Written by Gen Nacionales, Policy Researcher   

In August 2019, the Modi government of India revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and separated the area into two territories, Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir. Since the separation, non-Kashmiri people are now able to buy land on the territories, which led to Kashmiri people losing land and job protection. The separation led to a widespread dissent by the Kashmiri people against the Modi government for their unjust attempt to diminish the Muslim minority.

In an attempt to stifle dissent, the Indian government under reported violence against the Kashmiri people through widespread censorship in the territories. Particularly, the Modi government weaponized public health restrictions under COVID-19 to contain Kashmiri protestors. For example, during the second wave of the COVID pandemic the Indian government has imposed censorship by shutting down the internet and excessive use of the pandemic lockdown restrictions in the Kashmir region. 

Internet Censorship & The Second Wave of COVID19

With societies needing to adapt to a virtual environment for economic and societal survival, blocking 4G internet access led to the Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir to feel as isolated as ever. Mobile applications for public health updates or delivery tracking are difficult under 2G networks. Although, Kahmiri people have adapted with ingenuity by relying on Whatsapp for receiving grocery orders. Some created apps with low MB to ensure that it is compatible with 2G network; however, it still takes upwards of 20 minutes to find items for their virtual cart. Despite adapting to slow internet access, the lack of 4G network led to mass hardship for those who are in need of critical supplies, such as food and medicine. Most importantly, the Modi government shutting down 4G internet not only delays the dissemination of up to date public health information, but it also prevents public criticism against the government.

Although, it is important to note that the government shutting down the internet to censor dissent is not new. From 2019, the government would intermittently disconnect internet connectivity claiming that it will be temporary, and reinstate connection to only shut it down again shortly after. The constant internet interruption is part of the government’s effort to prevent protests and the humanitarian violations by the Modi government in the region to circulation to the outside. The government saw that social media is a dangerous tool against the Modi regime as Burhan Wani, leader of the Hibzbul Mujahideen, utilized social media to voice discontent against the government and recruit militants for the separatist cause in Kashmir. 

The government continues to use the pandemic as an opportunity to repress access to justice to further marginalize the people of Jammu & Kashmir. Prior to the pandemic, 300 habeas corpus petitions were filed for unlawful detention. During the second wave there was a sharp decline with only 11 habeas corpus petitions filed in August 2020. The government attributes the lack of filing due to the enhanced measures to curb the pandemic such as curfews, social distancing, and gathering restrictions; evidently, it is mainly due the lack of internet speed that is needed to ensure uninterrupted online hearings.

Severing Outside Contacts

India first imposed lockdown restrictions in March 2020 to ease the spread of the coronavirus, but since then lockdown restrictions have relaxed. However, Kashmir, an enhanced curfew was imposed in August 2020. The month of august also marked the anniversary of the Government of India revoking the special status, or limited autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the enhanced curfew imposed in August 2020 was to stifle peaceful dissent on the streets under convenient guise of public health safety measures. Additionally, the military, police force in riot gear and with rifles set up barbed wire barricades to prevent access to roads, bridges, intersections demonstrating excessive use of intimidation. Also, communication blackouts made the mass arrest of Kashmiri alliance members easier. These restrictions go beyond public health safety measures for COVID, as armed forces use intimidation evident with the public display of military gear and barriers. 

Moreover, thousands of Kashmiris have been in jails for years, and their families have not been able to communicate with them; especially, with detainees who have chronic illnesses such as cancer, with limited to or no means of medical assistance. Additionally, these detainees have family members who have chronic illnesses with no one to care for them. Especially during the second wave of the pandemic, it is important for both the detainees and their family members, under humanitarian grounds, to have the communication restrictions relaxed. However, it is lack of communication, under the pretense of the pandemic, that prevents detainees from revealing any gross violations and mistreatments in the prisons to their family members. 

Recommendations 

  1. Pressure international committee to denounce India’s treatment of the Kashmiri people. To spread advocacy on censorship that goes against human rights, but also poses an economic and public health risk to those living in Kashmir.
  2. Pressure the international community to prevent further censorship of the Kashmiri people and to spread awareness of the lack of proper trial that goes against Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 
  3. Pressure international committee for India to restore 4G internet as the shutdown violates International Human Rights Law and the Indian Constitution that guarantees the freedom of speech, expression and assembly.

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