Kashmiri autonomy—and cut communication networks.
“I wake up to my phone with like zero signal. I have no idea what's going on. We turn on the TV, there are just two, three Indian news channels...You can't step outside of your home because they had flown so much of military to an already super militarized region. There was curfew, so you have no idea what's going on,” Gazia recollected. She would soon return to the United States, where she would be unable to communicate with her family for seven months.
Schools shut down, movement slackened under curfews, and families struggled to make sense of an unclear future. Documentation from the Kashmir Tourism Department reveals that tourism between August and December declined by 86% in 2019 compared to the same period in the year prior, devastating Kashmir’s tourism industry. Without a connection to the outside world, Kashmiri journalists commuted out of J&K to complete their stories.
“The consequences have been really difficult, I think, not just the material consequences, but also the psychological toll that it's taken on people just to kind of live in a way where they feel that they are completely isolated from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world has no idea what's going on,” Kanjwal said, “That's how, in many ways, Kashmiris feel even beyond the times that there's major internet shutdown because India kind of blocks the ways in which Kashmiris can express themselves themselves, even when there is internet.”
Public health amidst censorship
Early on, Kashmiri hospitals suspended treatment to their poorest patients as workers could not process patients’ registration to a national health welfare program. Software in these hospitals, including those of life-saving devices, could not be updated and doctors could not consult with one another during curfew or through any communication networks. These conditions led to one doctor’s arrest in August after he staged a sit-in to demand an end to the communications shutdown.
In late January 2020, access to 2G Internet was allowed under government restrictions just two months before the state’s first COVID-19 case would be detected. The Government of J&K echoed anti-militant sentiments in warning that Internet users may “propagate terrorism, indulge in rumorur-mongering, support fallacious proxy wars, spread propaganda/ideologies.” One media analysis found that under a 2G connection, only 126 of 301 whitelisted sites were somewhat usable as social media sites remained suspended.
The slow connectivity of 2G Internet made accessing COVID-19-related information difficult in Kashmir, even for doctors accessing COVID-19 management guidelines. J&K was ill-prepared for the virus; according to Al Jazeera, there is one doctor for every 3,866 residents and one ICU bed for every 27,000 people. Medical efforts were further throttled in May 2020 when authorities prohibited doctors from speaking with the press and blocked NGO access to oxygen supplies.
For students of all ages in Kashmir, education was either nonexistent or limited during the lockdown period triggered by the revocation of Article 370. Schools were ostensibly opened in October, two months into the lockdown, yet many parents feared for their children’s safety amid the increased military presence and uncertainty of the period. As guests on Gazia’s podcast describe, tutors and home-based education attempted to fill the gaps, but frustrated students missed their classrooms and peers. Once COVID-19 entered the valley, schools were asked to shift to virtual learning in a region with throttled Internet infrastructure. In addition to 2G limitations that diminish the viability of remote learning, Gazia noted that many Kashmiri families lack the hardware to access education as, for instance, one family may only have a single device to share amid three children.
“Any organization engaged in the conversation of human rights should be advocating for Kashmir and advocating for allowing them to have their own voice heard,” Alysha Siddiqi ’23, president of Yalies for Pakistan, stressed. Siddiqi, while not Kashmiri, studies global health with an emphasis on South Asia and noted Kashmir’s lack of vital medical infrastructure.
After a lockdown that predated the arrival of COVID-19, Kashmir is beginning to open back up. In February of this year, 4G access was restored to the region after 552 days since the first lockdown began. The weekend curfew has been lifted from all J&K districts in response to declining COVID-19 cases and more than half of J&K’s districts maintain case numbers in the single digits or at zero. Still, four internet shutdowns occurred in July alone and as of August 15th, 4,395 people had died in Kashmir from COVID-19. Losses in education — already exaggerated in areas with inadequate infrastructure — will continue to influence Kashmir’s youngest generation. Other losses, including medical and economic, will reverberate in the shifting relationship between Kashmiris and the Indian federal government. *Interviews edited for clarity and grammar purposes with no major revision of tone or intent.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I learned about my Kashmiri grandfather’s family, who come from a relatively peaceful part of Pakistani Azad Kashmir, yet I was aware of the fact that conflict plagued the region. My interest in political movements facilitated by the Internet led me to discover Stand with Kashmir, an organization blacklisted in India. India outpaces every other democracy with the number of Internet shutdowns it’s ordered, most of these targeting Jammu & Kashmir, a region that already has subpar infrastructure, heightened societal tensions, and increased rates of mental illness due to prolonged conflict. I was curious to see how these Internet shutdowns impacted the region during COVID-19, especially given the fact that the region had just relaxed an Internet shutdown as the pandemic spread. Through this process, I learned about the concrete implications of these shutdowns — such as families without technology for their children to use during distance learning or communities stifled by a lack of contact. While hearing stories of the individuals who I interviewed, I was taken aback by the lack of response from certain sources. I attempted to expand beyond Muslim and Pakistani perspectives, yet none of the Hindu Kashmiri or non-Kashmiri sources that I contacted agreed to interview, limiting the perspective of this article.