On August 4, the 12.5 million citizens of Jammu and Kashmir entered a state of internet suspension. This blockade is a crucial part of India’s controversial decision last week to destroy the autonomy of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, a long-contested area claimed by both India and Pakistan.

Kashmir has faced violent conflicts with India since it was partitioned in 1947 in the aftermath of British colonial rule. Despite the religious differences with the Kashmiris, the Indian government has long wished to control the region, potentially for its fertile soil and beautiful landscapes.

The 1949 United Nations resolution that called for a plebiscite of Kashmiri citizens to decide their own future was never implemented, and instead, India has continued to gradually strip the region of their autonomy.

Since the late 1980s, about 70,000 people have been killed in waves of separatist violence after New Delhi rigged local elections and weapons and militants from Pakistan began to flow through the border. Prior to this month, the region had the power to frame its own laws, but India continues to revoke many of these rights.

Many Kashmiri citizens particularly resent the removal of restrictions on the sale of land to non-Kashmiris, fearing a wave of outsiders that may change the demographics and culture of the region.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist, claimed that the old system had created “secessionism, terrorism, nepotism and widespread corruption.”  Citing a wish to integrate Kashmir fully into India and speed up its development, Modi received overwhelming support from Indian citizens following his decision to remove Kashmir’s statehood and internet access.

Yet, the use of internet blockage of silencing an entire population has long been called into question as a totalitarian mechanism and potential human rights violation. 

Global digital rights organization Access Now calls internet shutdowns an “arbitrary, often illegal measure taken by governments to silence dissenting voices and control information.” The legality of India’s latest shutdown is indeed questionable: India’s Supreme Court has ruled that there must be a clear and present danger and public disorder test before placing “reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech,” according to Article 19 of their constitution.

The decision to shut down Kashmir’s internet was made preemptively to avoid a violent reaction to the decision to downgrade Kashmir’s status. While the internet can be used to mobilize groups for riots, many critics question the idea that an internet shutdown would alleviate rioting, or that the presence of the internet would constitute a clear danger.

Furthermore, several Indian legal experts have questioned the constitutionality of the fact that no Kashmiri leaders were consulted before Kashmir’s autonomy was revoked. According to the original autonomy provisions, any change to Kashmir’s status must be done in consultation with Kashmiri representatives.

In a digital world, an extended internet shutdown has implications even beyond the obvious loss of freedom of speech. For instance, pharmacists and shopkeepers in Kashmir who typically rely on the Internet for supplies report shortages of crucial supplies, such as insulin and baby food.

Additionally, medicine and health services for those in rural areas are paralyzed, while ATMs are unable to dispense cash. This means that family communications, money flow, and social and entertainment media have all been brought to a standstill.

Internet shutdowns have been on the rise since 2011, most predominantly in Asia and Africa. India is the most frequent offender by a large margin. Of the 196 total shutdowns in 2018, India was responsible for a staggering 134, according to Access Now.

The second country, Pakistan, had 12 total shutdowns. The consequences for Kashmir are particularly dire considering India’s move towards Digital India. A campaign designed to alleviate poverty and ensure that resources are available in rural areas, Digital India has created a state in which e-commerce is a crucial part of the country’s economy as well as most citizens’ daily lives. 

Despite the Indian government’s claims that Kashmir is returning to normal following the shutdown and that the communications blackout is creating “peace and tranquillity” in the region, most evidence shows that this is far from the case. Additionally, numerous studies support the conclusion that internet shutdowns overwhelmingly cause violent protest, even in areas where civil protests had been generally non-violent. 

Shutting down the internet is not only risky socially, but also economically. One group of researchers used macroeconomic estimates to conclude that “the 16315 hours of Internet shutdowns over the period of 2012 to 2017 cost the Indian economy nearly $3.04 billion.”

In light of rising pressure and potential costliness, authorities in Kashmir began restoring landline phone services on August 17 after nearly two weeks of communications blackout.

However, as of August 28, only a few landlines were working and telephone services remained blocked according to Human Rights Watch. On Monday, August 19, primary schools reopened in Kashmir’s main city. Yet although the government claimed to be easing the security lockdown, other reports say that the clampdown on cell phone usage and movement has intensified again following violent protests in Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city. 

Regardless of conflicting reports on how much freedom of communication Kashmiris currently enjoy, this month’s internet shutdown is certainly part of a larger trend for India. One organization that tracks the occurrences of shutdowns in India says that “the information superhighway that is the Internet is essential for the holistic socio-economic and cultural development of the country.”

One consequence of the Indian government’s frequent use of internet shutdowns is that it arguably hobbles the economic growth that they are attempting to foster through digital media in underdeveloped and rural areas.

Yet even more significant is the losses for the citizens within Kashmir. As freedom of speech as well as access to commercial necessities are increasingly able to be restrained at a whim, protests and violent uprisings may be inevitable in the region.

Edited by Sophia Kamps

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by NASA via Unsplash