Communication Curfew Back to Dark Ages

Farzana Mumtaz

Muslims usually celebrate their religious festival of Eid with gaiety and extend greetings to one another. With the arrival of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, people had started extending their greetings to a larger circle of friends and relatives. This Eid, the Peoples Democratic Party and the rightwing Bharatiya Janta Party coalition government led by Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed sent Kashmir back to the times when Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey were not even born.

The State had decided to abort any move of the people slaughtering cattle and posting the pictures on the social networking site by doing what it does best in Kashmir – imposing a curfew. This time though it decided to impose a communication curfew.

The government ordered termination of internet services for three days on Eid-ul-Adha as it apprehended people would post pictures of cattle being slaughtered on social media website and hurt the sentiments of some rightwing Hindus who consider cow holy and thus create communal tensions.

The directive to terminate internet services to the customers was given by the police to all the internet service providers amidst the controversy over beef ban.

In the order, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani directed the service providers to snap all data services from 5 am on Friday till 10 pm on Saturday. However, the termination of internet services was later extended by one more day.

“In view of the apprehension of misuse of data services (GPRS/2G/3G) by anti-national elements, which is likely to cause deterioration in law and order situation, you are requested to completely snap down the data services through GPRS/2G/3G and broadband in Kashmir Valley starting from 5 AM of September 25 till 10 PM of September 26,” the IGP directed in the order.

A similar directive was conveyed to service operators in Jammu region too.

The ban was imposed on internet so that no videos were uploaded or social networking sites accessed.

The measure was taken due to the fear of communal tensions in the backdrop of the High Court (HC) directive calling for implementing an arcane law of 1932 that bans slaughter of bovine and selling of beef.

The HC decision was opposed by the people of Kashmir and most of the separatist groups said they would defy the court order.

When the government decided to extent the termination of internet services by one more day, former chief minister Omar Abdullah said the PDP-BJP coalition government was pushing the people into the Dark Ages.

“During our regime, when situations were far worse, our government only reduced bandwidth so that fictitious videos were not uploaded. But this regime is completely pushing the people of the state to the wall,” he said. “I wonder why Chief Minister Mufti Muhammed Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba are silent on such draconian actions. They used to accuse my government but I wonder what they have to say now. In fact Mufti Sahab is living to his promise. He had promised to make the state like Gujarat. Now I guess we are competing with Gujarat as to who bans internet more.”

The termination of internet services lasted for 82 hours, the longest-ever in Kashmir.

The ban drew sharp criticism as Kashmir witnessed dampened celebrations and disconnected families.

“My Eid was incomplete without watching grandchildren on Skype and spending time together online. I could not see them because of the ban, which drove divided families like ours to the Stone Age,” said Sheikh Hilal, whose son and grandchildren live in Dubai.

In the past too, internet ban would be imposed on January 26 and August 15, to prevent trouble.

However, this was for the first time that the landline-based broadband too was snapped.

President of an association of traders, Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), Muhammad Yaseen Khan termed the ban as “the PDP-BJP government’s agenda of destruction”.

Traders claimed that online businesses, mainly tourism and the banking sector, were disrupted.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah took a jibe at the PDP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the ban.

“Oh, the irony of listening to the Prime Minister talking about digital India while we in J&K spent three days totally disconnected due to his party and allies,” he tweeted.

President of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association, Showkat Chowdhary said while the chief minister talks of intending to remove the negative perception about Kashmir, at the same time, he takes the extreme step of sending people back to the Stone Age.

While Kashmir was completely disconnected on the internet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was rubbing shoulders with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google promoting Digital India in the United States.

The HC directions that brought the state to the extent of banning the internet on the religious festival of Muslims were secured by two government lawyers, since sacked by the Peoples Democratic Party-led administration, putting the party on a collision course with its coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Now the government is in a fix with the opposition National Conference, Congress, Awami Ittehad Party and CPI (M) have promised to bring bills to have the law scrapped during the session of the state assembly that begins on October 3.

This has brought Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s PDP and rightwing BJP at a collision course.

The internet ban was also accompanied by detentions and house arrests of not only the separatist leaders but also butchers. Police also seized hundreds of cattle to stop people from slaughtering the bovine in public.

In this chaos and confusion, the only voice that cooled the tempers of the people was of veteran separatist leader, Syed Ali Geelani. He appealed the people in Kashmir not to do anything that would hurt the sentiments of the other community.

Geelani’s appeal calmed the situation more than the government’s exercise of brute power.

When the internet was back after three day ban people associated with online businesses said they lost their livelihood.

Muheet Mehraj’s online shop, which works with artisans, farmers and small time designers, is back in business but over 300 orders were lost.

For online start-ups, the internet ban was devastating, that too right before Eid festivities.

Not surprisingly, when the ban was removed, many on social media wished each other “Internet Mubarak”.

The internet ban also hits patient care and Doctors Association Kashmir slammed the government for imposing three-day internet ban.

President DAK Dr. Nisar-ul-Hassan said that gag on internet was unethical and patients were denied access to medical services.

“Patient care was worst hit and patients suffered the consequences of internet blockade,” he said. “Patients use internet as healthcare tool for self-care management thus minimizing the need for direct patient-physician interaction.”

He said patients consult their doctors through internet and this higher level of participation improves communication and patient satisfaction.

He said that internet was a source of huge health information for doctors to update knowledge for better health outcomes which in turn strengthens doctor-patient relationship.

A group of students, who had to return to their colleges and universities outside J&K after celebrating Eid with their families in Kashmir, were up in arms against the government over the internet ban.

“We are not able to get our air or train tickets booked. This is outrageous,” they said.

A group of tourists from Pune, who were in Kashmir, said the ban troubled them a lot.

“We had to book a ticket to Mumbai on September 25 when the prices were very low. We couldn’t do it because of the internet ban. Now we have to pay more for our tickets,” said Sunita, who works in a private company in Pune. “Such decisions damage Kashmir’s tourism image as well. Nobody will visit Kashmir after hearing about the ban on internet.”

State Congress spokesperson, Ravinder Sharma said the PDP-BJP government had “put students, exam aspirants and tourists in particular to great inconvenience”.

Residents and the business community in Jammu also flayed the state government’s move to snap internet connection in the region, along with the Kashmir

“My business has come to a complete halt for the last two days, I have faced a huge loss in the business as I was not able to book a single airline ticket,” Pradeep Singh who runs an airline ticket booking agency in Jammu said.

Netizens came heavily on the government for its decision of snapping internet services.

Social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter remained abuzz with the statements regarding the internet gag.

Sami Khan, a Kashmir University student is routine Facebook user and updates his every happy moment on Facebook but this Eid he couldn’t greet and share pictures with his friends who are studying outside India.

“With this three day ban on internet we experienced those days when valley was not having any such facilities. As most of my friends are studying in Russia and Bangladesh I was unable to send them Eid greeting through social networking sites. We would always share Eid celebration pictures but due to the ban I stayed glued to my TV set in my room,” he said.

Soon after the authorities lifted ban on the internet, netizens took to the social networking sites and criticized the government for imposing what they term as e-curfew.“And we are back! #Kashmir is back from Stone Age! We can now access internet,” posts Sheikh Suhail on Facebook.

Terming it as a “communication curfew” people across Kashmir took to social networking sites soon after internet services were restored and lambasted government for clamping down internet.

“PDP is party with difference: Only this party can block internet for three days in EID and pass it off as welfare scheme for Muslims of state” wrote senior Journalist Naseer A Ganai on a social networking website.

“I felt completely isolated from the world. The world seemed static to me. I thought I am living in the Dark Age due to the internet ban on the occasion of EID” said Akhter Neyaz, who teaches Journalism in Govt. College Baramulla.