The disputed state of the territory of Jammu and Kashmir is not a new thing in the Indian Subcontinent. It was on the August,5th 2019, when the country witnessed a wave of shock as the Indian Government revoked the autonomous standing of Kashmir that had been granted to the state by the virtue of Article 370 whereby the state was allowed its own constitution, a separate flag, and the state of Jammu and Kashmir could make its own rules relating to permanent residency, ownership of property, and fundamental rights and revocation of its statehood leading to its bifurcation into two union territories.
While the nation witnessed heated debates regarding the residents of Jammu and Kashmir questioning their status post the revocation of Article 370, the Government of India imposed a ban on the internet services within the state by clamping down all mobile and landline connections which they justified on the grounds of safety and security of the citizens as the state was likely to witness protests due to revocation of the special status. There was also a constant threat of militant attacks sponsored by Pakistan due to the controversial standing of the state between the two countries. Recently, this shutdown which had been imposed by the government, was revoked after the mounting pressure on them owing to its unconstitutionality under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution and the desperate status of the people in Kashmir due to a complete lack of communication with the rest of the world after the Supreme Court ruling.
This shutdown was additionally seen to be the longest curb on internet facilities which has ever been imposed on a democratic state – 134 days – with longer records solely being present in authoritarian regimes like China and Myanmar.
Effect of the Internet Ban
1. The staggering economic conditions giving rise to violent protests
Looking at the reality of Kashmir, one can deduce that there have been no established edges of the internet shutdown which could be seen on the security and stability of the realm, however, the extremely negative impact which the shutdowns had on the economy can be seen clearly. The longest internet shutdown which we witnessed in Kashmir had taken a toll on the economy of the region, leading to loss of jobs and a devastating impact on the native economy. Internet shutdowns have been seen more than merely an inconvenience; they are a major economic black hole. The economy of the realm came to a halt due to the increasing dependence of local as well as national and international businesses have on internet services and the model of constant and effective communication guaranteed by it.
In a statement by Sheikh Ashiq, the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, it has been told that Kashmir has seen in a rapid rise in unemployment and a significant drop in its cottage industry. Kashmir is the new entrant in the sphere of startup and its startup climate which is entirely supported by the internet and the well-established handicraft market of Kashmir specializing in the export of exquisite goods like the Kashmiri Shawl have seen a major drop in their manufacturing as well as selling and collection of revenue due to lack of connectivity with mainland India and potential International Customers. The effect that the internet shutdown has had on the cottage industry of Kashmir, both in terms of employment and economic decline has been evident considering that as many as 50,000 artisans who would earn their daily living from the production and sales of these handicrafts were left jobless.
Moreover, the export rates of the heritage industry decline by a total of 62% and the state have lost an economy amounting to more than 1.3 billion dollars. While the shutdown has left freelancing workers from the cottage industry with no jobs, it has conjointly seen companies who had internet-dependent operations had to shut down which also impacted the corporate sector. The economy of India saw such a fall due to the internet blackout which lasted for a total of 4,169 hours, India has been placed on the third spot along with the world’s most affected countries economically due to internet blockades after Iran and Sudan.
Every justification that the government has provided for the blockade leaves it in a questionable position. The government’s argument here is that the blockade would help curb the spread of information, however, the raged residents of the valley have already been impacted which resulted in the increase of protests as the word of mouth had been enough in the spread of information in the valley which directly serves as a target against the government. While it is believed that internet shutdowns can curb unrest; it is however seen that they typically contribute to a rise in the turmoil which in this situation has nowhere helped either the people to achieve their means, nor the government which wanted to curb any sort of misinformation that could be spread. It only furthered the protests as the people of the valley felt that their powers are being taken away from them in a democratic setup.
2. Disturbed socio-political conditions in the valley
While we’ve focused on and evaluated the economic effect instead of the protests which were a result of deprivation of economic sources of the internet shutdown in Kashmir post revocation of Article 370, it is pertinent to additionally note the social and political impact of the shutdown as it explains to us the trauma and angst which the individuals are facing at a personal and community level.
Many NGOs and social service bodies in the region which rely on the internet cannot operate efficiently due to the blockade which leaves many citizens who turn to these NGOs in times of trouble and distress. For instance, NGOs which work through social media platforms to help women suffering from domestic abuse and violence are unable to function due to lack of connectivity. This leads to a dire situation for these women who now must continue to experience domestic violence without any proper help.
3. Suppression of free media and crushing of the healthcare sector
On analyzing the impact from the point of view of media houses and further the healthcare sector, we see that the right of free media as the biggest democracy which has been conferred to the journalists by the Constitution of India has been crippled and they are no longer able to report and publish the ground reality from where they are reporting. While a few journalists are still able to operate in their domains, there exists a constant threat on the news they can bring out to the public as they have a fear of government prosecution on them.
On one hand that their right is being curbed by the government, the government states that “modern terrorism relies heavily on the internet” and counters these attacks by highlighting the damaging effects of social media and the need for its restriction as an essential to maintain peace and security in and around the valley. The revocation of Article 370 saw protests in the valley which got violent to the extent where the protesters suffered physical injury and mental trauma. In these times when the situation became grave, outreach to doctors and healthcare practitioners became increasingly difficult. While this continued to happen and people were unable to receive due attention, the valley saw the entrepreneurial work of volunteer group through whose help over thousand doctors in the valley were connected to the people through WhatsApp where they were able to receive an instant diagnosis on sharing symptoms and pictures.
This initiative lasted for a total of 500 days wherein 38,700 ECGs were analyzed, 19395 cases were handled, and thrombolysis was administered 778 times to clear blocked veins. However, as the internet services in the valley were brought to a halt suddenly on the 5th of August, these operations came to a standstill. The shutdown in the valley left people helpless where the residents sharing their accounts have expressed their grief in times when a mother was sitting on the sidewalk with her daughter complaining of pain in her appendix, unable to take her to a hospital due to limited access to ambulances and the inability to call anyone.
4. The psychological trauma experienced in the valley as a result of detachment from the rest of the word
The shutdown has seen a widespread impact ranging from economic staggering wherein there has been a stop on the development and innovation in the region which has led to a mass migration of young people in search of new jobs to earn a living outside the valley and be able to support their families to social and political turmoil in the already disturbed valley region. At the same time, an outsized stratum of the society does not see the government’s numerous justifications to cut down the internet to be well thought or justifiable which also fuels angst and charges the political atmosphere of the valley and the subcontinent.
Revocation of the Ban
The impact of the shutdown continued in the realm when the Apex court of India on the 10th of January 2020 in response to public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the editor of highly reputed Kashmiri editorial instructed the government to review the Internet shutdown which had been imposed on the disputed region of Kashmir within a week and restore the services in the valley. The court observed that an “indefinite” suspension of Internet services is considered illegal under the Indian law where it is protected under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court in its ruling also suggested the exemption of essential services, government websites, hospitals, and banking facilities from the blackout. While the valley eventually saw a restoration of telecom services two months hence, the Internet remained suspended until some more days. The valley after a few days on January 18th, 2020 saw a restoration of the network in terms of low speed 2G mobile internet with access to only lifted to 300 white-listed websites, excluding social media VPNS after being snapped nearly six-months ago, however, later that evening they witnessed a temporary suspension of the internet to which the officials said that the services would be restored after the culmination of the Republic Day celebrations.
While the restoration of the Internet in the valley was celebrated by people as it gave them hope after six dark months, the low-speed connectivity did not prove to be of much help as the residents of the realm were still not able to work efficiently from home with such poor connectivity. The residents expressed their grievances as they continued to tell the media houses how the restoration of services with such low-speed connectivity was not an incentive enough for them to head back to work from their home or start the operations of their companies.
While the internet facilities were finally restored in the valley giving a sense of power to the residents, the public reaction to the upliftment of these restrictions was however not positive because they believe that too little, too late was provided to them with the slow internet speed and poor network connection. The damage which the valley has had to witness is irrecoverable which will take the valley years after years to overcome, 0.4-2% of the daily GDP.
Concluding, we are left with the all-important question of the functioning of this model – While a 134 days shutdown has not been a common sight in a democratic setup like India or any other democratic nation, we need to analyze whether internet shutdowns ever helped improve the political, social, and economic turmoil present in a region like Kashmir? While the internet continues to be down in one part of the country, it becomes immensely difficult for the residents of that area to reach out to the world in such dire times and takes away their basic fundamental rights. With no idea and news about the outside world, it ignites a rage within the citizens and the motive to keep the peace is destroyed even before it can be brought to implementation and it continues to be a part of criticism. While the United Nations in 2016 and our High Courts, like the Kerala HC, have continued to identify Right to Internet as a fundamental right, our government breaches these rules and it results in an abrogation of fundamental rights of the citizens. What further becomes a question of concern is how we are failing to make India digital?
While we continue to want more than a billion Indians to have access to the internet and connect the rural areas efficiently, the only thing which these increasing shutdowns prove is how we are failing at it and the question which prompts is whether this is how we wanted to digitalize India? This question has further been answered by Jan Rydzak, research scholar and Associate Director for Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator in his thesis wherein he establishes the ineffectiveness of shutdowns by highlighting the fact that they escalate collective action in the short-run which casts doubts on the government’s ability to quell disturbances and ensure the safety of the citizens. These are hence an attack on the civil liberties of the citizen which leaves them helpless with absolute power in the hands of the government.
Thus, every time the government’s policy of suspension of internet services are brought to implication, it aids in proving the global statistics which state that India is the leading country in terms of internet shutdowns with a total of 95 times in the year 2019 itself. This move by the government is largely seen to be negative and questionable which calls for a reconsideration of government policies. There has not been any shutdown in the recent past where the government was able to prove the effectiveness of the shutdown. However, there have been many dissidents to it which highlight the problematic effects on the political and economic structure of the region as well as the subcontinent.
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Supra note 1.
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Supra note 6.
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Supra note 14.
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Supra note 10.