Internet service limps back to Kashmir after nearly six-month blackout

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 – Indian authorities partially restored internet access in the Kashmir Valley, home to more than 7 million people, after cutting off service for nearly six months.

The internet shutdown was the longest ever instituted by a democracy and its reinstatement over the weekend came with conditions.

Only 301 websites selected by the government are accessible. Social media is entirely off-limits and internet service on mobile phones is running at the lowest possible speed. Broadband connections to homes remain cut.

The internet stoppage started on Aug. 5 when India moved to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood while simultaneously instituting a crackdown in the disputed territory. It cut off all mobile and landline connections, sent in additional troops, detained thousands of people and arrested dozens of mainstream politicians.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the restrictions were necessary to prevent violent protests and militant attacks in Kashmir, which is home to a small but long-running anti-India insurgency that has received support from Pakistan, India’s neighbor and rival.

India’s crackdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir has met with criticism from international human rights groups and members of the U.S. Congress. Phone services were reinstated in steps last year but several of the region’s most prominent politicians remain detained, including three of the former chief ministers of the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

The United States continues to urge the Indian government to “move swiftly to release those political leaders detained without charge,” said Alice Wells, a senior State Department official, on Friday.

India has earned the dubious distinction of having the most internet shutdowns in the world. While the stoppage in Kashmir was the longest, authorities also cut services in other areas to stop the spread of rumors or to quell unrest. Last month, internet services were suspended temporarily in more than two dozen cities – including the capital, New Delhi – as protests flared over a controversial new citizenship act.

Kashmiris reacted to the partial restoration of internet services with both relief and frustration. Authorities initially said service would restart on Saturday, but after a couple of hours of intermittent access, the shutdown was reinstated in an apparent security measure ahead of the commemorations of India’s Republic Day holiday on Sunday.

Late Sunday evening, Kashmiris found they could once again access a small slice of the internet. The 300 “white-listed” websites include search engines, banks, educational institutions, government offices, online marketplaces and media outlets.

The internet shutdown has imposed a heavy toll on businesses and ordinary Kashmiris. Some residents began taking a train – dubbed the “Internet Express” – to a town in a nearby region just to get online.

Manzoor Ahmad Tanga, 40, is a leading wholesaler of toys and disposable tableware whose entire product range comes from China. Before Aug. 5, he would research products online, then place orders and receive bills via WhatsApp.

Initially, he was excited when he learned that internet service would be restored. Then he found out that social media apps would remain inaccessible. “It is completely useless for us if we cannot use WhatsApp,” he said. “What am I supposed to do with government websites when my business is suffering?”

Kashmiris expressed worry that online access would remain unreliable and contingent on the government’s perception of security needs. Earlier this month, India’s Supreme Court ordered the government to disclose the orders justifying the internet shutdown, something it had resisted.

Only about 350 broadband connections in the Kashmir Valley – out of more than 22,000 – were functional as of Monday, according to a senior official at a publicly owned telecom company who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Broadband service was restored to certain hotels, hospitals, software companies, government offices and travel agencies, the person said, but not to individual homes.

Tanveer Ul Haq, 34, said he had been glued to his phone ever since the government announced it would resume internet service. Haq is an entrepreneur who started a fruit-processing company three years ago, and the shutdown hobbled his business. In October, it took him 27 days to place an order for packaging material that would have taken half an hour online.

Haq had hoped the restoration would ease such obstacles, but the slow speed and limited number of websites means little has changed, he said. A cricket fan, he tried to open a sports app on his phone but found that it took 15 minutes to load.

“It was better without internet,” he said with some bitterness. “Now you have internet but you cannot access anything. It has been resumed in name only. And you cannot even complain.”



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