NEW DELHI — For the last 36 hours, Arusha Farooq has been hooked to her phone — making frantic calls, messaging repeatedly and then checking news sites in despair. But none of the calls connect, and none of the messages get read. News reports also have nothing from her hometown Srinagar, the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, amid an Internet shutdown imposed by the Indian government.
“Right now, I’m just helpless,” said Farooq, 26, who teaches at a private college in Delhi. “I need to know that my family is safe.”
On Monday, in an incendiary move, the Indian government stripped the state of its autonomy guaranteed under the constitution. The change is expected to anger and alienate many in Kashmir, raising the prospect of protracted violence in the restive region bordering Pakistan.
Revocation of Kashmir’s special status has been a long-standing demand of hard-line Hindu nationalists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a thumping victory in the national elections in May following a polarizing campaign based on muscular Hindu nationalism.
The step was taken amid a harsh clampdown in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. Thousands of people were forced to stay home as troops patrolled barricaded streets. The Indian government suspended phone and Internet service. Schools remained shut and two former chief ministers of the state were arrested. On the website of the largest circulating local paper, there is only a blank page under “today’s paper.”
A day later, there has been almost no word from inside Kashmir, a situation many described as a “siege.”
Internet shutdowns are not new to Kashmir. The current shutdown is the 53rd this year. In fact, Kashmir accounts for more than 70 percent of all government-imposed blackouts in the country. In one instance, mobile Internet remained suspended for 133 days in the wake of protests following the killing of popular militant Burhan Wani in 2016.
But Farooq says this is the first time even landline networks have been shut down, leaving thousands of Kashmiris across the country with no means of getting in touch with their families.
Additional troop deployment has also left people concerned about the safety of their loved ones, given frequent violent clashes between civilian protesters or militants and security forces. 2018 marked the deadliest year in a decade with 586 deaths, including 160 civilians.
Mudasir Amin, a doctoral student in Delhi, has been wracked with worry. On Sunday, he received a panicked call from a 20-year-old neighbor who recently had a kidney transplant. The young man requested that Amin send him a three months’ supply of medicine as uncertainty spread before the government announcement. Amin is concerned that the lack of medication could endanger his friend’s life.
He has no idea if he can or will even be allowed to travel to his village if he flies to Srinagar. He has not heard from his friends who have departed for Kashmir in the last two days. “Once you land there, you disappear in a black hole,” said Amin.
Calling the suspension of mobile and Internet services an “abrogation” of the rights of the people of Kashmir and their freedom of speech, Pranesh Prakash a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society, said, “This is in essence the declaration of internal emergency without official proclamation.”
While government sources called it a “precautionary” measure to contain violence as a result of the announcement, it is unclear how long the ban will remain in place. Vasudha Gupta, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, said she had “no answer.”
“It’s like a pressure cooker situation,” said Iltija Javed, describing the prevailing atmosphere from Srinagar. The daughter of Mehbooba Mufti, a prominent Kashmir leader under arrest, she is one of the few people who have managed to communicate through an erratic broadband connection.
“By depriving people of their right to even protest, the government of India has just vindicated the feeling that everybody here shares — that what has happened is a violation of their right,” she said in a WhatsApp voice note sent to The Washington Post.
The constitutional provision in contention gave Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state, certain autonomous powers and was part of the terms of its accession to the Indian union in the aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan. It gave special privileges to residents, like the sole right to buy property or hold government jobs, both of which will be now available to people from elsewhere in India.
The state has also been bifurcated into two federal territories. That will limit the authority of the state governments, giving more control to the central Indian government.
Since 1989, India has battled with militants in Kashmir fighting for independence from the country or seeking more autonomy. While India succeeded in curbing the influx of cross-border militants from Pakistan over the years, it has struggled to restrain local youths from taking up arms. India and Pakistan control parts of the region, and the two countries have gone to war previously over Kashmir.
Radha Kumar, a former government-appointed interlocutor to the state of Kashmir, called the government’s move a “death blow,” saying this would only mean losing the people of the Kashmir valley.
“My guess is Pakistan will try to flood the valley with troops,” she said. “We may not see an immediate rise in militancy, but again I would be extremely surprised if we don’t see more youth turning to the gun.
Pakistan has condemned India’s decision as illegal. In a tweet, Pakistan’s armed forces declared support for the struggle of Kashmiris, saying they would go to “any extent to fulfill our obligations in this regard.”
Media reports say India deployed more than 40,000 additional troops to Kashmir in the past week. Kashmir is considered one of the world’s most heavily militarized zones, with human rights groups claiming the presence of 500,000 to 700,000 troops. Residents have long accused the armed forces of excesses.
Amin, the doctoral student in Delhi, is haunted by his mother’s last phone call. She told him they had no idea when they would be able to speak next. He recalled holding back tears when she said she wished he was with them: “ ‘Even we if die, at least we would be together,’ she told me.”