- On August 5, 2019, India's Hindu nationalist government revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region by scrapping Article 370, a constitutional provision that grants special status and allows the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to make its own laws . The day before, it had cut off phone signals, mobile data, and broadband internet.
- Majid Maqbool is a freelance journalist from the region and the opinions expressed are his own. He says Kashmir's internet blackout traumatised families, devastated businesses, and cut millions of people off from the outside world.
- A year on from when 213-day blackout started, he writes about what it was like to live through — and about how the media celebrated Kashmiris' loss of freedom.
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This week marks one year since I and seven million other Kashmiris were subjected to the longest-ever internet blackout in a democracy.
On August 4, 2019 — the day before India's Hindu nationalist government revoked the autonomy of the Jammu and Kashmir region — mobile and landline phone signals, mobile data, and broadband internet were shut down and a curfew was announced (the government imposed another curfew this week, saying it was worried about anniversary protests).
Extra soldiers were brought in to patrol the streets and confine us to our homes. Gatherings of more than three people were banned. Hundreds of Kashmiri leaders, including ones who had long advocated that Muslim-majority Kashmir embrace its place in Hindu-majority India, were jailed under draconian laws like the Public Safety Act, that the government claims is a preventive detention law under which a person can be taken under custody in order to prevent them from acting harmfully against the security of the state in Jammu & Kashmir.
The communication clampdown was meant to quell any protests.
Hundreds of thousands of families were suddenly cut off from their loved ones, and students studying abroad couldn't contact home. It was traumatic, and no date was given for when it might end. Meanwhile, triumphant headlines on the Indian news channels declared: "A Naya (new) Kashmir is born!"
My parents, who are in their mid 60s, left for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca two days before communication was cut. They couldn't speak to us for more than a month. For the first time in my life, I couldn't greet them on the day of Eid. Their once-in-a-lifetime experience was filled with added anxieties and worries.
About two weeks in, I reached a media centre the government set up in mid-August in a hotel in the city, where hundreds of journalists jostled to get a few minutes of internet access and file their reports on one of a dozen computers. After waiting in the queue for hours, I logged in and sent a short email to my brother, who was in UAE, telling him that we were fine and asking him about our parents, who had been calling him frequently to find out if he could somehow contact us.
I added a final line before signing off: Please tell them to not worry about us. My time was up. Others stood behind me waiting for the computer impatiently. Two days later, I read his reply after I once again dodged spools of concertina wires and road barricades to return to the media centre.
"How did you manage to access the internet?" he wrote, surprised and delighted. Our parents were worried about us, he added, but relieved to know that we were fine despite the curfew and total communications blackout.
When they returned home after more than 40 days, it was an emotional reunion. We hugged each other at the airport. It broke my heart to see tears in their eyes.
"We were restless and worried when the phones didn't connect and we couldn't contact you," my mother said, fighting back tears. "Every Kashmiri on Hajj was in pain and praying all the time for their homeland," my father said.
Many of our relatives couldn't call to ask how the Hajj had been. My parents couldn't talk to their 10-year-old grandson until September, when some landline phones started working. Whenever I went to the media centre, the only place even a journalist like me could access the internet, I'd download photos of my nephew that my brother emailed to show my parents back home on my laptop. Seeing him on the screen would moisten their eyes.
Every time I left home for work, they would worry about not being able to ring me to check on me. There was no way I could contact them while I was out. Our mobiles were useless, lying in a corner. My mother never forgot to remind me to carry my ID card when I left home — just as she had when I was a teenager.
The internet shut down had lasted for 213 days when slow, 2G mobile internet was restored on March 4. At seven months long, it was the longest-ever internet shutdown imposed in a democracy, according to Access Now, an advocacy group that tracks internet suspensions worldwide.
Kashmiris' rights stripped away
In 2016, the United Nations declared access to the internet a human right. But from 2012 to 2019, Kashmiris had theirs shut down 206 times by the authorities. This year, the internet has been shut down 26 times so far.
In 2018, the internet was suspended 65 times, in 2017, 32 times. In 2016, after widespread protests after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, the internet was shut down for six months. Mobile data was suspended for 133 days.
As of this week, a ban on high-speed 4G has been in force for a full year. Children in Kashmir have had just two weeks schooling since last August. The ongoing ban on fast internet has deprived them of online classes and learning that so many children worldwide relied upon during the coronavirus pandemic.
The blackout period exacerbated the economic pain of the coronavirus lockdown, which came to Kashmir on March 21. The economic damage of the blackout to Kashmir was around $2.4 billion by the end 2019, according to the region's main trade organisation. In 2020, the Kashmiri economy has lost a further $5.3 billion.
By the end of 2019, more than 50,000 jobs had been lost in the handicraft sector from the internet shutdown — local artisans couldn't take fresh orders online from most of their clients outside the state and abroad. Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), a leading trade body, estimated that, in the first two months of the coronavirus lockdown, the handicraft business alone suffered further losses worth $4 million.
More than 30,000 hotel and restaurant workers lost their job after the blackout and clampdown last August. More than 10,000 people in the e-commerce sector also lost their jobs in the months that followed. The ban on the internet also hit several online businesses and IT companies in Kashmir that lost their clients, resulting in closures and thousands of job losses. They lost contact with hundreds of overseas clients.
Media toes the government line
While Kashmir was under siege, the mainstream Indian media were quite willing to toe the government line, praising our state's loss of autonomy as it was divided into two territories, governed by the authorities in New Delhi. Instead of being questioned, government spokespersons were given more space to air their views.
Most of the Indian media, particularly the mainstream Hindi and English news channels, made attempts to paint living under siege as some kind of a normalcy, playing down the denial of basic human rights. It was described with terms like "preventive step" and "temporary measures," and they lapped up the government's line that it was merely "full integration." One primetime anchor said: "Justice has been done. In the heart of every Indian, in yours and mine, there's an overwhelming sense of pride."
Even the pro-India politicians in Kashmir were rendered mute on August 5 last year, put under detention and booked under the Public Safety Act. Hundreds of youths, resistance leaders, and business leaders were simultaneously jailed. Some were moved to prisons outside Kashmir. The politicians, including three former chief ministers of the state, were kept uninformed by the ruling regime in New Delhi, and were not consulted before their state's autonomy was revoked.
In the end, like other Kashmiris, they were used, arrested, humiliated by the Indian state.
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