The Internet is a paradox: It has the potential to be a powerful democratising medium, even as it is increasingly becoming a tool for governments to control entire populations. The weekend's three-day blanket ban on net services in Muslim-majority Kashmir during the festival of Eid-al-Azha once again brought to fore the absence of substantive democracy for a people who are used to the government imposing draconian curbs from time to time.

The ban was unprecedented, both for its sweeping nature and the purposes for which it was employed. Many described it as a virtual curfew. Fixed-line Internet services were withdrawn for the first time since they were introduced in Kashmir a decade ago. The government's restrictions felt like a sudden slip into the dark ages.

It was not until the services were restored on Monday that most people in Kashmir came to know about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tango with social media and Internet czars in the United States, promoting Digital India. The irony, or the lack of it, was lost on no one in the valley. People in Kashmir were cut off from the digital world while Modi reveled in the corporate company of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google. Kashmir was left out, with both the “i-way” as well as the “highway” connecting it to the rest of India barricaded.

Rising anger

The run-up to the ban was marked by rising anger over court directions for the strict implementation of a colonial-era law banning cow slaughter and the sale of beef in Jammu and Kashmir. The directions were secured by two government lawyers, since sacked by the Peoples Democratic Party-led administration, putting the party on a collision course with its coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The government is now besieged as the opposition National Conference, the Congress party and independent legislators, sensing an opportunity, are ready with ammunition to have the law scrapped during the upcoming session of the state assembly. The development has again pitted the coalition partners against each other, painting Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed into a corner since some of his own party colleagues are angry about the behind-the-scenes workings with BJP ministers.

Just before the virtual barricades were raised, ahead of the Eid , a stealthy and unprecedented police crackdown played out. Hundreds of Kashmiris, including butchers, were arrested during nocturnal raids across the valley and all the separatist leaders were confined to their homes. Police, fearing a spectacle of collective animal sacrifice in public places, seized scores of cattle.

Despite this, anti-India protests still occurred on the day of the festival and cows were sacrificed in many places. Officials were careful in not stopping anyone from making sacrifice of a cow, but were threatening “consequences” if anyone made a “spectacle” of it collectively in a public place. In fact, many religious and separatist leaders had appealed to people to sacrifice only cattle and not goats this Eid to protest against the court ruling and do so collectively in public places. But in at least one instance when a posse of police went to stop cow sacrifice in the outskirts of Srinagar,  Muslim policemen returned with seven kilogrammes of beef for their colleagues at the police station.

The Internet ban was not intended so much to stop appeals for cow slaughter from spreading, as it was to stop images of it going out on the social media. The government’s fear of such images stoking communal violence was genuine. But it is telling that the government chose its power of using draconian measures instead of drawing from any influence it might have over the people it governs.

Most across Kashmir praised the senior most separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani for his “responsible” statements about sacrificing cattle on the day of Eid. Geelani, who holds wide influence over the state’s Muslim population, issued a passionate appeal asking people to refrain from turning the ritual of animal sacrifice into an opportunity  of hurting the religious feelings of any other community.

Geelani's appeal

In the eyes of many in Kashmir, it became an example of using moral influence against governmental power to achieve the same objective ‒ to prevent communal conflagration. Some officials privately conceded that Geelani’s appeal calmed the situation more than the government’s exercise of brute power over the people, and in the process its behavior exposed the limits of its genuine influence in Kashmir.

As the anger was brewing, no one from the government had made a convincing statement to defuse communal tensions. The governments in Jammu and Kashmir have become used to imposing curbs to achieve control over explosive situations, often of its own making, and then describing the situation as “peaceful”. It has perhaps taken away an average politician’s capacity for gaining genuine influence over the people at sensitive times.

“People listen to reason, but when unreason is made legal, those who rule lose all moral influence,” a retired teacher with a flowing white beard told me as we navigated our way out of Eidgah grounds in Srinagar after the Eid prayers. “This has been the story of Kashmir since my childhood.” Stun grenades and tear smoke shells were being fired to deafening effect during the protests. The eager old man wanted to go on talking, but stopped. “Can anyone say anything while these bombs are bursting all around you?” he asked.