On January 1, 1983, many researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became the modern Internet. The online world then took on a more recognisable form in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. The offshoots of this web have now taken deep root in our daily life. Internet has become the flesh and blood of contemporary society. It has become the brick and mortar of the global edifice. In the summer of 2016, the UN declared that internet is a human right. Specifically, an addition was made to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which stated: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Then happened August 5, 2019, when this fundamental right was snatched from thirteen million people in Jammu and Kashmir, now divided into two union territories. Restricting access to internet is throttling the flow of information, both ways. Internet gags in Kashmir are common, but they remain a serious nuisance. According to reports, internet blockade has been imposed more than three-hundred times since 8th July 2016 in different parts of Kashmir.
E-commerce was booming in Kashmir for the past few years until it met a dead end in the shape of the internet gag. In the year 2016 the longest period of mobile internet blackout happened after the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8. Post-paid mobile internet services were restored in mid-November, while pre-paid services returned on January 30, 2017. People of Jammu and Kashmir are among the top ten consumers of data services in the country. The ramifications of internet gag in Kashmir are, thus, devastating for business as well as communication among people. While banning access to internet elsewhere would be considered illegal and out of the question, in Kashmir it is passed off as a public safety measure.
Jehangir Raina, president of Information Communications Technology Association of J&K (ICTA), a conglomerate of 45 IT companies, has said that high-speed mobile internet is the mainstay of small companies that cannot afford lease lines and radio links. “Out of the 15,000 workforce, which means 3,000-4,000 IT set-ups, majority of them are impacted due to the internet gag. It is only 30 odd companies which operate with a lease line. What will be the fate of thousands of other companies in times of internet suspension, one wonders,” Raina said.
The Kashmir Editors Guild (KEG) conveyed to the government that internet is not a luxury but a basic requirement of life in general and of the media in particular. “It is a tragedy of democracy in Kashmir that in the twenty-first century, the media in Kashmir is being pushed to begging for bandwidth when it is being considered as a fundamental right of individuals in most of the world,” the Guild said.
Indian authorities partially restored Internet access in Kashmir, home to more than 7 million people, after cutting it off for nearly six months on August 5 last year. The internet shutdown was the longest-ever instituted by a democracy, and its reinstatement came with conditions. Only about 300 sites were made accessible by the government. There was still ban on using social media. So, people used VPNs (Virtual Private Network) to access and use social media sites. This brought trouble to many youngsters who were put in jails under the draconian PSA (Public Safety Act) for using VPN!
The government keeps the mobile internet speed at 2G, while the telecommunication companies charge people for 4G data plans. On 9 April 2020, a body called Foundation for Media Professionals filed a plea in the Supreme Court of India, seeking the court’s direction to restore 4G internet services in J&K. To this, the Jammu and Kashmir government submitted that the right to access internet was not a fundamental right and thus the type and breadth of access can be curtailed.
In this time of crisis against an unseen enemy that has claimed 800 thousand deaths and over 23 million infections worldwide, the government still is reluctant to restore 4G speed. Only two districts have been given access for the time being on ‘trial basis’. While colleges and schools have been asked to conduct online classes and examinations, and health care staff told to minimise physical contact by using apps and digital media, the speed of internet is still being kept at a level that makes all this virtually impossible.