Stuck Between A Global Pandemic And A Militarized State: Internet Restrictions In Kashmir


After a seven-month communications blackout was lifted, the citizens of the Indian administered region of Jammu and Kashmir see their daily life suspended yet again due to the global coronavirus outbreak. No strangers to a lockdown, the residents are now faced with managing the COVID-19 pandemic in a unique circumstance. Whilst the whole world has been coming together online, Kashmir has been left isolated as their internet access has been restricted to 2G only networks.

Shortly after the initial lockdown that began last August, where the federal government of India revoked the region of its special self-autonomous status, Prime Minister Modi announced the lockdown of the country and its 1.3 billion citizens. The sudden lockdown on midnight, March 25th, left the whole nation scrambling, especially the people of Jammu and Kashmir where the global narrative regarding the virus can hardly be accessed.

Kashmir, one of the most militarized regions in the world, has had a long history of dealing with lockdowns. The Indian government often citing national security or public safety for this. The restricted internet access during this unprecedented time has placed a new level of gloom in the disputed region. After a review of the current situation, the government in the Indian Administered region of Jammu and Kashmir have deemed the hi-speed internet ban as ‘absolutely necessary’ for ‘maintaining public order’.

Currently the 2G internet is only for billed customers, while most people there use prepaid services which exacerbates the problem. With no reliable internet connection, the region is deprived of a vast array of information regarding the virus and how to conduct oneself during this unusual time. Key advice regarding social distancing, hygiene, and methods to combat the virus are inaccessible. This has created a vacuum for accurate guidelines and given rise to fake information shared on social platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.

Without proper internet access all aspects of normal life especially with regards to health are now in a dire predicament. Medical professionals who already face staff and equipment shortages are left frustrated with hours to download up to date journals and guidelines regarding the new disease, an act which takes only minutes in most countries. Many healthcare workers share their frustration on Twitter, such as Khawar Khan, a doctor in the region who indicates his wish for 4G, as “it took (him) whole night to download a paper so that (he) could prepare for upcoming ER duty,”.

Additionally, Iqbal Saleem, professor of surgery at Srinagar’s Government Medical College, tweeted, “this is so frustrating. Trying to download the guidelines for intensive care management as proposed by doctors in England. 24MB and one hour. Still not able to do so.” Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of the Kashmir Times implies “depriving citizens of internet connectivity right now is not just deprivation of fundamental rights, it’s criminal in act, and it’s going to be devastating for the region”.  She goes on fearing “that the frustration will lead to increased mobility outside, as opposed to the universal guideline of staying indoors to limit COVID-19 infections.”

Moreover, children deemed low risk from infection are also suffering, as schools that reopened after an eight-month hiatus have had to shut again, causing their growth to stagnate. The families that could afford private tutors can no longer find this an option due to the curfew and travel restriction. This will have adverse effects on the children during their developmental peak, who have known anything but a normal childhood.

The ‘coronavirus norms’ seen round the world from online medical consultations, to video calling your loved ones, are extreme luxuries in an already isolated Kashmir. In turn, aside from the obvious physical harm the virus has caused, mental traumas such as depression and loneliness are likely to increase daily. This unique situation has left the residents caught between a global pandemic and a militarized state. The counter-insurgency approach taken by the government is detrimental for any progress in the region, which could lead to the most tragic of outcomes for the 7 million plus population.

 

Zaryab Makhdoom