The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India’s Internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in a democracy

Kashmiri journalists hold placards and laptops in Srinagar last month to protest the Internet shutdown. (Farooq Khan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

NEW DELHI — Each morning at 8:15 a.m., a train pulls out of the station in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. Hundreds of passengers cram the cars for the 70-mile journey, packed so tightly they can barely move. Nearly all will return the same day.

Kashmiris call the train the Internet Express. It shuttles people out of the Kashmir Valley — where India has shut down access to the Internet for more than four months — to the nearest town where they can get online.

On a recent foggy morning, it was full of people hoping to renew driver’s licenses, apply for passports, fill out admissions forms and check email. They included 16-year-old Khushboo Yaqoob, who was rushing to register for a medical school exam. “If I had any other option, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

The shutdown, which entered its 134th day Monday, is now the longest ever imposed in a democracy, according to Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks Internet suspensions. Only authoritarian regimes such as China and Myanmar have cut off the Internet for longer.

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India imposed the shutdown on Aug. 5, when authorities revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood, snapped all communications and detained the region’s mainstream politicians. Landlines and calls on some mobile phones were subsequently restored, but the Internet remains blocked — a move Indian authorities say is necessary to maintain security in the restive territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.

The 7 million people in the Kashmir Valley were abruptly returned to a pre-Internet era. They are unable to operate online businesses or read this article. In early December, they began disappearing from WhatsApp because accounts are automatically deleted after 120 days of inactivity. Journalists rely on a government-run center with just 10 computers to file their stories. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce estimates $1.4 billion in losses already.

“The original idea that was asserted by the government for shutting down communications was to prohibit unrest, but that really cannot be the argument after four months,” said David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression. He called the blockage “draconian” and “worse than collective punishment.”

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director at Access Now, said it was “unprecedented” for a democracy to block access to the Internet for such an extended time and for such a large population. U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced a resolution in Congress last week urging India to lift the ban.

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Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has defended the shutdown as a way to disrupt activity by militant groups that India accuses Pakistan of supporting. “How do I cut off communications between the terrorists and their masters on the one hand but keep the Internet open for other people?” he asked during an interview with Politico in September.

A government official in Delhi said the threat of terrorists misusing data connectivity continues. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on security matters, said the government was trying to find ways to ease hardships caused by the lack of Internet service. A spokeswoman for India’s Ministry for Home Affairs did not respond to questions.

In Srinagar, the local government set up centers with Internet access to help students seeking to register for exams and says 100,000 students have used them. But for most Kashmiris, the nearest place where broadband Internet is readily accessible is the town of Banihal in the Jammu region bordering the Kashmir Valley. They have been making the journey since train service resumed Nov. 11.

It was Yaqoob’s second trip in as many days. The day before, the Internet wasn’t working even in Banihal. She had attempted to access the Internet at the district headquarters near her home — where four computers are available for a population of 1 million people — but the lines were too long.

In Banihal, Yaqoob and her mother waited for three hours outside an Internet cafe before their turn came. The teenager was submitting a form for a competitive exam for which she had been studying for two years, and the deadline was fast approaching. When she finally submitted the form, she burst into tears of relief.

“I was not sure I would ever be able to fill it out,” she said. “Because of the Internet ban, I could see my dreams shattering.”

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Shutting down the Internet has become a regular feature of law enforcement in India, which has the distinction of imposing the most blackouts in the world. Officials routinely block access to contain rumors they say could lead to violence or to quell protests. Last week, authorities switched off the Internet in Guwahati, a city in northeast India, after violent protests against a new citizenship law.

Kashmir is the region most affected. According to the Software Freedom Law Center, it accounts for more than 60 percent of the blackouts in the country. In 2016, violent protests broke out in Kashmir after the killing of popular militant Burhan Wani. Mobile Internet connections were suspended for more than four months.

The current shutdown has paralyzed online businesses. The Kashmir Box, the most prominent e-commerce venture in the region, ships local produce and handicrafts to 50 countries. Since August, it has been unable to take new orders or fulfill pending ones. Founder Muheet Mehraj, 29, estimated the company has lost $420,000.

“I feel terrible,” he said. “There can’t be a future for the company if you don’t know there will be Internet.”

In mid-November, the state government began to provide select businesses with Internet access on certain conditions: They cannot access social media or allow WiFi connections, and they must hand over all content to security agencies on demand. Mehraj’s application for Internet access has been pending for two weeks.

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Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat, 28, is a local YouTube sensation famous for his popular satirical show “Kashmiri Kalkharabs,” or “Crazy Kashmiris.” He started posting the amateur videos two years ago; he now has nearly 500,000 subscribers. Before the shutdown, Bhat’s group was making more than $1,500 every month from advertisements.

“Now I worry that I will have to start from scratch,” he said. Trying to upload new videos is not only difficult but also probably futile. “My audience doesn’t have Internet access, so what’s the point of making new work?”

It is not only businesses that are hurting. As a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Kashmir, Muhammad Shunaid is required to submit papers to international journals. To find out whether a paper had been accepted, he was forced to travel 300 miles to the neighboring region of Ladakh just to check his email. (At that time, there was no train service to Banihal.)

The journal wanted to publish the paper and had replied with questions. But then a new problem arose. An expensive software program that Shunaid used in the research had expired, and the renewal instructions had been sent to his institute’s email — which was now inaccessible. “We had to get people to call the company in Denmark and inform them of our situation,” said Shunaid, 29. A problem that “would have taken two minutes took us a month.”

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Doctors say the shutdown has made it more difficult to care for patients. Omar Salim, a leading urologist in Srinagar, said his abiding regret is not being able to consult with colleagues on a particularly difficult case.

In July, Salim saw a patient who had advanced-stage pancreatic cancer. He contacted fellow specialists in Mumbai to consult on possible treatments. Then communication snapped in August. The patient died in November.

The patient might not have survived in any case, Salim said, but with access to information, at least he would be assured that he had tried everything possible.

“What hurts is when [the government claims] things are normal,” he said. “This is not normal.”

With no sign of the Internet shutdown ending, Kashmiris are resigning themselves to more trips on the Internet Express. Yaqoob, the student, will need to check her email to get details about her medical exam. Shunaid, the researcher, has another paper to submit. Bhat, the YouTube star, says he will probably have to find a job that does not depend on the Internet.

“It’s like someone has pushed our lives back to the Dark Ages,” he said.

Irfan reported from Srinagar.

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