Human rights coalition says there have been 70 temporary internet suspension orders issued since January
Srinagar: Human rights groups and activists have come together in Jammu & Kashmir to demand an end to the internet “siege’ in the erstwhile state.
Calling themselves the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), the amalgamation released a report that said "the ongoing internet siege enacts a digital apartheid, a form of systemic and pervasive discriminatory treatment and collective punishment.”
It said this was a violation of international human rights laws as well as laws of armed conflict and “a means of political repression that serves as a deliberate means of severing social, economic and political connections between Kashmiris, while also isolating them from the world”.
The report said, “For the already vulnerable people of J&K, who live amidst a state of perpetual war and permanent emergency, this siege is enforced by various modes of network disruption and state control over access to the internet. These disruptions disproportionately target essential civilian supplies and services, adversely impact human rights and preemptively silence all forms of online speech.”
Last week, the authorities restored high-speed 4G internet services on an ‘experimental basis’ in two districts Udhampur and Ganderbal, more than a year after a complete communication blackout was enforced in both Jammu and the Kashmir Valley ahead of the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcating the state into two Union Territories on August 5, 2019.
Though landline and mobile phone and 2G internet services were restored in a phased manner across what is now called the Union Territory of J&K, 18 out of the 20 districts continue to be deprived of high-speed 4G internet.
Recent judgments of the Supreme Court have failed to end what the JKCCS calls a "digital siege”. The report said, the J&K authorities have inaugurated "a new legalised regime of mass surveillance, filtering, and internet-speed throttling through expansive executive orders”. It said that these orders are issued every two weeks, and from January 2020 until now a total of 17 such extension orders have been issued.
“Alongside routine extensions of internet restrictions, frequent complete suspensions of mobile internet connectivity through emergency police orders have also continued unabated,” the report said adding that since January this year, when partial 2G internet connectivity was first restored, 70 such temporary suspension orders have been issued.
Talking about the livelihood consequences of the post-August 5, 2019 shutdown, the report said that these were severe and losses suffered during the first five months alone were estimated at Rs 178.78 billion, with more than 500,000 people having lost their jobs.
It further said that the health indices showed a marked decline, with numbers of visits in some hospitals in August 2019 dropping by as much as 38 percent whereas education also suffered a major setback with the first anniversary of the internet shutdown in August seeing students marking a full year without attending school, college or universities.
The report said that justice also saw systemic delays further compounded by ineffective online hearings. “More than 6,000 detentions and over 600 ‘administrative’ detentions took place around August 5 last year. Of habeas corpus petitions filed for the release of illegal detainees during the period, 99 percent remain pending”, it said.
Turning to press freedoms and the right to freedom of speech and expression, the report said that these as also 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”.
The JKCCS said that its report is a missive addressed to the human rights and digital rights community about the breadth and forms of this “collective punishment” and is also “a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, who refuse to be silenced”.
“The report is also addressed to the international community. While the government of India may have succeeded in gagging the voices of the people of J&K with its longstanding communication blockade, this should not prevent the international community from speaking and calling out it (government) for suppressing the fundamental rights of people,” the JKCCS said.