Illustration by Tanvi Sharma
Have you been seeing headlines and social media posts about internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir? I have, too. It’s been a year and four days since Article 370 was abrogated, and a year and five since the longest shutdown so far was imposed in the region. Given how critical the functioning of the internet is to my own life, I’ve been preoccupied with the question: In how many ways can an internet shutdown impact a community? In an attempt to answer it, the fourth edition of Akademi Mag’s Love, Pavemented newsletter looks at digital silencing as a practice of oppression in Kashmir, and its far-reaching consequences on people’s lives.
An internet killswitch is, fundamentally, a mechanism that allows a single authority to control the internet for all users. It is a controversial policy that was once created for safety against large-scale cyberwarfare, but is used as a form of repression today. As explained in this article, internet shutdowns and slowdowns are largely considered features of authoritarian governments. India - popularly known as the world’s largest democracy - is also called the internet shutdown capital of the world, because no other government has exercised this power with as much frequency. A study from Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator gives us two facts: Internet shutdowns are primarily used for governments to extend control over a territory to the greatest extent possible, and the rate of internet shutdowns across the world is rising, hence normalising the practice that was, in 2016, unequivocally condemned by the United Nations as a violation of human rights.
Muazzam Nasir, a Kashmiri law student who interned with SFLC - the diligent archiver of internet shutdowns in India - told me this week:
"Never before in the recorded history of digitalism, has such an over-arching ban been placed on basic communication services. The two-pronged approach of physical and virtual barricades has had an unimaginable toll on the perceived notion of how citizenry is imagined in a free democracy."
Photo by Darash Dawood
Low-speed internet was restored after 6 months of communication blockade, but the Government imposed a ban on social media.
The government says that internet shutdowns are either ways of containing political upheaval during elections and anniversaries of major political events, or reactions to gunfights between security forces and militants. While this narrative suggests that they are exercised for the safety of citizens, internet shutdowns are, for the people in Kashmir, vicious communication blockades. As pointed out by Nawal Ali Watali and Samia Mehraj in their recent takeover on my Instagram, the forceful silencing of citizens means that they cannot educate the rest of the world about the history of Kashmir, the contextualized struggle for self determination, or the fact that demands for the restoration of 4G are only a small part of the ultimate aim to restore social, political, and economic agency in the region. It also means that we are unaware of violence - occurring as you read this - in the world’s most militarized zone. This includes the detention and torture of civilians, politicians, and children, extrajudicial killings, sexual exploitation of women, government surveillance, and the most blatant manifestation of authoritarianism by the secular, socialist, democratic republic you and I call home. For people whose political leanings support this, the gagging of Kashmiri voices becomes a playground for personal motives. For us - young Indians who pride ourselves on good intentions and social consciousness - it becomes a gateway to the misrepresentation and appropriation of Kashmir’s long and arduous struggle against oppression. I reached out to Dr. Ather Zia, a Kashmiri political anthropologist, author, and founder of Kashmir Lit, to understand - in the face of state silencing and media suppression, how does sharing lived experience become an act of dissent? She said:
“Kashmiris have a long history of resistance and resilience. Indians are not the first occupiers they have dealt with but Indian occupation has been the most invisibilized. Kashmiris have watched empires fall and despots flee. They have been duped of their political fate, and their struggle for self-determination has been demoted by India to the extent that it has been criminalized and branded as "terrorism." It has taken India 72 years and more than 700,000 troops and yet Kashmiris refuse to identify with India or call themselves Indians. India removed Kashmir's autonomy unilaterally and militarily on August 5, 2019, and the year-long siege has increased the emotional and economic hardships of Kashmiris. Yet they are not giving up their right to self-determination. The daily life in Kashmir under a repressive military occupation where homes have become prisons, and streets become torture centers, where alleyways and street corners are checkpoints - every breath is an act of resistance telling the occupier that you may occupy us but you will not subjugate us. Everyday resistance is a cultural and political fact in Kashmir."
Because of internet shutdowns, Kashmiri students have not been able to access resources for studying, bringing education to a stunning halt. This article by The Hindu shares how students have ferried data by air, driven over 300km to download syllabi, and teachers, in the middle of a pandemic, have only been able to reach them sporadically. The economy is threatened with Kashmiri businesses failing to reach customers in the middle of COVID-19, and a loss of Rs 40,000 crore has been registered since August 2019. Citizens are unable to reach families living in different states and countries. The trauma of disconnection, uncertainty and silence is exacerbated by the frustration of being offered 2G internet and non-functional whitelisted websites - insignificant consolations that ultimately fall short.
In January 2020, the court observed: “freedom of speech and expression through the Internet is an integral part of Article 19(1)(a) and any restriction on it must be in compliance with Article 19(2) of the Constitution”. However, Kashmir is imprisoned politically and physically - and since access to the internet means access to freedom, affording neither is in the interest of the government’s agenda. In June 2020, a New Media Policy was introduced, authorising government officers to decide what ‘fake news’ constitutes and take action against journalists and media organisations accordingly. Given that they must now be verified for publication, the clampdown on speech has become obvious and imminent.
Internetshutdowns.in tracks incidents of internet shutdowns across India and answers frequently asked questions about internet shutdowns and communication blockades. Their initiative, Lost Voices, aims to amplify narratives that have ‘lost connection’.
Free Press Kashmir is a weekly publication focused on online, video, and data journalism, and a trusted source for news from the region. Read Khawar Khan Achakzai’s piece on how the New Media Policy is not the beginning of censorship - it is the continuation of a practice that Kashmir is all too familiar with, from 1986 until today.
On August 5, 2020. Nawal and Samia asked my Instagram followers to ask them anything about Kashmir. The question that came up most often was: How can I be an ally? The first step towards speaking for somebody is to truly understand its history and contexts. Nawal and Samia created a list of resources for the same. You can read:
The Kashmir Syllabus, a list of sources for teaching and learning about Kashmir
An article database of credible news reports from Kashmir, compiled by Gazal Anha
This ground report from 2019 by the Kashmir Solidarity Team
Pinkwashing and Pride in Kashmir, an article by Stand with Kashmir on the region’s complex LGBTQ+ issue
Kashmir: A Metaphor of Pain, a collection of poems put together by Uzma Falak
Overhead in Curfew, a piece by Onaiza Drabu, who works on the ethnography of communication
Finally, a list of resources - articles, books, and people to follow - compiled by Nawal and Samia
What's Keeping Me Occupied
Ahmer Javed is a rapper and producer from Srinagar. His music highlights the struggle for self-determination, the spirit of resistance, and hope for a better future for Kashmir. I’ve been listening to his song, Kasheer,
"Kids, the elderly, the youth, get killed,
Our lives are buried here,
Even if you tell the truth, they don’t have the ears to listen to you,
Everything is a lie. It’s an old saying,
These verses are Maqbool, this is my martyrdom.
This is our martyrdom.
Who am I? Who am I?"
I urge you to read Kasheer like a poem and listen to it like a song - find the English translation of the lyrics here. Also read BBC’s article on Ahmer, where he talks about how returning home to post-apocalyptic Kashmir days after the abrogation of Article 370 felt like the end of Kashmir’s legacy, struggle, and identity - and the end of Kashmir itself.