Limited internet restored in Kashmir, no access to social media

Nearly six-month long shutdown, longest in a democracy, ends with India allowing 2G access to 300 ‘whitelisted’ sites.

People queue up to go online at a government set-up internet cafe in Budgam, Kashmir
People queue outside an internet cafe set-up by the government in Budgam area of Indian-administered Kashmir [File: Athar Parvaiz/Reuters]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Indian authorities have ordered the restoration of low-speed mobile internet in Indian-administered Kashmir, but have allowed access to just 300 “whitelisted” websites.

The order to restore second-generation (2G) mobile internet and data services, issued late on Friday, ended the longest such outage in any democracy. It was imposed nearly six months ago following the abrogation of the disputed region’s autonomy.

“Mobile data services and internet access through fixed line shall be allowed through the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir with some restrictions,” said a notification issued by the federal territory’s home department.

The order said internet access will remain limited to “only whitelisted sites” and social media applications that allow “peer to peer communications and Virtual Private Networks [VPN] applications” will remain banned.

Internet and phone services in Indian-administered Kashmir were snapped on August 5 after India stripped the Muslim-majority region of its limited autonomy by scrapping Articles 370 and 35A of the country’s constitution.

For the last 70 years, the two legislations had protected the demography of the disputed region, home to more than seven million people and claimed by both India and neighbouring Pakistan in its entirety.

Supreme Court ordered review

Fearing protests over the scrapping of the Himalayan region’s autonomy, India’s Hindu nationalist government in August sent in tens of thousands of extra troops, arrested dozens of political leaders, and imposed a crippling military and communications clampdown.

While most restrictions were eased in a phased manner, the internet shutdown continued.

On January 10, India’s Supreme Court asked the government to “review all orders suspending internet services” and ruled that the indefinite suspension was “impermissible”.

“Suspension of free movement, internet and basic freedoms cannot be an arbitrary exercise of power,” the court said.

Friday’s order to restore internet access followed the court’s ruling and will be reviewed on January 31.

But the order restricts access to a minuscule list of 300 websites, including banks, some news portals, educational institutions, utilities, travel and food delivery applications. Social media remains offline.

‘Too little, too late’

The disputed region’s residents criticised the government’s move to firewall free access to the internet and said the limited restoration was “too little, too late”.

“I am so frustrated,” Zainab Shahid, a 29-year-old doctorate scholar in management studies, told Al Jazeera. “What would a student do with 2G internet speed? Do you think it is any justice after six months?”

Shahid said the government may “show to the world” that it has restored internet, “but on the ground, it is of no use to me”. “It takes hours to open a simple mail,” she said.

The 160-day internet shutdown caused significant losses to businesses and tourism in the region.

Sheikh Ashiq, who heads a regional traders and industries body, told Al Jazeera the shutdown caused a loss of more than $2.5bn.

“We have not seen the internet restored yet. Once it works, then we can say what kind of relief it would provide. It is a step too little too late,” he said.

A report by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, which Ashiq heads, said the communications lockdown resulted in a loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

“Borrowers of financial institutions lost their capacity to fulfil their commitments and a substantial number of accounts are likely to turn bankrupt,” said the report.

“Many business establishments have closed down or are contemplating closure.”

The sectors directly dependent on the internet, such as information technology and e-commerce, also suffered a crippling setback, while tourism and handicrafts sectors face a grim future, said the trade body.

Asim Mehraj, coowner of an online book store he started with his friends in 2017, told Al Jazeera they had to close their business during the internet ban.

“Restoration of internet means very little. Before August 5, we had a positive trajectory but now we are struggling to keep [business] afloat,” he said. “Even if they restore 4G, we have to redo a lot of work.”

Source: Al Jazeera