This article was first published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs in the online publication “Australian Outlook”.
In 2019, the Indian government imposed a lockdown on Kashmir with no phone connection and no internet service. The impact on the health, education, and economy of this once prosperous Indian state has been massive.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “lockdown” was associated with ruthless regimes denying their citizens basic human and democratic rights. This form of restricted movement was something distant from the everyday lives of Australians.
Now most of us have had our own experience of a lockdown in one form or another. Still, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like if the authorities also enforced a blackout on communications and internet services as part of the restrictions. The words “unacceptable” or “frightening” come to mind. This is now the reality for people living in Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJK).
In 2011, a report to the United Nations General Assembly emphasised the importance of maintaining openness and the free flow of information via the Internet. The report concluded that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation and against international law. However, in August 2019 the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did just that. Not only were Kashmiri people required to stay in their homes for most of the day, but they also found they could not make phone calls or use the Internet.
Internet shutdowns are not unusual in India. Denying this human right is a tactic used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and India leads the world for ordering such actions. Sadly, this measure has become popular with many authoritarian regimes as it makes it harder for dissenters to organise and inform the world about the denial of human and democratic rights.
Modi now asserts these services have been restored in IOJK. However, like many of the Indian prime minister’s claims, the truth lies elsewhere. At best, the Internet is 2G, and phone services are intermittent.
Despite these restrictions that impact on news gathering, some local Kashmiri journalists and a few activists have disseminated to the world reports about the extent of the killings, disappearances, harassment of women, and many other crimes carried out by Indian armed forces. When Delhi took total control of Kashmir in 2019, the only Muslim-majority state in India, they sent in tens of thousands of additional troops. This boosted the number of Indian army, air force, paramilitary, and special forces personnel in Kashmir to close to one million, substantially increasing the security risk for the world. The increased security risk comes from knowledge the region is the most densely militarised area in the world, and the three countries with an interest in Kashmir – China, India, and Pakistan – are all nuclear powers.
Additionally, the enormity of the Indian military occupation reinforces the courage possessed by those Kashmiris who write about the impact Internet cuts are having on health and education services, the local economy, and people’s day-to-day lives. The Health and Human Rights Journal in April 2020 reported the low-speed 2G internet that India has imposed on IOJK stops health workers from accessing public health guidelines and research on COVID-19, including denying them accurate updates on transmission in the region. It makes contact tracing, as a strategy to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, next to impossible.
In early February 2021, health officials reported that 1,947 people had died of COVID-19 in Kashmir, a substantial number when considering the total population of Kashmir is eight million. Human rights groups have emphasised that a human rights approach is central to successfully protecting public health and supporting the most vulnerable. Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International in India, stated, “The Government of India needs to adopt a rights-respecting approach to protect public health and restore access to 4G speed internet.”
In conjunction with these issues, the education plans of thousands of students in IOJK were thrown into disarray when the lockdown first occurred. Online classes, a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, are near impossible to access under the 2G network. A report by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir found that graduate students and teachers have been unable to have papers published and successfully participate in conferences. The report concluded that these developments are causing “wilful harm to [their] careers and violating the rights to education under the Indian, and Jammu and Kashmir, constitutions.”
The Kashmiri economy has been decimated by the Indian occupation. Job losses are severe. The Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) estimates that the region suffered $2.4 million in lost business in the months immediately after the lockdown. The KCCI also found that more than half a million people lost their jobs in the valley over the same period. This includes more than 30,000 hotel and restaurant workers and 10,000 e-commerce workers.
The internet restrictions have also assisted the Modi government’s tactics to increase non-Kashmiri ownership of various businesses, now extending to the mining sector. Kashmiris were at a huge disadvantage in recent contract bidding for river sand mining because they had no access to high-speed internet services. As all bids had to be made online, so most locals were not successful.
For many years Kashmiri companies have conducted much of their business online, particularly in the garment, shawl, and carpet trade. The KCCI estimates that since India’s August 2019 takeover, about half a million jobs have been lost in the valley. When considering these factors together, it is clear India’s occupation is causing a shattering loss for the incomes, dignity, and hopes of Kashmiri families. And while resistance within IOJK to the Indian occupation and takeover is growing, global public opinion remains critical to helping the Kashmiris win the self-determination that they are entitled to.
The #KeepItOn Access Now coalition, a global digital rights organisation, in conjunction with 41 international rights groups, sent an open letter to the Indian government calling on it to restore access to 4G high-speed internet in IOJK. If adopted, this would be a critical move towards containing the spread of COVID-19. Such a step will also be enormously significant in helping to restore the human and democratic rights that all Kashmiris are entitled to.