An old friend from Srinagar came visiting Delhi recently and I had only one question for him: how do you live without the phone or the internet?
It’s been nearly 80 days since the Indian government enforced a communication blackout in Kashmir, fearing a violent backlash to its decision to scrap the special constitutional status of the restive Jammu & Kashmir state. Some mobile phone connections were restored a week ago, but there’s no sign of the internet for the Valley’s 8 million people.
A lot of terrible things have happened due to the blackout, such as people not receiving medical care. However, I was more curious to know, from my friend, how it impacts everyday life.
The Valley has seen the violent conflict for 30 years now and, as in any restive zone, people get accustomed to guns and curfews. “Kashmiris adapt really fast,” my friend said.
It took a few days, he added, to stop looking at the phone. “After 10 days I forgot where it was.” That is how long it takes for motor memory to forget.
He is part of a small minority in Kashmir with a landline phone, but even those were hit by the curfew for a month. He was supposed to get married in this period. The party was cancelled, but he got married anyway. “I’ll throw a party when things get better,” he said, promising to invite me for the famous Kashmiri wedding feast.
He had to go from house to house to fetch relatives for the wedding ceremony. The culture of people visiting un-announced was the first major change he noticed.
A relative also died in the period, and someone from their house went across Srinagar, door to door, informing people of the final rites.
Lovers wrote letters to each other and had mutual friends deliver them. “I read many of the letters before delivering them,” said my friend, unable to hide the guilty pleasure of seeing how emotions are expressed in private.
His furniture business had been doing well for some years, especially since he started advertising in local papers. One day he tried Facebook advertising, and the response was beyond his imagination. His business grew four-fold. He started getting orders from across the Valley. He wasn’t able to keep up with the demand.
However, as the phones and internet died on Aug. 5, his business came to a halt. Some customers started visiting his home to place orders. “My business is barely 10-20% of what it used to be. I’ll now have to build retailer networks and stop relying completely on direct sales through the phone and internet.”
Didn’t we have a radio?
In the initial days of the curfew, even the TV went dead. As India’s home minister Amit Shah announced the constitutional amendment on Kashmir, people didn’t know what had happened. “I went around the house looking for the old radio, not sure if it was still around and if it would work. Fortunately, I found it and even got some pencil cells. I then heard what had happened in the dispassionate monotone of (the state-run) All India Radio’s newsreaders,” my friend said.
He heard the announcement first in Kashmiri, then in Hindi, and then in English.
It had been clear on the evening of Aug. 4, as additional troops moved into the Valley in large numbers, that something monumental was going to happen. The snapping of the internet and phone lines would obviously be a matter of time.
Expecting the internet to go out anytime, my friend started quickly downloading a season of the Netflix show, Better Call Saul. “As the hours and days become longer, sitting at home and nothing to do, I finished watching Season 1, in no time.”
He then read a book, and wished he could at least order some more from Amazon. In the first month, bookshops were shut, then they started opening for a few hours a day.
One day, my friend travelled 10 kilometres just to get a copy of the Delhi edition of The Hindu, an English newspaper he felt he could trust. Eventually, he managed to get hold of the newspaper delivery man, and subscribed to The Hindu along with some news magazine. He would read the newspaper first page to last everyday. He had forgotten what it was like to turn the pages of a magazine. “I have started to stack up magazines with a kind of respect, like in the old days,” he said.
Crisis is opportunity
If the absence of phones and internet threw people to a life of yore in some ways, it also made them innovate. They didn’t go back to CDs and DVDs. Some smart entrepreneurs got people to go out of the Valley and mass download popular TV shows over torrents. These were then put in pen drives and sold in internet cafes: Rs100 ($1.4) per season.
“I went to one such shop and got ten seasons of different shows. Entertainment was sorted,” my friend told me. “Any young boy remotely suspected of being politically active has been picked up by security forces. The rest are exchanging TV shows through pen drives or bluetooth. Some smart kids are using the WiFi router to play multiplayer games on their mobile phones.”
Another new business opportunity, for the enterprising, is satellite TV. “People used to watch Pakistani news channels over the internet. Now they’re buying expensive satellite connections with large antennas to get Pakistani channels on their TV. The more they get angry with the hatred that Indian news channels show towards Kashmiris, the more they watch Pakistani channels.”
Landline phones were restored after a month, but very few had them (my friend estimates 5%, or about one house in every neighbourhood.) People started queuing up at houses with landlines to make calls and pass on information to loved ones within the Valley and outside. This became another industry. The going rate was Rs10 ($0.14) a call.
Scooties to deliver messages
Shops now open for a few hours in the day. As the government curfew lifted, it was replaced by a people’s strike. The Delhi media says the boycott is enforced by militants, but my friend insisted it is the people’s way of protesting. The secessionist leadership is all in jail anyway, just like the pro-India “mainstream” leadership.
Milk, meat, vegetables, and other groceries were delivered home to home between 4am and 7am. Those were also the safe three hours to venture out and do things like travelling from one town to another.
It is not very convenient to drive around in your car, he said, for the fear of stone-pelters. Besides, security forces check cars stringently and sometimes didn’t let them pass in the initial curfew days.
People have come up with a solution to zip through Srinagar: scooties. They help dodge stone-pelters and security forces are also less suspicious. Scooties are considered safer than cars, especially in the first month when even landlines were not working and Scooty rides were undertaken to go around town delivering messages among friends and family.
“My own car has a broken window. I’ve been borrowing my friends’ Scooty,” said my friend.
He doesn’t sound angry or even bitter about having to live without the internet. Surprisingly, he is not cursing the Modi government for it.
People are striking because they are unhappy about the government scrapping a law that prevented Indians in other states from buying land in Kashmir. They now fear India might attempt demographic change.
As for the internet shutdown, it’s not a big deal. “We expect India to oppress us,” he said.
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