India tries to disconnect Kashmir

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The following is an excerpt from journalist Ravi Agrawal’s new book, India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy. One of the chapters in the book investigates how India shuts down the internet, with surgical precision, in districts around the country. The most affected region is Kashmir, and the excerpt below explores how exactly the government shuts down the web, and why.

I wondered how you shut down the internet. Is there a giant red button? How do you control which regions get curfewed? Who makes these decisions? Is there a way to circumvent the blackouts? 

When I arrived in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, on July 01, 2017—the morning of the Anantnag “encounter”—those were the questions swirling around in my head. At Srinagar’s airport, I tested my phone. I managed to catch a weak 3G signal. That morning’s e-curfew was limited to the site of the shooting, some fifty kilometers to the south. I instinctively Googled “How does India shut down the Internet?” About thirty seconds later, a few links began to reveal themselves. None seemed to address the question.

A local journalist, Mukhtar Ahmed, had offered to show me around the city. We had arranged to visit an ISP, or internet service provider. The company requested we keep its name anonymous.

The ISP’s office occupied the entire third floor of a shopping complex in the city center. Most of the stores were shuttered: the state’s trade federation had organised a protest to fight the national goods and services tax. The ISP seemed to be the only establishment open that morning, presumably because we were expected. (As I discovered, businesses would frequently shut shop in Srinagar. That morning’s encounter in Anantnag would turn out to be the reason for a second day of lost business—the next day—on July 02.)

When we entered the office doors, an orderly escorted us through to a wood-paneled cabin, where sat Mr. F, the ISP’s owner.

Mr. F wore his hair slicked back and sported a bushy Mario Bros. moustache. He seemed jumpy. Before addressing me, he chatted with Mukhtar in Kashmiri. It was clear that he didn’t trust journalists. After Mukhtar offered a few reassurances, Mr. F held out a limp right hand in my direction. I shook it solemnly.

He began speaking in Hindi this time, telling me about the scale of his business. Unlike the new mobile providers—Reliance’s Jio, Airtel, Vodafone—he specialised in providing hardwired cable lines to large companies in the region.

“No matter the political circumstances here, the pipes are neutral,” said Mr. F. “The internet is the only thing young Kashmiris trust. It is a form of freedom.”

“The internet is the only thing young Kashmiris trust.”

The growth of the internet in Kashmir lagged in comparison with the rest of India. I had noticed several cybercafés in the market areas in Srinagar, where Kashmiris would come to use an internet kiosk for the equivalent of a dollar an hour. These cafés—relics of the late 1990s and early 2000s—had largely disappeared from India’s biggest cities. Mr. F explained that the few remaining in Srinagar were mainly for people who needed help submitting job or college applications. Most Kashmiris were now using smartphones and mobile data. His business—of providing high-speed internet lines to establishments—had also been thriving.

“But then Burhan was martyred,” added Mr. F, shrugging his shoulders as if to suggest the rest was history.

Burhan Wani—or simply Burhan, as everyone called him—was a legend in these parts. He was Kashmir’s Che Guevara for the digital age. Born to a middle-class family in the restive south of Kashmir, he abandoned school at fifteen and joined the Kashmiri separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen. By the time he was twenty he had become a divisional commander. But more than by his actions on the battleground—of which there is little record—Burhan made his name as a social media star. He would post videos explaining why he was fighting for Kashmiri freedom, calling on young Kashmiris to join him.

(…)

Burhan was only 22 when he was killed in an ambush by the army. It was the eighth of July in 2016.

“Can you imagine?” reminisced Mr. F. “Tens of thousands of people showed up for his funeral. No, hundreds of thousands! They came from all over Kashmir. The police put up barriers, but nothing could stop them!”

According to media accounts from the time, an estimated two hundred thousand Kashmiris showed up at the southern town of Tral, where the funeral took place. Prayers were repeated several times to accommodate new waves of attendees. The unprecedented showing was a defiant slap in the face of the Indian government. Burhan’s killing had touched a nerve; a swirl of local anger was building. What had happened to the Indian government’s promises for a referendum? Enough was enough. Kashmiris didn’t know where their revolution would head, but they knew one thing in their bones: they didn’t feel like they were part of India.

What happened next was predictable. The Indian state cracked down with fury. Curfews were regularly enforced and with greater restrictions than before; strikes were conducted against separatists; the army attacked alleged terrorists from across the border in Pakistan. In the past, this would have been enough to break the small insurgency that had long resisted Indian rule. But this time was different. What Kashmiri militants had failed to do with guns they seemed to be achieving through social media. When protests on the streets were met with tear gas and police brutality, the images of the violence would find their way onto the web. Once there, they would spread like wildfire on WhatsApp and Facebook. The images reinforced what Kashmiris already knew: they were living in a police state. The insurgents were losing the physical battle, but they had made significant inroads into the virtual fight for Kashmiri hearts and minds.

The government realized it had to control the greatest weapon the militants now had: the internet. There was only one thing to do. Shut it down. And so began the longest e-curfew in Indian history. Month after month after month, for nearly the rest of 2016, Kashmiris had no access to the web—not on their PCs, not on smartphones.

“How does one ban the internet?” I asked Mr. F.

“It’s quite simple,” he replied. “We get a phone call from the police. Shut it down, or else. We comply,” he said, shrugging his shoulders again. “I lost 40% of my business last year.”

“We get a phone call from the police. Shut it down, or else. We comply.”

After Mr. F received the call, he would tell his chief engineer to block all data in and out, for all users apart from the ISP’s main control server at Mr. F’s home address. None of the company’s clients would be able to use the internet. Similar moves were made by every other service provider in the state, including national-level mobile telecom companies— about a dozen in all.

“Earlier they would send us government circulars,” added Mr. F. “They still do, but now those come later. It’s a formality. These days we just get a call. The slightest hint of violence, and the call comes in. And if you don’t comply…” His voice trailed off.

I asked Mr. F if I could look at one of the government circulars. He raised an eyebrow and looked at Mukhtar, who nodded. Mr. F relented. He pulled a large cardboard binder from one of his drawers and handed it to me.

I opened it carefully. There were dozens of stapled government circulars. I pulled out one dated June 15, 2016. The letter was addressed to “All Internet Service Licensees.” The subject was clear: “Direction to block Internet Website.”

Under the powers conferred by Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and under the Information Technology (Procedures and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, it has been decided to immediately block the access of the following 4 URLs.

I looked down at the URLs.

One was a link to a YouTube video. I wondered if it was of Burhan Wani. Two other links had the word “Inspire” in them, which I guessed was the name of the magazine published by the terrorist group al Qaeda—I was familiar with it because I had once produced a TV piece about the magazine’s work.

The letter went on:

All the Internet Service licensees are accordingly directed to immediately block access to above URLs and keywords….The compli- ance be submitted immediately, failing which the Department of Telecommunications may initiate action under Rule 12 of the IT (Procedures and Safeguards for Blocking of Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009. Kindly do not reproduce the name or URLs in the compliance letter. The contents of this letter may kindly be kept confidential.

The implications of the letter were clear: Citizens could roam the World Wide Web as much as they wanted, but the government had reserved itself the right to block specific websites. ISPs could do their business, but only if they did what the government asked.

“These were just a few websites. It was just the start,” said Mr. F. “Once the protests over Burhan’s death began, they shut the whole thing down.”

And so from July 9 through nearly the end of 2016, Kashmir had no internet at all. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no WhatsApp, no friends and family, no FaceTime or Skype. No Uber, online deliveries, or maps. No research or reading or newspapers or podcasts or music. It was the ultimate modern-day punishment, imposed indiscriminately upon an entire population of 13 million. There was no recourse or ability to protest. (One government service provider, BSNL, would sometimes work—but it was very slow, and procuring a connection was difficult.)

Even when internet service was restored at the end of the year, other shutdowns awaited in 2017. Mr. F fished out another government circular, dated April of 2017. This one was an order to ban twenty-two social media sites.

“On this one they banned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram . . . even the Chinese and South Korean ones, all to make sure people couldn’t share things on social media,” Mr. F said, pointing to the mention of WeChat and KakaoTalk on the government circular.

Enterprising Kashmiris would try using VPNs—virtual private networks—to circumvent the blocks on social media sites. “But that’s so slow,” Mr. F lamented. “You can hardly send pictures to anyone, let alone videos. If the ban was meant to stop people from sharing details of protests and violence, then it largely succeeded. They won.”

QUARTZ INDIA