Kashmir’s blackout means family anguish

BY MOAZUM MOHAMMAD| IN Media Freedom | 27/07/2016
The mobile-internet blockade has left families in the dark about the well-being and whereabouts of their loved ones.


Srinagar: The communications blockade in Jammu and Kashmir has led to tragic situations. A family in Rawalpora have been going about their lives happily, thinking their son in Saudia Arabia is also going about his life happily. The news that the son had in fact died in a road accident could not reach them. His friends had to enlist the support of social media to get the news across to his family.

On Monday, the Kashmiri youth’s photo, with a condolence message, went viral. For hours, the message and photo did the rounds on Facebook so that eventually, somehow, his family too would stumble across it and learn the dreadful news.

“The Varmul Post received a message from Damam, Saudi Arabia that a person named Shoiab Khursheed Shah hailing from Baramulla (family currently residing in Rawalpora) has passed away in an accident there. Due to the communication blockade in Kashmir, his friends are unable to contact his family. Please share this so we may reach his family,” the message read.  

On July 26 the Jammu and Kashmir government announced that it was lifting the blockade on post paid mobile phones on Tuesday night. But that still does not help the large numbers of pre-paid mobile subscribers.

Another story was that of a youth in south Kashmir who was killed during the ongoing protests while his brother, who was in Pahalgam, learnt about his sibling's death 10 days later.

A message from another desperate Kashmiri Javid Ahmad based in North America carried by the Greater Kashmir website, said: “I talked to my widow mother 15 days before. She suffers from couple of chronic diseases and I don't even know if she has medicine or not. I request concerned people to find a way for us to communicate for just a while.” 

From South Africa, Sajad Ahmad Lone of Bandipora, wrote: “I could not contact my family from last 17 days. My mother will be so much worried about me. Please convey my message to her that I am fine here.” 

Families have been distressed at the lack of information about loved ones’ safety and health. Lovebirds have also been affected by the suspension of mobile services. A colleague in downtown Srinagar, who is a BSNL subscriber (the only network that is working), said a youth approached him asking for his mobile phone to call a “friend”. The man had not talked to his fiancé since the ban was imposed.

Two weeks ago, 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani, along with his two associates, was slain by the security forces in Southern Kashmir. His death triggered a massive wave of angry protests against Indian rule. The government crushed the protests with live ammunition and lead pellets, killing 50 people and leaving as many as 2,500 wounded.

Not only did the government physically harm people, it also enforced a communication blackout by disabling mobile telephony and the Internet. A five day ban was imposed on the publication of newspapers. Printing presses were raided and copies confiscated. While the newspaper clampdown has  been lifted, mobile networks and the Internet have yet to be restored.

The blackout has plunged the region into utter confusion and chaos. The state-owned BSNL is the only window to the outside world. But the majority of the population subscribe to private telecom companies such as Airtel, Aircel, Vodafone, Idea and Reliance, which have been suspended.

In the absence of mobile signals amid the curfew and shutdown, people have taken to the dying art of letter writing. Rising Kashmir reported that a mother dispatched a letter to a relative, within Srinagar, to seek milk for her baby. Amnesty International described the communication lockdown as a violation of human rights, appealing to the government to restore it.

The blockade has also complicated contact between families and patients in hospital. Many injured youths and their attendants were unable to reach out to their families at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital and Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences with the latter not even knowing which hospital they were in. One youth, who spent three days in Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, told me his family was not aware that he had been hit by a bullet.

“It is ironical that cell phone services are shut during medical emergencies. On one hand, helpline numbers are provided to the people in view of medical emergency and on the other hand, cellphone services are suspended,” said the Doctors’ Association of Kashmir in a statement.

Waseem Ahad, a Kashmiri youth pursuing a doctorate in Turkey, said he has not talked to his family for two weeks and they were naturally worried about him after the failed coup in Turkey. “When you are away from home you are normally always apprehensive, but after reading stories of killings and injuries I was devastated. I couldn't concentrate on anything,” said Ahad, whose family is based in Sopore, north Kashmir. 

Samiya Latief, a woman journalist based in Mumbai, told the Hoot that she has not spoken to her family in Srinagar since July 14. “I haven’t been able to connect with my in-laws since the mobile services were banned. They don't have a BSNL connection at home and there is no other way of contacting them,” said Latief.

The clampdown on communication networks has made life difficult for journalists. Getting official confirmation or details from the districts where most of the incidents take place is almost impossible.

Five years ago, when a massive anti-India uprising broke out in the region, the government imposed a ban on the SMS facility of all networks. The ban was lifted on pre-paid subscribers after four years. At the time, the ban had offended the then opposition leader Mehbooba Mufti. Yet now that she is ruling the state,  she has crushed protests in the same manner as her predecessor, Omar Abdullah. Though Abdullah regretted the blunders he committed in the summer of 2010, the collective public memory has not forgiven him.

Writer and senior editor of Greater Kashmir, Zahir Din, says the ban will not stop people holding protests. All it will do is provide grist to the rumour mills. “It reflects the frustration of the authorities. It will not work,” he said.


Moazum Mohammad is a Srinagar-based journalist working at Kashmir Reader. He tweets @moazum_m



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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