KASHMIR: A STORY OF THE DENIAL OF FREEDOM AMIDST COMMUNICATION BLACKOUT

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through media and regardless of frontiers,” states Article 19 of the Human Rights Declaration.

Seventy years after the par­tition of the Indian subcontinent, there has been no change for the bereaved and pained people of Kashmir, who remain under the punitive and strenuous weight of the Indian occupation. For decades, Kashmiris have been struggling for the exercise of their right to self-determination.

On August 5, 2019, with the presidential decree revoking the articles 370 and 35 A of the constitution, India illegally merged the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. According to the Indian government, the merger, although unlawful, ended the quarrel of occupied Kashmir. The arrival of around 900,000 Indian sol­diers made the region “the most militarized zone in the world”.

De facto abrogation of those articles that granted the autonomies of the region, through illegal and arbitrary amendments, undermines the rule of law for Kashmiri citizens stripping millions of people of their fundamen­tal political rights. For many years, Kashmiris have experienced a dramatic increase in all forms of violation of human rights such as extrajudicial executions, rape, torture, brutality against civilians, including the shooting of unarmed demonstrators. Finally, yet importantly, the Indian government issued a blackout on media communication, which has put a stop to free speech and independent information. Freedom of expression is the basis of de­mocracy and that is why the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner of the United Nations released a report in July 2019 where they stress the international concerns about abuses by security forces and armed groups in both Indian and Pakistan held parts of Kashmir.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee, restriction on the expression “may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy of multiparty democracy, democratic tenets and human rights. There is no doubt this repressive campaign in Kashmir began soon after Modi’s landslide election victory which confirmed the BJP political dominance. Unfortunately, this led to unprecedented anti-democratic steps in pursuit of his Hindu nationalist agenda. One of the most dangerous weapons used by the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is represented by the blackout of communication in Kashmir. The Indian government also imposed a severe communication block that included digital and non-digital communication, mobiles, phones or land­lines, along with a curfew, which forced heavy restriction on mobility within the region.

While the authorities had previously imposed more than fifty temporary connectivity disruption in Kashmir, according to the SFLC.in “Defender of your digital Freedom” (a group of lawyers and engineers based in New Delhi), the latest blackout is the longest ever imposed by a democratic government. It started on August 4, 2019, and continues till date.

In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India ruled that an indefinite interruption of internet services would be illegal under Indian law and it would be considered as “an arbitrary exercise of power”. The orders for internet shutdowns indeed must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality. However, it could only be restricted when there is a risk against citizens and in the name of national security. The Indian government has grad­ually restored landlines, and SMS services, but still millions of Kashmiris do not have online access and the Indian-controlled Kashmir remains largely unconnected to date. Abolishing free speech is an Indian government strategic plan. This Modi’s assault on one of the most funda­mental pillars of freedom provokes very limited and incomplete information about what is happening in the region intending to shut out Kashmir from the rest of the world. According to Aljazeera, Indian authorities arrested several high-profile political leaders, including three former chief ministers of the Muslim-majority state. Farooq Abdullah, 83 years old President of the National Conference and a serving a member of India’s parliament in the prestigious Srinagar seat. Omar Abdullah, 49, For­mer Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was arrested on the 5th August and Mehboo­ba Mufti, 60, who went down in history as the last Chief Minister of Jammu and Kash­mir state, since the region has now been brought under cen­tral control, were arrested on the 5th August too.

Kashmiri journalists and the media, in general, have always faced this kind of threats and retaliation, but the cur­rent blackout of communication isolated the entire region, making them unable to send or receive information, which is critical in times of conflict, and to counter disinformation.

The APC, the Association for Progressive Communication, officially “condemns the prolonged and intentional disruption of communication services in Jammu and Kashmir. Stable communica­tion infrastructures and services must be maintained during times of conflict and key democratic moments such as when important changes are made to the status of a region and the rights of the people living there. Communica­tion blackouts often enable other violations of human rights, which can take place under cover of darkness with impunity, and considering the history of widespread abuse of human rights in Kashmir, this is particularly wor­rying.” “The United Nations Human Rights Council (India has been a member since 2016) strongly condemns internet shutdowns it urges all states to refrain from and cease such measures. These kinds of communication ban in Kashmir could be seen as “collective punishment,” failing “to meet the standards required under international human rights law to limit freedom of expression.”

On April 22, 2020, Amnesty International stated that the Indian government must immediately stop intim­idating journalists in Jammu and Kashmir who have been summoned more than once to police stations and forced to explain their articles. Often the Indian police justify their actions invoking the Unlawful Activities (Pre­vention) Act (UAPA), which is India’s principal counter-terrorism law and part of it does not recognize interna­tional human rights standards. UAPA has been used to target journalists and activists who openly criticize government policies.

Before Modi’s election, the Indian Constitution had always guaranteed the rights of all citizens to the freedom of religion, expression and speech and equal treatment before the law.

The question arises, that what is the international community doing to stop violence in Kashmir?

The international actors and Institutions as well as the United Nations cannot ignore the Indian government’s turn toward authoritarianism, which risks undermining India’s founding principles of a secular democracy. However, the impression is that the UN is inadequate to solve the issue of the illegal invasion.

There is more. In November 2020 the United States and India signed “The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation” (BECA) which allows India to use US expertise on geospatial intelligence and to enhance military accuracy of auto­mated hardware systems and weapons like cruise, ballistic missiles and drones. This agreement provides also India state-of-the-art navigational aids and avionics on U.S.-supplied aircraft.

The United Nations and the United States are part of the unsolved Kashmir issue. The EU position on the situation in Kashmir supports the political solution through dialogue between India and Pakistan. At the end of October 2019, a parliamentary delegation from the European Union arrived in Srinagar for a visit of two days but no concrete decision has been made to date. Therefore, the answer to this question is a bitter ‘NO’

There is a pressing need to send fact-finding missions to Kashmir. If not satisfied with the results the observers could then deliberate their governments to seek punitive policies against India and impose sanctions and boy­cotts on Indian goods.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary job has been done by civil organizations like the International Campaign called #Keepiton (a coalition of 210 organizations from 75 Countries around the world which constantly monitors the violation of freedom of communication). Nowadays the Campaign has concluded that the Internet shutdown is not only a Kashmiri issue but also a worldwide problem. According to a #Keepiton report, in 2019 there was an in­crease in internet shutdowns. The Campaign has recorded 213 shutdowns around the world, and the number of countries, which did so in 2018, was 28 while in 2019 was 33.

India topped the list globally of country banning and shutting down major news networks, with a staggering 121 incidents of shutdowns, including new states in an evident attempt to stifle dissenting voices. The Indian move has a spillover on Venezuela with 12 times, Yemen with 11, Iraq 8 times, Algeria 6, Ethiopia 4.

To conclude, it is pertinent to mention that underling that under International Human Right law any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be demonstrably necessary and proportionate because the media play a crucial and fundamental role in reporting human rights abuses. Access to information is essential to inform the public about political situations and the measures taken by governments. As we have seen in the light of the discussion above, the continued coercive and brinkmanship of India in Kashmir is tantamount to genocide. Blood has been lost. The most talented and dynamic leaders of Kashmir have been targeted. Thousands still await the punitive mea­sures of illegal detention, killing, and ferociousness of treatment.

We need to put a stop to all this. The world organizations must be more involved to solve this serious problem, and as the great Indian writer and political activist, Arundhati Roy said, “There is really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or preferably unheard.”

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Barbara Gallo
About Barbara Gallo 1 Article
A Journalist and Geopolitical Analyst, Italy