In the Kashmir Valley, the ringing of a mobile phone has become an event. On August 5, when the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 and split the state into two Union Territories, a pall of silence fell on the Valley. All communication channels – mobile connections, landlines, mobile and broadband internet, cable television – were snapped. After having imposed a silence so absolute, the government turned the gradual restoration of services into a great concession to residents of the Valley.
Cable networks returned first, then landlines. On October 14, after 72 days, postpaid mobile connections were restored. But the internet is still suspended, so are prepaid mobile connections.
In many parts of the world, blocking internet access would be considered a human rights violation. In 2011, the United Nations declared internet access a basic human right, vital to exercising other rights, such as freedom of opinion and expression. But then, as Union Home Minister Amit Shah claimed, Western standards of human rights need not always apply to India. Earlier, he had said that blocking phone connections was not a human rights violation. Addressing the National Human Rights Commission this weekend, he argued human rights should be synchronised with Indian value systems. Dwelling on state excesses, the home minister seemed to suggest, was unreasonable in the Indian context.
The government has pulled out an old trick – redefine the norm until it matches the reality. On human rights in general, it wants to shift the goalposts so that the ordinary individual expects less and less personal freedom. On Kashmir in particular, a political system is disfigured beyond recognition until, it is hoped, people forget what normalcy looks like.
While mobile phones are buzzing again in Kashmir, hundreds still remain in detention, many of them minors. While the government has announced block development council elections on October 24, most of Kashmir’s political leadership is locked up. An apparently democratic process is being engineered without popular leaders or even popular consent. While national and international media descended on Kashmir after August 5, the local press is slowly being choked by the communications blackout and state intimidation.
The Valley is still awash with security forces and numerous reports from South Kashmir have suggested an intensifying military siege. If the Centre’s August 5 decision was meant to freeze militant activity, it has not; in two weeks there have been at least two grenade blasts in Kashmir. Finally, shops across the Valley remain shut in a mark of protest against a decision that was taken without consulting or even informing the people it concerns the most.
After the ordeal of the past two months – family members cut off from one another, medical help out of reach, no information on what is happening beyond what the eye can see – the sound of mobile phones ringing may be welcome relief. But all is not normal in Kashmir.