Civil society report paints ‘chilling’ image of Kashmir since ‘internet siege’

Education suffered a major setback, first due to the blanket ban on all forms of internet for seven months and then the absence of high-speed internet since March this year didn’t help matters

On August 5, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Central government in New Delhi unilaterally revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and downsized the region into two federally administered territories (Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir). Photo: PTI

The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) has described the frequent internet shutdowns and communication disruptions during the last one year as “digital apartheid” and a “collective punishment” meted out to the people in the restive region while urging the international community to step in.

The JKCCS, a prominent human-rights body based in Srinagar, in its report titled “Kashmir’s Internet Siege” said the unprecedented internet shutdowns and the continued ban on high-speed 4G internet in all but two districts of J&K have adversely impacted the region’s economy, education, livelihoods, jobs, justice, journalism and healthcare.

According to the JKCCS report, “Livelihood consequences of the shutdown of August 2019 were severe, and losses suffered by various businesses during the first five months alone were estimated at ₹178.78 billion, with more than 500,000 people having lost their jobs in the valley.”

Prior to the JKCCS report, a leading trade body in Srinagar, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), had also estimated the economic losses in Kashmir since August last year to the tune of ₹40,000 crore.

The JKCCS in its report voiced concern over the state of healthcare in J&K. It said that in the months of June, July and August last year the number of hospital visits in the Kashmir Valley dropped by nearly 40 per cent.

Education suffered a major setback, first due to the blanket ban on all forms of internet for seven months and then the absence of high-speed internet since March this year didn’t help matters. “Education suffered a major setback. In August 2020 students enrolled in Kashmir’s 30,000 schools and 400 institutes of higher education marked the first anniversary of the internet shutdown as a full year without attending school, or college or university,” the report said.

It noted with concern that justice in Kashmir witnessed “systemic delays” which were further compounded by “ineffective online hearings”. “Amidst the internet and telecommunications blackout, more than 6000 detentions and over 600 ‘administrative’ detentions took place around August 5, 2019. Of habeas corpus petitions filed for the release of illegal detainees during the period, 99 per cent remain pending,” the report said.

On media gags in J&K, the report said, “Press freedoms and the right to freedom of speech, expression and social participation suffered from the direct impact and chilling effects of online surveillance, profiling and criminal sanctions, with police complaints registered against working journalists and over 200 social media and VPN (Virtual Private Network) users.”

Many social media users have alleged that they are being routinely summoned by, and questioned at, the Srinagar-based cyber cell of the J&K Police. Several netizens alleged that they were harassed and threatened to not write any political content or anything remotely critical to the administration. Some also alleged that their mobile phones were confiscated and that they were coerced into revealing passwords of their social media handles. The police have denied the allegations.

Unsurprisingly, the civil society report was critical of the “bonds of good behaviour” and the “undertakings” which it alleged are being extracted from political prisoners under duress. The police extracted such bonds from Kashmiri political workers, making their release conditional upon promises of not further participating in political protests or political activity. “The digital siege punishes Kashmiris for their political beliefs,” the report claimed.

“The multi-faceted and targeted denial of digital rights is a systemic form of discrimination, digital repression and collective punishment of the region’s residents, particularly in light of India’s long history of political repression and atrocities,” the report said.

On August 5, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Central government in New Delhi unilaterally revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and downsized the region into two federally administered territories (Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir).

At least six major political parties in the unionist camp have unanimously rejected the August 5 decision and described it as “unconstitutional and illegal” while resolving to collectively fight for the restoration of J&K’s political autonomy, statehood besides human, political and economic rights.

After blocking all forms of internet beginning August last year, the J&K administration backed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) allowed slow 2G internet on the mobile phones and recently after the intervention of the Supreme Court the high-speed internet was restored in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district and Jammu’s Udhampur district on “trial basis”.

Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks Internet suspensions around the world, in mid-December last year described the internet shutdown in Kashmir “the longest ever in a democracy”.

According to the JKCCS, “India leads the world in ordering internet shutdowns, and both in terms of frequency and duration Jammu & Kashmir accounts for more than two-thirds of shutdowns. There have been 226 documented internet shutdowns in Jammu & Kashmir since the year 2012.” The rights body argued that “under humanitarian law, prolonged and blanket internet disruptions are similar to other kinds of disproportionate and impermissible forms of targeting or blockading of essential civilian infrastructure or services. The digital siege is constituted by varied forms and phases of network disruptions and shutdowns.”

The civil society coalition said its report was also addressed to the international community. “While the Government of India may have succeeded in gagging the voices of the people of Jammu & Kashmir with its longstanding communication blockade, this should not prevent the international community from speaking out,” it said, adding that “The report is also a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, who refuse to be silenced.”

Interview with Khurram Parvez, JKCCS

The Federal spoke exclusively to Khurram Parvez, coordinator of the JKCCS, and asked him why the J&K Coalition of Civil Society wanted the attention and intervention of the world community and does it expect the international human rights bodies to speak up to put pressure on the Centre with the objective to end curbs and communication gag in Kashmir.

Excerpts from the interview.

The FederalWhat role has the world community and international rights amalgams played with respect to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir since August last year?

Khurram Parvez:  The international community has expressed concern on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, but whatever has been said and done is very mild as compared to how the international community engaged itself on the situation in Hong Kong. Violence and violations perpetrated by a friendly country (India) and an unfriendly country (China) should be similarly dealt with.

The FederalIf, in your view, the world community’s response has been mild thus far, what makes you appeal to the community again and seek its attention and intervention? What are your specific expectations?

Khurram Parvez: From the last many decades Kashmiris have tried exhausting local remedies. Institutions have become complicit, so we don’t have a choice but to seek international institutions and organisations to scrutinise the GOI’s role in Kashmir. It may only lead to embarrassing the Indian government, but that is no less a deterrent for a country which has been very image-conscious.

The FederalWhat about the institutions within India? What has been their role? Do you think the Indian civil society, rights bodies’ and other advocacy groups have done enough to raise awareness on Kashmir?

Khurram Parvez: Institutions in India have failed the people of India and Kashmir collectively. At least on issues other than Kashmir, there are a lot of debates in India, but on rights violations and stifling of political dissent in Kashmir there is almost unanimity. Those in India who don’t agree with the government of the day on its Kashmir policy have been reduced to a fringe.

The FederalYour report has described the internet gag as digital apartheid. What made you reach this discomfiting conclusion?

Khurram Parvez: The ongoing internet siege enacts a ‘digital apartheid’, a form of systemic and pervasive discriminatory treatment and collective punishment. It is a violation of international human rights law as well as the laws of armed conflict. The digital siege is a means of political repression that serves as a deliberate means of severing social, economic and political connections between Kashmiris, while also isolating them from the rest of the world.

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