Rights body calls internet siege in Kashmir as ‘digital apartheid’, urges international community to speak up

By Gowhar Geelani, TwoCircles.net

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Society (JKCCS) in its exhaustive report has described the frequent internet shutdowns and communication disruptions during the last one year as “digital apartheid” and a “collective punishment” meted out to the people in the restive region while urging the international community to step in.

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The JKCCS, a prominent human rights body based in Srinagar, in its report titled “Kashmir’s Internet Siege” said that the unprecedented internet shutdowns and the continued ban on high-speed 4G internet in all but two districts of J&K have adversely impacted the region’s economy, education, livelihoods, jobs, justice, journalism and healthcare.

According to the JKCCS report, Jammu and Kashmir’s economy has suffered immense losses worth billions of dollars while half-a-million people, mostly the youth, have lost their jobs in the Kashmir Valley. “Livelihood consequences of the shutdown of August 2019 were severe, and losses suffered by various businesses during the first five months alone were estimated at Rs 178.78 billion, with more than 500,000 people having lost their jobs in the valley,” the damning report reads.

Prior to the JKCCS report, a Srinagar based leading trading body Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) had estimated the economic losses in Kashmir since August last year to the tune of INR 40,000 Crores.

The JKCCS in its report voiced concern over the state of healthcare in J&K. It said that in the months of June, July and August last year the number of hospital visits in the Kashmir Valley dropped by nearly 40 per cent.

The report said that the sector of education suffered a major setback, first due to the blanket ban on all forms of the internet for seven months and then the absence of high-speed internet since March this year didn’t help matters. “Education suffered a major setback, and in August 2020 students enrolled in Kashmir’s 30,000 schools and 400 institutes of higher education marked the first anniversary of the internet shutdown as a full year without attending school, or college or university,” the report said.

The report Kashmir’s Internet Siege also noted with concern that justice in Kashmir witnessed “systemic delays” which were further compounded by “ineffective online hearings”.

“Amidst the internet and telecommunications blackout, more than 6000 detentions and over 600 ‘administrative’ detentions took place around August 5th 2019. Of habeas corpus petitions filed for the release of illegal detainees during the period, 99% remain pending,” it said.

On media gags in J&K, the report said that “Press freedoms and the right to freedom of speech, expression and social participation suffered from the direct impact and chilling effects of online surveillance, profiling and criminal sanctions, with police complaints registered against working journalists and over 200 social media and VPN (Virtual Private Network) users.”

Many social media users in Kashmir have alleged that they are being routinely summoned by and questioned at the Srinagar-based cyber cell of the J&K Police. Several netizens alleged that they were harassed and threatened to not write any political content or anything remotely critical of the administration. Some also alleged that their mobile phones were confiscated and that they were coerced to reveal passwords of their social media handles. However, the police denied such allegations.

Unsurprisingly, the JKCCS report was critical of the “bonds of good behaviour” and the “undertakings” which it alleged are being extracted from the political prisoners under duress. The police department extracted such bonds from the Kashmiri political workers, making their release conditional upon promises of not further participating in political protests or political activity. “The digital siege punishes Kashmiris for their political beliefs,” the report stated.

The report further said that “The multi-faceted and targeted denial of digital rights is a systemic form of discrimination, digital repression and collective punishment of the region’s residents, particularly in light of India’s long history of political repression and atrocities.”

On August 5, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Central government in New Delhi unilaterally revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and downsized the region into two federally administered territories (Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir).

However, at least six political parties active on the region’s political landscape have unanimously rejected the August 5 decision and described it as “unconstitutional and illegal” while resolving to collectively fight for the restoration of J&K’s political autonomy, statehood besides human, political and economic rights.

Although after blocking all forms of the internet for over seven months beginning August last year, the J&K administration effectively controlled by Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) allowed slow 2G internet on the mobile networks and recently after the intervention of the Supreme Court the high-speed internet was restored in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district and Jammu’s Udhampur district on “trial basis”.

Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks Internet suspensions around the world, in mid-December last year described the internet shutdown in Kashmir “the longest ever in a democracy”.

According to the JKCCS, “India leads the world in ordering internet shutdowns, and both in terms of frequency and duration Jammu & Kashmir accounts for more than two-thirds of shutdowns. There have been 226 documented internet shutdowns in Jammu & Kashmir since the year 2012.” The rights body argued that “under humanitarian law, prolonged and blanket internet disruptions are similar to other kinds of disproportionate and impermissible forms of targeting or blockading of essential civilian infrastructure or services. The digital siege is constituted by varied forms and phases of network disruptions and shutdowns.”

The Kashmir-based Civil Society coalition said that its report was also addressed to the international community. “While the Government of India may have succeeded in gagging the voices of the people of Jammu & Kashmir with its longstanding communication blockade, this should not prevent the international community from speaking out,” it said, adding that “The report is also a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, who refuse to be silenced.”