Authorities in India on Wednesday temporarily revoked a ban on social media sites and restored full internet access in Indian-administered Kashmir for two weeks, seven months after New Delhi stripped the Muslim-majority region of its statehood and semi-autonomy and enforced a total communications blackout.
Internet access over mobile devices, however, will remain restricted to slow speeds.
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The restoration of the internet will remain in effect until March 17, a government order said. It gave no explanation of the time limit. A recent Supreme Court order had said the internet ban could not be indefinite.
The order issued by the region’s home secretary, Shaleen Kabra, said internet access over fixed lines will be restricted to registered customers.
They have finally restored internet, but after destroying so many businesses and ruining so many careers
AK Srivastava, an official at state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, the leading broadband service provider in Kashmir, told the Associated Press news agency it has begun implementing the new government order.
When it imposed the internet ban in August, the government said it was necessary to prevent anti-India protests and attacks by rebels who have fought for decades for Muslim-majority Kashmir’s independence or unification with Pakistan, which administers the other part of Kashmir.
Both countries claim the Himalayan region in its entirety since independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
An official, who wished to remain anonymous, said that in the past social media was used to mobilise people for funerals that resulted in law and order disturbances.
“Post August 5, such Kashmir has not witnesed such disturbances. Subversive elements have lost interest to indulge in stone-pelting,” he said, referring to anti-India protests in the region.
‘Fear to express political thought’
Digital rights activists denounced the internet restrictions and said they represented a new level of government control over information allowing it to further restrict freedoms in Kashmir. Legislators in Europe and the US also called on the government to end the curbs.
Authorities in January slightly eased the internet ban, allowing the Indian-administered territory’s more than seven million people to access government-approved websites over slow-speed connections. But the ban on social media remained in place.
People resorted to virtual private network (VPN) apps in a bid to bypass the firewall to access social media websites. VPNs use proxy servers that allow users to change their location to circumvent regional internet blockades.
While many welcomed the latest government move, some expressed concerns that now it would be easier for the government to trace the IP addresses of the users.
“There is a fear to express political thought about the situation on social media, with the help of VPN it might help to hide IP addresses. Now, when people would start using social media and start tweeting it would make their IP addresses completely traceable,” 29-year-old Zainab Fatima, a resident of Baramulla in north Kashmir, told Al Jazeera.
The authorities in the region have already cautioned residents against the “misuse of social media”. Five people have been so far arrested for using VPN.
The portion of the divided Kashmir region that Hindu-majority India controls was already one of the most militarised places in the world before the government scrapped its statehood, began pouring in more troops and imposed harsh curbs on civil rights and information, including a blackout on the internet,cellphones, landlines and cable TV.
Longest internet shutdown in a democracy
The internet lockdown – the longest ever in a democracy – inflicted heavy losses for the region’s economy, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which said at least 150,000 jobs were lost. Local tech companies had to close or relocate to other areas of India, suffering heavy losses.
During the service blackout, critically ill patients could not access government healthcare or seek insurance reimbursements online, students couldn’t apply for fellowships or scholarships and distraught families could not contact relatives outside the region.
“They have finally restored internet, but after destroying so many businesses and ruining so many careers,” said Khurshid Ahmed, a university student in Srinagar, the region’s main city. “Though late, the international shaming has worked.”
Internet shutdowns are a favoured tactic of the government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During protests in New Delhi against a citizenship law passed late last year that fast-tracks naturalisation for immigrants of all South Asia’s major religions except Islam, internet and cell service were frequently disrupted.
Since Modi came into power in 2014, the internet has been suspended more than 365 times in India, according to the global digital rights group Access Now.
In Kashmir, internet bans have been more frequent. More than a third of India’s internet bans in the last six years were imposed there, some lasting months.
In 2017, United Nations experts said a ban on social media sites that year had “the character of collective punishment”.
Additional contribution from our Srinagar reporter whom we are not naming due to security concerns