The Big Story: Reboot shutdowns
The term “e-curfew” has become popular in Kashmir over the last few years, as the authorities resort to shutting down internet services for a period of time on the pretext of improving the security situation. On Wednesday, the government announced a month-long e-curfew, suspending 22 internet services – including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Skype. The move comes in anticipation of a violent summer in the Kashmir Valley, as the failure of the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition’s efforts to build trust in the state becomes even more apparent.
Kashmir is no stranger to the e-curfew. As an edit in local newspaper Rising Kashmir put it, “first on VIP visits, then on select days celebrated by the state, followed by ban on elections, on shutdowns and now on by polls – internet ban has become the first in the list of government’s protocol of handling situation[s]”. When the latest e-curfew was announced, it came on the back of the government already having suspended 3G and 4G services in the state.
And there is, of course, no guarantee that the orders will be in place for just a month. When the previous government announced a ban on SMS from pre-paid phones after a rise in protests and stone-pelting incidents in 2010, the restriction remained in place for years. For residents of Kashmir the internet is a rare privilege, not something that can be taken for granted.
The whole model of the e-curfew, however, deserves to be questioned. There are some who believe the government’s approach to blocking internet services is itself illegal and unconstitutional.
Others question the utility of attempting to block things on the internet. After all, SMS effectively became redundant over the time it was banned for pre-paid phones in Kashmir, as people moved their communications to WhatsApp and other data-based products. By the time it was lifted, the change barely made a difference – at least until the government began restricting data services too.
The central question, however, is one of individual rights. The government claims social media services allow violent protestors to amplify their behaviour, bringing more people onto the streets and helping rumours to spread faster. The authorities even used an official, speaking anonymously of course, to put out the unsubstantiated claim that shutting down 300 or so WhatsApp groups was already reducing the number of protestors on the streets. Never mind the previous insistence that demonetisation had already broken the back of Kashmir’s protest movement.
There might be a legitimate security reason to turn off the internet, but it needs to be vigorously debated in public, with an examination of costs and benefits. Did the SMS ban in its time really reduce stone-pelting? Won’t those who use data services to organise simply move to another platform, leaving those who have adopted the government’s digital India approach helpless? Is this simply authoritarian laziness from a government that has been unable to deliver its promises?
These are pressing questions that apply even beyond Kashmir, a conflict zone. The Internet Freedom Foundation points out that India had more internet shutdowns in 2016 than any other country, costing us more than Rs 6,000 crore, and with little accountability. With more of the country coming online and depending on the internet for various services, India urgently needs a public debate on what sort of e-curfews are acceptable, and what the costs of imposing actually are, whether in Kashmir or any other part of the nation.
The Big Scroll
- Rayan Naqash explains why Facebook may be indefinitely banned in Kashmir.
- India tops list of 19 countries worst affected by internet shutdowns.
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Priyanka Vora reports from a district in Maharashtra, where she looked into the question of whether the desire for sons leads to poor nutrition for girls.
“Sunita Mane and her husband Balaso did not use any form of contraception. Frequent pregnancies have taken a toll on Sunita’s health – every time she bends down, she experiences pain in her back. But she cannot afford to skip work as a daily wage labourer since the family’s small farm does not yield enough produce to provide for eight people. As the family grew, their finances became further constrained. A direct fallout was on the health and nutritional status of their daughters.
Namrata, the youngest daughter of the family, was severely malnourished – at the age of six, she weighed just 12 kilograms. ‘It is difficult to feed all the children,’ said Balsao Mane. The family, on most days, eats rice or chapatis with a watery dal. Vegetables are cooked only on special occasions since they are expensive.
The local anganwadi worker Manisha Shinde persuaded the Mane’s to send Namrata, now eight, to the village child development centre for a month. Here she was given nutritional supplements. She now weighs about 17 kilos.”