Jammu and Kashmir went dark at midnight on Sunday, August 4. The internet was shut down, phone lines were blocked, and cable television was suspended. Section 144 was imposed upon the entire erstwhile state, in preparation for the announcement by Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday, August 5, that the state’s special status under Article 370 was to be revoked and it was to be split into two Union Territories.
Internet shutdowns are common in Jammu and Kashmir
Kashmir is no stranger to internet shutdowns. The former state has witnessed 178 such instances since 2012, as per a report by the internet watchdog Software Freedom Law Centre, India.
This shutdown, though, is different. It is not just mobile phone, mobile internet and broadband services that have been shut down, even landlines are down. For four days now, Kashmiris living outside the state have not been able to speak to their families.
Newspapers in the Valley have not been able to bring out their editions and the lack of information has created anxiety. The authorities have also shut down cable television. Only residents with satellite dishes were able to watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on television on Thursday, August 8, in which he congratulated them for this “historic decision”.
The government has the authority to shut down communications services under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Communications, according to the rules, can be suspended for reasons of “public emergency or public safety”. It is easy for the government to turn off landlines, because Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, the only provider of landline connections in Jammu and Kashmir, is wholly government-owned.
Senior officials of the Jammu and Kashmir government, speaking to NDTV, called this communications and security clampdown unprecedented and said that such measures hadn’t been taken since 1971. Even during the Kargil War, landlines were working, per this report in India Today.
Where have phone lines been snapped in the past?
In most recent instances of conflict around the world internet services and mobile networks have been blocked, but landlines have been allowed to function. This appears less a testament to the consideration of the regimes in power and more to the wide penetration of cellular technology and the internet. Messages on the internet travel quickly and to large numbers of people, allowing them to organise en masse. Disabling internet and mobile services allows the authorities to thwart such mobilisations, while keeping phone lines open means that emergency services can continue and basic communication between people is possible.
The shutting down of even telephone exchanges, as is being seen in Kashmir, has become extremely rare. India finds itself in the company of China, Myanmar, Syria and Israel – countries known for repressive, authoritarian regimes – as this list shows.
Gaza, 2011, 2017
In 2011, an Israeli military bulldozer, digging near a border checkpoint, severed the fibreoptic cable connecting the Gaza strip in Palestine to the rest of the world. As a result, all mobile networks, internet and landline services were downed. Palestinian Telecommunications, or PalTel, runs all landline, mobile and internet services in the region. However, it is extremely reliant on Israel, especially for infrastructure.
In 2017, landlines were down in Gaza again, when PalTel’s main generator broke down and they were unable to import parts for a backup generator due to the blockade imposed by Israel.
After acts of self-immolation by Tibetan monks in protest of Chinese domination of the Tibetan region and the gradual erasure of the Tibetan identity, phone lines to the Ganzi prefecture were cut. Landlines in Tibet were also cut during a period of protest in March 2008.
As the war in Syria escalated, internet and mobile networks were cut and telephone networks worked only intermittently. Activists said at the time that the Bashar al-Assad government was known to cut communications before military operations.
By 2015, internet and mobile phone networks were highly disrupted and government censorship was pervasive on these channels. In the meanwhile, the state telecommunications company, which has a monopoly on landlines, was doubling its subscription rates, pricing itself out of the range of ordinary Syrians. Forty percent of the company’s network had also been damaged by the war by then.
Phone lines were down in the city of Lashio in northern Myanmar during a period of violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims. Myanmar imposed section 144 of its criminal code, banning public gatherings in the city. This was a precursor to the state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya Muslims and their eventual exodus from the country.
Some news reports claim landline communication in Baramulla, Bandipore and Kupwara districts in the Kashmir Valley were blocked in the aftermath of the killing of Burhan Wani. This was during the indefinite curfew imposed after the Indian army killed Wani, a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Newspapers were also not allowed to publish for three days.