Srinagar: After 550 days of restrictions, 4G has been restored in Jammu and Kashmir — now at par with rest of the country. Restrictions on internet were imposed on the eve of ‘complete integration’ of J&K with the union of India. First came a blanket ban on mobile telephony, then a failed attempt at the installation of China-like great firewall, followed by a 13-month long ban on high-speed mobile data.
Critics of the special status of J&K – in essence, a hollow shell of the original autonomous position – would ad nauseam say, what is so special about the people and region. They called for political uniformity and demanded that the erstwhile state be brought at par with the rest of the states of India.
Past 18 months are witness to the fact that in the name of national security, Jammu and Kashmir and its status was downgraded much below any other state or union territory. The ban on high-speed internet was an everyday reminder of that downgraded status.
People’s demand for restoration of 4G services was unanimous. It was a rare issue on which people of both Kashmir and Jammu region agreed upon. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the chorus for lifting the ban gathered steam across the union territory, even the leaders of BJP willy-nilly under public pressure, called for the restoration. The government of India gave a callous snub to everyone who argued against the ban, by passing order after order to continue the restrictions.
Government’s callousness reduced the demand for lifting the ban into a joke. Of late there was hardly any hue and cry over it. The people almost accepted it as a fait accompli. Politicians who called for the restoration for high-speed internet got trolled and scoffed at. The mere act of demanding what was rightful was seen as an insult.
How Students Suffered
Students, arguably suffered the worst of the internet restrictions. With schools shut August 5 2019 onwards, the education in J&K has faced back-to-back disruptions. While the rest of the country switched to online education, in J&K the students barely managed to attend class, download course material and attend examinations. More so, the internet shutdowns, which were often imposed after militant encounters, particularly South Kashmir, disbarred students from even low speed 2G services.
In a rare admission, a General of Indian Army serving as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Kilo Force in Kashmir Valley acknowledged students, in particular, who were facing hardship because of the internet restrictions.
General H S Sahi’s statement, which came on 21 December was not convincing enough for the political leadership in Delhi to revoke the ban. Days after the officer’s statement, a fresh order was issued extending the restrictions for another fortnight.
Piggybacking on the secret inputs by the security agency, the government of Jammu and Kashmir kept extending the restrictions on 4G to curb terrorism, propaganda of terror groups online, threats of violence, and to maintain law and order in the union territory. There is enough evidence to suggest that internet ban did not correlate with violence or terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
New Terror Outfits Flourish on Social Media
2020 witnessed the second-highest militant recruitment in a decade. New militant outfits such as The Resistance Front and Peoples’ Anti-Fascist Front emerged on the social media landscape. These new outfits disseminated their propaganda online without any disruptions.
Telegram and WhatsApp groups continued to flourish, new ones appeared immediately after a channel or group was removed by the platforms. Last year, Peoples’ Anti Fascist Front, issued high-quality body-cam videos depicting militants carrying out attacks on military personnel in J&K.
So far, the government has not given any metric or evidence to suggest that internet restrictions have helped in curbing the violence or terrorism. At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest that the online militant activity has curbed or will be disrupted with the restoration of 4G. Just a few weeks back, the announcement of new militant outfits ‘United Liberation Front’ and ‘Kashmir Tigers’ surfaced on Telegram channels, accessible to all.
With or without 4G, the militant outfits and their online presence has thrived. What the rationale and outcome of imposing a ban are only known to mandarins whose intelligence cannot be questioned.
As per the grapevine, the security agencies had given clearance for removing the internet restrictions as early as October 2019. In July 2020, the then Lt Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, GC Murmu had given a green signal to the Union Home Ministry for the restoration of 4G services. In an interview to Indian Express, he said high-speed internet will ‘not be a problem’. Days after his statement to the press, the LG was sacked and a new one was appointed.
Who Benefitted From the 4G Ban?
So why did the internet restrictions last so long? The answer to that question lies in identifying who benefited from the 4G ban. Arguably the telecom companies operating in Jammu and Kashmir had nothing to lose even as restrictions prolonged. For all these months, telecom operators charged consumers for 4G services, even for the months when telecom services were completely suspended.
On top of that, some of these companies launched broadband services in the union territory on a war footing. Broadband subscriptions have witnessed a massive surge after 5 August 2019. To make online education accessible, parents were willing to pay a hefty sum to get broadband connections installed.
Similarly, individuals working from home during the pandemic had no option but acquire broadband services. Earlier, the government-owned BSNL had a monopoly on broadband services in the region. After 5 August 2019, at least five private companies started offering fibre broadband in select areas of J&K.
All this while a section of consumers was treated as second class citizens. A tiny segment of the population subscribed to the broadband service if at all it was available in their area, while a vast majority of the population continued to suffer.
As per the research conducted by Comparitech – a consumer research website – India faced 2.5-billion-dollar losses cause by around 100 instances of internet shutdowns, mostly occurring in Jammu and Kashmir.
That the telecom companies made huge profits out of this situation is an open secret. Perhaps that explains why netizens in Kashmir asked for reparations from telecom companies and the government after the decision to lift the ban was made public. (The Quint)