After two-month blackout, cellphones start to ring again in Kashmir

An Indian security personnel stands guard on a deserted road during restrictions after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Ismail/File photo

NEW DELHI – Just before noon on Monday, Athar Rather’s phone rang in New Delhi. On the other end was a voice he hadn’t heard in weeks: his younger sister Rizwana in Kashmir. The siblings choked back tears, overcome by the simple act of being able to reach each other.

Mobile phones sprang to life across the Kashmir Valley after more than two months of silence as Indian authorities removed a key element of their clampdown on the region’s 7 million people.

Around noon local time, Kashmiris who have monthly cellphone plans – but not those with prepaid connections – discovered they were once again able to communicate with friends, relatives and colleagues. Parents called their children studying in other parts of India. Business executives called their customers. Anyone who could make a call made one – or dozens.

Feroz Khan, a dealer in shawls and handicrafts, sat outside his shop in downtown Srinagar and spent an hour calling each of his clients in different cities. “It is like telling them that we too exist,” he said, a smile of relief on his face. “It is unimaginable for people living outside Kashmir to understand how we managed to live without communication for 70 days.”

The reprieve comes at a bleak time for most Kashmiris. The shutdown in cellular phone service was part of an unprecedented crackdown tied to India’s decision on August 5 to strip Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood.

Anticipating large and potentially violent protests in response to its move, India blocked all communications, shut down Internet service and placed severe restrictions on movement. Authorities detained thousands of people, including children, and arrested nearly all of the state’s political leadership. The restrictions affected emergency medical care. Security forces faced allegations of torture.

In recent weeks, India has eased some restrictions, restoring landline service and permitting people to move around mostly unhindered. But Internet access remains cut off and dozens of high-profile politicians are still in detention. Shops are shuttered except for a few hours a day, both out of anger at India’s decision and, in some cases, fear of reprisals by militants. Schools are largely empty of students.

International human rights groups and a growing number of U.S. senators and representatives have criticized India’s crackdown in Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy represented a “new dawn” for the Muslim-majority region, which has been home to an anti-India insurgency for three decades. He vowed to make a “paradise” in Kashmir, but it remains unclear how the government plans to achieve such a goal.

On Monday, after two months of being cut off from modern communications, many Kashmiris rushed to make calls to people across the country. There are about 6 million mobile phone connections overall in the Kashmir Valley, said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. He could not provide a figure for the different types of plans.

In Kashmir, the immediate sense of relief was coupled with sadness and frustration. The last two months have taken their toll: Rather, a 29-year old journalist in Delhi, learned only belatedly that his uncle had died in September. By the time word reached him, the funeral was already over. His mother, a cancer survivor, missed her checkups at the hospital due to a lack of public transportation. Rather said he experienced panic attacks at not being able to reach his relatives.

“It’s been very exhausting,” he said, “not being able to speak to my family when we needed each other the most.”

Authorities in Kashmir have not said when they will restore Internet service, nor have they said when mainstream politicians – some of whom are being held under a stringent anti-terrorism statute – will be freed. Politicians are reportedly being asked to sign a bond pledging to maintain “peace” and “good behavior” as a condition of their release.

The partial resumption of cellphone service is a “halfhearted measure” taken in response to international pressure, said Iltija Mufti, the daughter of Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir. Her mother has been held incommunicado in solitary detention since Aug. 5. In September, India’s Supreme Court allowed her to meet her mother.

“Our thoughts and words have been put under curfew,” said Mufti. “Are we supposed to celebrate phones working now?”

Experts said that the return of mobile phone service represented a test of the public mood in Kashmir. If violent protests emerge or a fresh attack by militants takes place, the restrictions could return. “If there is an abrupt escalation, there will be an equally abrupt clampdown again,” said Ajai Sahni, a terrorism expert and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “The government has communicated a very clear message of the extent to which it is willing to go.”

Khan, the dealer in shawls and handicrafts, said that it has been an ordeal to keep his business afloat for the last two months. “It would have been great if the authorities resumed the Internet as well,” he said, his relief tempered by the knowledge that the curbs on communication could be reinstated. “We are happy, but I am not sure how long this joy will last.”

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