The world is rejoicing over the news of 4G mobile services resuming in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) after 18 months of a government-mandated shutdown. But research shows that the damage of the move is so deep that it will take the state a while to recover.
The 550-day 4G blackout cost the economy of Kashmir $4.2 billion (Rs30,600 crore), according to estimates by Top10VPN, a publication focused on internet privacy. Kashmir is a hub of tourism, textiles, and agriculture. In recent years, the state also witnessed a rise in budding tech startups spanning online retail, digital marketing, and home services.
In August 2019, the Narendra Modi administration cut off the internet in the area just before revoking Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy. On Jan. 25, 2020, 2G was reinstated in pockets but the damage had already been done. Students and entrepreneurs either gave up on their dreams or relocated out of the state.
The government has said that the internet shutdowns were enforced as “precautionary measures” against “anti-national elements,” “miscreants,” and “militants.” But they also led to over 10 million civilians not being able to communicate with family, friends, or employers.
In August 2019, the United Nations warned that the blanket shutdown was “a collective punishment” that must be reversed. In January 2020, even the supreme court of India deemed an indefinite shutdown of the internet in the state unwarranted and said it demonstrated “abuse of power” by the Modi government.
Internet issues and economic losses only scratch the surface when it comes to the impact of the longest ever internet shutdown in a democracy.
The fact that the government also cut phone lines and destroyed tourism (and thereby livelihoods) meant “swarths of the population were invisibilised and pushed behind an iron curtain,” wrote Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times—a publication that saw its advertisements choked, electricity supply snapped, and its office and assets sealed without due process.
“All this was not collateral damage. Communication gags are primarily designed to disempower and control a population. The more prolonged they are, the greater destruction they cause,” she explained.
The internet may be back but the guards are still up. Journalists are being summoned to the cyber police station, and the J&K police are setting up an army of cyber volunteers to patrol social media and flag posts on “radicalisation” and “anti-national activities.”