Whenever encounters between government forces and militants happen in Kashmir, the government promptly blocks mobile internet services in the region. The move, as always, is to apparently prevent the spread of dangerous rumours and incitement to violence through social media. But things are still getting contrary, as violence still takes place; there is still bloodshed etc as in case of recent Shopian killings this month. What has been always prevented is people’s access to information and their right to free speech.
There are two serious problems with state governments’ knee-jerk reaction of throttling the internet to deal with law and order issues.
First: internet blackouts violate citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression and are inherently damaging to democratic institutions. And the growing impunity with which state governments are pressing the internet suggests an equally growing disregard for the sanctity of these rights. Incidentally, a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution passed in July, 2016 condemns internet censorship and terms it a violation of international human rights.
Second: A blanket ban on the internet may not necessarily stop dangerous rumour mongering in a situation of counter insurgency operations in Kashmir. On the contrary, it is easier to spread fear and rumour amongst people cut off from the world, cut off from online platforms that could be used to disseminate reliable information and allay fears. On the other hand, if the ban is continuing for weeks there is collateral damage of citizens who are unable to access online financial services, including something as basic as ATM services, and the loss of crores by way of commerce, and the essential wrongheadedness of internet blackouts begins to sink in.
Internet a Necessity:
In a day and age, when the internet and related technologies are overturning past paradigms- social, economic, commercial and even political- Kashmir remains in the grips of erratic internet connectivity. Notwithstanding, the gales of populism that have swept many parts of the world and where there has been a return of the nation state, so to speak and allied controls, the world we inhabit is defined by flows- of commerce, people, ideas, businesses, trade and capital. The success (always in terms of relative terms, of course), of a given economy and/or society depends on how deeply and smoothly, it is ensconced in these flows. All this has been fostered and engendered by the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) revolution and the concomitant opening up of economies. The result has been the transformation, in more senses than one, of the nature of almost all domains of life with the internet integral to this. The flip side is that the more an economy or society is distant from these flows and networks, the more it will dip in almost all indicators. This holds a searing resonance for Kashmir. Admittedly and obviously, there is conflict in Kashmir but conflict is a constant and not a variable(s). So, conflict can neither be an excuse nor a reason for poor and erratic internet connectivity and communication in Kashmir. The irony is that while powers that be appear to be structurally loath and unable to work on conflict resolution but they work on variables like fiddling with and manipulating internet communications. There are both long and short term pieces incurred in this process. Students, professionals, businesses and other assorted individuals for whom the internet is a necessity suffer. Examples galore can be cited here. Long term, the price that will be exacted is that as economies shift from bricks and mortar orientation to a more intensive knowledge economy model(s). Kashmir will not only be a laggard but will be structurally deprived in many, if not most domains. The need of the hour then is to create seamless and fluid internet communications systems in Kashmir. By its very nature, the internet is a medium which, kind of, resists control. While this medium is not value free, but it’s very utility and importance suggests that it should be kept free from encumbrances and control. As the 21st century advances and as the ubiquity of the internet demonstrates, information and even knowledge is being commoditized. To control, stanch or stem it means going against the tide.
Now the question remains of proximate harm from virulent social media messaging in tense situations in Kashmir, the government should try by targeting the blackouts of websites or apps. India is a long way from building those safeguards into laws that may be invoked for internet shutdowns. For that to happen, the conversation around it needs to begin. As Kashmir continues to remain behind the iron curtain of an internet lockdown frequently, now is a good time to start that conversation….
The author is a student of Economics in Aligarh Muslim University, UP, can be reached at [email protected]