Four years ago, the government of Jammu and Kashmir instituted a ban on texting on prepaid mobile phones, which it blamed for the spreading of false information during the often deadly protests that were erupting in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley at the time. This week, after a crushing defeat for the state’s ruling party in India’s national elections, chief minister Omar Abdullah announced that he was lifting the ban:
On a separate note in continuation with the corrective measures based on the feedback from people I've ordered the lifting of the SMS ban.—
Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) May 20, 2014
But in part because of the government’s crackdown, not many people send text messages these days—they’re much more likely to use WhatsApp.
Those who really wanted to text during the ban invested in postpaid mobile phones during the ban—at least if they could afford it. But many Kashmiris opted instead to switch to Internet-based messaging. WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook earlier this year, has more than 50 million users in India as of May 13, and more than half a billion worldwide.
One 18-year-old boatman, who ferries people across the Dal Lake in Srinagar, told Quartz he uses the app to sends brief messages like “do you need the boat” or “please come by nine (p.m.).” Rapid declines in the price of smartphones have also put them in reach of more Kashmiris. New devices are now priced as low as $60 to $80, and cheaper second-hand phones are easily had.
The shift in Kashmir mirrors the broader shift in India. Of the country’s estimated 900 million mobile phone users, 51 million now use smartphones, an 89% increase year-on-year. Texting, therefore, is now seen by many as archaic.
Others saw the rolling back of the ban as a panicked reaction to dismal election results.
The government still makes life inconvenient for smartphone users, by blocking internet access to mobile devices during protests, for example, or shutting down telecom providers entirely. But the lesson of the texting ban should be that savvy technology users will usually find a way around whatever restrictions the government can dream up.