In 2019, Nida Rehman bought a parrot named Noor. Her family resented talking to their pet all day. They asked her to release the bird, but she wasn't convinced. “I loved Noor. I also felt like she was locked up, ”she said.
Rehman lives in India-administered Kashmir, where the Indian government imposed an indefinite curfew in August 2019 and cut all communication channels including telephone and internet services. The Narendra Modi-led government of the Bharatiya Janata Party scrapped a constitutional article that gave the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir some autonomy – and then placed local leaders under house arrest, brutalized protests and split the Muslim majority state in two Union areas, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, are ruled by the central government.
Rehman was cut off from the world long before the 2020 pandemics and, along with 13 million other Kashmiris, pondered their future. "Everyone around me was speculating about the length of the curfew," she said. “Some said two months. Some said six. Some of my neighbors said the government was not going to lift the lock at all. I hated them all for that. We Kashmiris are used to lockdowns and curfews, but this one felt like a storm. "
As it turned out, Rehman's neighbors weren't entirely wrong. Not only would the lockdown continue in Kashmir, but the Modi government used similar instruments as a weapon against political opponents in the country. From attacks on freedom of the press to deliberate interruptions in communication, the disconnection of Indians from the internet has become a weapon of choice for an increasingly autocratic regime.
For several months, the people of Jammu and Kashmir tried new and unusual ways to get in touch with their families and friends. Saima Sajad, a Kashmiri resident in Delhi, said her mother would go to a local police station to use her phone and call her. "Once she waited two days for her turn." Some got on a train every day in the freezing Himalayan morning to visit a town outside the border region and do routine chores like filing taxes or filing exam forms.
The government restored mobile internet services in March 2020, but initially banned several websites and limited speeds, initially only allowing 2G networks. 4G wasn't restored until February 4, 2020. Without evidence, it was alleged that high-speed internet would be abused by militants and separatists in the disputed region.
At the same time, COVID-19 hit and Kashmir was locked again. While people in the rest of the world were on their phones to get their jobs online and gather information about the new mysterious virus, residents of Jammu and Kashmir stared at partially loaded websites and buffered videos.
Doctors and healthcare workers initially urged the government to restore 4G internet. However, the government stated that this is not necessary for the provision of medical services.
Riyaz Arshad, a doctor in the area whose name was changed for anonymity, said: “As a pulmonologist, I had read about the virus since November and realized the imminent danger. I wanted to read more literature about it and get in touch with my colleagues in other parts of the world, but there was no internet. The professional medical apps require a high speed internet connection. "
Arshad recalled an incident in early 2020 when he was visiting Saudi Arabia for a professional event. “I was so disadvantaged that as soon as I checked into the hotel, I used the WiFi service for the first time. My colleagues asked me to take them on a city tour, but I stayed in my room for hours and surfed the internet. "
India is the world leader in internet shutdowns. Between January 2012 and March 2020, there were 385 shutdown incidents, either in anticipation of or in response to a situation that sparked public unrest. The Indian government uses a colonial law, the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, to impose the ban that allows the state to shut down all channels of communication in the event of a public emergency. However, there is no clear definition of what a public emergency is and how long a shutdown can take.
Most recently, on Jan. 29, the government shut down internet and text messaging services in the northern state of Haryana, where thousands of farmers, including women, children and the elderly, have sat on the streets and made their living from tractors and trucks protesting the farm bills that are being paid necessary for development according to the government, but farmers say they are killing their livelihoods and handing their land over to Modi's corporate allies. The government also disrupted electricity, water, and food supplies in some places where farmers had gathered.
On February 1, hundreds of Twitter accounts, including those of a national magazine and numerous activists, were "held back" for hours without a public statement. Everyone posted about the protests.
A few days later, two Punjabi songs about the protests were removed from YouTube. Lyricist Vari Rai said the songs were about farmers' rights and have received more than 600,000 views since October 2020. “A popular line in one of the songs was“ Faslaan de faisley kisaan karuga ”(“ Only the farmer will make decisions about farming ”). ). A lot of people played what the authorities must have warned us about during the protests, ”he said. “YouTube did not inform us of the removal. When our team contacted them, they said the Indian government had requested the removal. "
In some cities of Haryana, such as Sonipat and Jhajjar, mobile internet services were suspended for more than 10 days. Poor families who rely solely on the mobile Internet – but not only them – were particularly affected. Vansh Dixit, a 15-year-old middle-class student, said, "Unlike my classmates, I don't have WiFi at home. So I missed all of my online classes. That was when our class tests were also taking place could not access online resources that are particularly needed for certain subjects such as science and social studies. "
For the students of Jammu and Kashmir, the shutdown meant the loss of an entire year. Muneer Alam, an engineer and math teacher in Srinagar, Kashmir, said the ban not only hampers his students' studies but also causes depression. “Most of my students are university aspirants and need classes to prepare for the entrance exams. However, many of them don't have high-speed internet to take online lessons. I tried teaching them at my home, but it became difficult to maintain social distancing norms. "
In June 2020 he started “open air courses” in an Eidgah, an open area outside a mosque. Every day, students, mostly boys, traveled to the Eidgah and brought chairs, mats, and books. “Those who came by car brought chairs. Those who used scooters and bicycles brought mats, ”he said. But then the summer sun made it unbearable to sit outside too long. So they met at 5:30 in the morning. "It's so airy and green. Some students say it feels like Jannat ('paradise')," said Alam.
Other students were less fortunate. Nadia Ishfaq Nahvi, a clinical psychologist in Kashmir, said she was increasingly working with teenagers struggling with substance abuse and depression. “These are people who saw their parents' businesses collapse during the lockdown. I ask them to speak to friends and be interested in studying. But they ask me, “How? Where is the internet? And what for? Is life worth it? "
When the coronavirus lockdown began, Nahvi opened her Facebook profile to the public and invited people to discuss their mental health issues with her. She started giving them what she calls text therapy. “As a woman, I couldn't share my phone number publicly (for fear of harassment), and video calls didn't work because of the slow internet. So I started talking to patients on Facebook Messenger, ”she said. “But as I found out later, Facebook wasn't enough because people had so much to talk about. All of her repressed feelings for years came to the surface. They all complained of palpitations and anxiety, and many had thoughts of suicide. "
Soon she was overwhelmed by the news. "I often stayed up late at night to talk to patients because the internet speed is better at that time."
A 2015 survey by Doctors Without Borders found that almost half of the adult population in Kashmir had mental health problems due to the region's long history of conflict. The lockdown has turned into a major crisis, according to mental health experts. Nahvi said many of her patients have lost the ability and willingness to heal. “Mental disorders, especially psychotic illnesses, require constant medical help. After the ban everything was disrupted. "
Rehman was also diagnosed with acute depression and anxiety in 2019. “I was afraid to wake up in the morning. I cried the whole time, "she said. “Once I collapsed in front of my doctor. He asked me what was going on. I said, "I just want to get out of this place."
Sajad, who managed to leave Kashmir just before the curfew, said she needed to start therapy too. "It was exhausting to see all of this in Kashmir even though I was not physically there. I was unable to communicate with my family for several days."
Before the coronavirus lockdown, Sajad moved to Kashmir to live with her family. "The first thing I did was get a broadband connection," she said. “I paid 2,500 rupees ($ 35) every month. It was expensive and not everyone could afford it. But there was no other way. And yet some days I would lose my job, especially after an encounter. “Encounters are the Indian government's name for the murder of a militant or rebel by the authorities. After that, internet services are usually shut down nearby for a few days.
Irfaan Bashir, a Kashmiri journalist whose name has been changed for anonymity, said he had to dictate all his stories over the phone to his colleagues in Delhi. "I worked like this long after August 2019," he said. Bashir also uses a broadband network, which is faster than mobile internet, but said uploading a text story can take up to 20 minutes. “And forget the pictures; I can't upload it. All of this has increased our workload. We spend a lot more time at work than normal. "
The steps have not gone unchallenged in court. In January 2020, in response to a petition by journalist Anuradha Bhasin, the Indian Supreme Court admitted that the communications blockade violated people's rights and asked the government to review its orders. However, the government continued to impose the ban.
Apar Gupta, attorney and co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi, said: "The court's ruling was inherently flawed in that, while it correctly understood the link between the ban and fundamental rights, it did not instruct the government to restore access." It has shifted the duty back to the government. "
In the past year and a half, several rounds of trials have been launched by various organizations, activists and journalists in the Supreme Court to demand the restoration of 4G networks. United Nations human rights experts also called the blackout a "collective punishment" for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and called on the government to restore access. In February 2021, the Haryana shutdown attracted global attention when several U.S. celebrities, including Rihanna, tweeted in favor of farmers.
A few days after the global outcry and 550 days after the communication ban was imposed in Jammu and Kashmir, the government said that 4G services would be restored. But the damage remains – as does the fear that similar bans could return. Internet shutdowns in India cost the economy $ 2.8 billion in 2020, according to a report by Top10VPN, a UK-based research group on digital privacy and security.
"The real suffering of the people cannot be explained, but the government can try to reverse the extreme effect through monetary compensation," said Gupta. “People who have paid for the services but were unable to use them can get the amount back. Most importantly, the government should recognize that the ban was disproportionate and unconstitutional. "
Rehman eventually released her parrot Noor in hopes of finding her own release. “In the early stages of the ban, I would take out my scooter and drive around my neighborhood 20 times a day. Looking back, I think that I was just looking for normalcy. I was wondering if I felt so horrible and suffocated inside. How must the parrot have felt? "