Kashmirs-Internet-Siege

Kashmir’s Internet Siege: An ongoing assault on digital rights

Summary

Kashmir’s Internet Siege provides an overview of the harms, costs and consequences of the digital siege in Jammu & Kashmir, from August 2019 to the publication of this report in August 2020. We examine the shutdown and network disruptions through a broad-based and multidimensional human rights framework that sees internet access as vital in the contemporary world.

India leads the world in ordering internet shutdowns, and both in terms of frequency and duration, Jammu & Kashmir accounts for more than two-thirds of the Indian shutdowns ordered. Mobile internet data speed in Kashmir is currently restricted to 2G internet (250kbps). Even this access remains extremely precarious as localized shutdowns of the internet in specific districts or areas, often accompanied by mobile phone disruptions, are commonplace, sometimes lasting for upto a week.

In this report we contextualise the digital siege in light of long-standing, widespread and systematic patterns of rights violations in Kashmir. Digital sieges are a technique of political repression in Kashmir, and a severe impediment to the enjoyment of internationally and constitutionally guaranteed civil, political and socio-economic rights. They curtail the circulation of news and information, restrict social and emergency communications, and silence and criminalise all forms of political interactions and mobilisations as “militancy related” “terrorist activity” and threats to “national security”.

The Background to the report discusses the legal framework and judicial precedents relating to the denial of digital rights in Kashmir, premised on militarised national security policies and practices. Internet shutdowns and restrictions in Kashmir also raise important questions of collective punishment in the context of an ongoing armed conflict, where the framework of international humanitarian laws applies. We argue that under humanitarian law prolonged and blanket internet disruptions are similar to other kinds of disproportionate and impermissible forms of targeting or blockading of essential civilian infrastructure or services. The digital siege is constituted by varied forms and phases of network disruptions and shutdowns.

This report looks at these disruptions through the lens of various international human right norms.

  • Livelihood consequences of the shutdown of August 2019 were severe, and losses suffered by various businesses during the first five months alone were estimated at Rs 178.78 billion, with more than 500,000 people having lost their jobs in the valley in the period.
  • Health indices showed a marked decline, with the months of June-August 2019 showing numbers of hospital visits dropping by upto 38%.
  • Education suffered a major setback, and in August 2020 students enrolled in Kashmir’s 30,000 schools and 400 institutes of higher education marked the first anniversary of the internet shutdown as a full year without attending school, or college or university.
  • Justice saw systemic delays further compounded by ineffective online hearings. Amidst the internet and telecommunications blackout, more than 6000 detentions and over 600 ‘administrative’ detentions took place around August 5th 2019. Of habeas corpus petitions filed for the release of illegal detainees during the period, 99% remain pending.
  • Press freedoms and the right to freedom of speech, expression, and social participation suffered from the direct impact and chilling effects of online surveillance, profiling, and criminal sanctions, with police complaints registered against working journalists and over 200 social media and VPN users.

This report unpacks the contexts of these disturbing facts, situating them in the light of fundamental human rights to livelihood, health, education, access to justice, freedom of press, free speech and expression, and social and cultural participation. The Covid-19 pandemic and the militarised lockdown in Kashmir re-instituted severe restrictions of mobility and public gatherings, compounding and complicating public health and other challenges of the network disruption. Despite widespread calls to restore full internet connectivity, and constitutional litigation before the Indian Supreme Court, the state continues to justify the throttling of internet speeds on grounds of national sovereignty, dismissing the concerns of international and Indian civil society actors.

Through the chapters we focus on the layered impact of the pandemic and trace the consequences for differently located Kashmiris, including students, health workers, and journalists. Speaking with five individuals provides qualitative insights that animate and punctuate the narrative, and give us a glimpse into ordinary lives lived, and opportunities lost, amidst these crippling restrictions. Through a granular and detailed Timeline we present a temporal visualisation of the fluidity and complexity of the digital siege, as it unfolded through the first 300 days, across different regional geographies within Jammu & Kashmir.

Taken as a whole, Kashmir’s Internet Siege argues that the multi-faceted and targeted denial of digital rights is a systemic form of discrimination, digital repression and collective punishment of the region’s residents, particularly in light of India’s long history of political repression and atrocities. The promise of lasting peace, freedom and justice for the people of Jammu & Kashmir is inextricably tied to digital and human rights in the region.

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