'Living in the stone age' in Kashmir

For editors at The Kashmir Walla, fact-checking a story used to involve a flurry of googling before press time.

So, when an 18-month Internet and phone shutdown began in the Indian Himalayan region in 2019, they had to improvise.

"We used to leave blank spaces in news stories when we couldn't verify certain facts. Every week, a team member would fly to Delhi and fill in the blanks," said Yash Raj Sharma, an editor with the weekly magazine.

Sharma, 25, recalls driving to a telephone booth at the Srinagar airport to dictate an 800-word news story to a friend in Delhi. Sharma also used to call friends in Delhi to ask them to read out and respond to his emails.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug 5, 2019 to fully integrate its only Muslim-majority region with the rest of the country.

Anticipating major unrest, authorities imposed a communications blackout, cutting off phone and Internet connections. The shutdown lasted until Feb 5, 2021.

For older Kashmiris, it was a journey back in time to the pre-Internet days of their youth of letters and landlines.

For the young, it felt like "living in the stone age", said Umer Maqbool, 25, who took out a bank loan to buy cameras and other equipment to set up a videography business in August 2019 — just as the shutdown began.

He got no bookings until the Internet was restored and had to borrow from family and friends to make the loan payments.

India shut off the Internet at least 106 times last year, the highest number of shutdowns globally for the fourth consecutive year, according to digital rights group Access Now, costing the economy an estimated US$600 million.

Of these outages, at least 85 were in Jammu and Kashmir, largely on security grounds. Elsewhere, authorities have also shut off the Internet and mobile Internet during elections, protests, religious festivals and examinations.

It is "extremely easy" to suspend the Internet in India, as federal and state officers can do so "without any prior judicial authorisation", said Krishnesh Bapat, an associate litigation counsel at the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation.

This is "despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence to suggest they lead to better law and order outcomes", he said.

Access Now recorded 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, up from 159 shutdowns in 29 nations the previous year.

India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which the Internet can be shut.

In 2020, the Supreme Court said access to the Internet was a fundamental right and that the indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Kashmir was illegal. It also said all orders on Internet shutdowns must be made public.

Yet, officials have continued to pull the plug, including in Kashmir, often without giving reasons, and courts have rarely challenged the government, Bapat said.

There have been more than 400 Internet outages in Kashmir over the past decade. Shutdowns have become more frequent in recent years, a tracker showed.

During the 2019 shutdown, Kashmiris waited in long lines to make calls from phone lines in government offices, police stations and other public places, or boarded crowded trains to travel to towns with Internet access.

It cost Jammu and Kashmir tens of thousands of jobs as small- and medium-sized businesses closed, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and took a heavy toll on young Kashmiris like Maleeha Sofi, 22.

The Monday that the shutdown began, she had planned to go to a college in Srinagar to check on the admission process. She joined the college eight months later and struggled with her classmates through the outages that made it difficult to do coursework and prepare for exams.

"We have now become used to Internet shutdowns. We know it can happen anytime, so we have learnt that we should never rely on the Internet and learnt to live without it," she said.

But others have run out patience with the disruption to their studies.

Insha, 22, moved to Delhi four years ago for college.

"I couldn't stay in a place where the Internet can get disrupted anytime — for days and even months," she said. "I didn't see a future in Kashmir."

The writers are from the Reuters news agency

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