By Farooq Wani
On August 5, the central took the major decision of bifurcating the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories and abrogated Article 370. Restrictions on communications and internet were also imposed and several mainstream politicians and known mischief makers were taken into preventive custody as a precautionary measure to prevent any disruption in law and order. This arrangement proved beneficial as the situation remained normal due to which the law enforcement agencies didn’t have to fire even a single bullet and the only killings that took place was the handiwork of “unknown gunmen.”
With the easing of restrictions, normalcy slowly started returning to Kashmir and the locals heaved a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, miscreants took advantage of the curbs being lifted and forming mobs, took to the streets and started targeting government and private transport with stones. After the death of a local driver and injuries suffered by some others as well as damage caused to vehicles, majority of the transport owners preferred to keep their vehicles off the road.
Non availability of transport is hurting everyone. Farmers and traders are unable to transport vegetables and other basic commodities to the markets due to which they are incurring heavy financial losses. On the other hand, these essential items are not available to the public and so they too are suffering. Patients suffering from chronic ailments who require regular follow-up at different tertiary hospitals in Kashmir have suffered a lot because of barricades put in place by forces and stone pelters. To make matters worse, several drivers, shopkeepers, apple traders and non-local workers have been killed by “unknown gunmen” and this has created a fear psychosis amongst the public. The education sector has also been badly hit due to the mob violence on the roads.
The center’s decision to impose a temporary communication gag after abrogation of Article 370 is understandable since social media has been widely used in the past to incite the people by circulating fake news and inflammatory comments. However, the center is making a big mistake by continuing to maintain this curb because in today’s world the internet touches the lives of almost everyone and as such even the most accommodative persons too are feeling upset by this protracted denial of internet facility. This restriction is also giving vested interests a golden opportunity to play the civil rights card by terming this curb as a motivated act to “cage” Kashmiris by muzzling individual right of expression.
Non availability of internet has deprived many students desirous of studying in various educational institutions in other parts of the country from filling online admission forms resulting in loss of one academic year. Similarly, most of the meritorious and deserving students belonging to the Valley could not avail benefits of the ‘National scholarship Scheme’ due to media restrictions and competitive exams conducted by JK BOPEE also came to a standstill because of internet ban.
Media, which is considered the fourth pillar of democracy is one of the biggest sufferers of the communication blockade. We all know that media plays a very important role in keeping the people well informed about what is happening and also acts a medium for the public to share and express their views on various issues including government performance. Lack of internet crippled Valley media as it could neither receive nor transmit news.
In absence of internet facilities, the authorities have set up a media centre in Srinagar to facilitate exchange of news. Unfortunately, the internet speed is extremely slow and the system prone to frequent disruptions due to which media persons have to wait for hours together for their turn. What the administration has failed to take into account is that news is a function of time and as such there are peak hours when news has to downloaded and uploaded. Therefore, there is a need to increase both the number of internet junctions as well as enhance its speed so that timely dissemination of news can take place.
In Jammu and Kashmir, tourism is one of the biggest industries in terms of providing employment and earning revenue. Since most tourists rely on internet for bookings and communicating with their near and dear ones when they are holidaying in Kashmir, lack of internet has resulted in a near wipe out of this industry. Thus, even though the Govt may make tall claims of providing all facilities to tourists and organise impressive roads shows in different parts of country to attract tourists, lack of internet will continue to discourage tourists.
If communication blockade has been done with the aim of curbing militant activities then it’s a futile exercise because militants are still active and there are reliable reports of their using satellite phones (Russian made). There are reports that eighty business enterprises have singed a bond with the authorities regarding usage of internet and have given an undertaking not have access to social media platforms to obviate the scope of any unlawful activity. Many do feel that such arrangements convey an impression that we are being treated as colony of the erstwhile British empire.
During the second phase of Back to Village programme, some unknown persons lobbed a grenade at a Panchat Ghar, in Hakura area of Ananatnag, leading death of two persons and one more grenade attack was reported from outside Kashmir University in which seven persons were injured. Such stray incidents should not be allowed to become a hurdle in restoration of communication facilities. What is important is that on the successive day of the programme, when security arrangements were enhanced, the public meeting went off peacefully and no untoward incidents were reported from anywhere.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah has stated in the Parliament that unless the present dispensation in Jammu and Kashmir gives a nod, the ban on internet will not be lifted. The local authorities need to realise that the people have suffered a lot and thus deserve something better. So, one hopes that good sense will prevail and the Jammu and Kashmir administration will no longer hesitate in taking the bold step of recommending removal of curbs on internet thereby mitigating the sufferings of people of Jammu and Kashmir, especially the youth.