Earlier this summer, the north Indian state of Kashmir was hit with a new wave of riots when young militant leader Burhan Wani was killed by state police. Wani was the controversial head of Hizbul Mujahideen, a group fighting for the state to separate from India. He was embraced as a freedom fighter by many in Kashmir, and considered a terrorist by Indian officials.
Kashmiris have been forced to live with regular curfews and military presence in their daily lives. Their mountain and valley homes have been caught in the crosshairs of border wars between India, Pakistan and China for decades. But in moments of peak violence the law enforcement in Kashmir has started wielding a new means of control: mobile and digital blackouts.
This is a new burden for the people of Kashmir, who have endured endless violence since India became independent in 1947. In just the past two decades there have been 22,000 incidents involving significant violence, and more than 44,000 people have died in terrorist attacks. And the uprising that left dozens dead after Wani was killed was yet another reason to mourn.
When 21-year-old Wani was shot on July 8, 2016, the police in Kashmir shut down all mobile networks and mobile data, except for the government-run BSNL, almost immediately. In some areas, broadband internet was unavailable as well. Almost two months later, some people still do not have mobile internet on their devices and phones.
In a region already complicated by geography and turbulence, the impact of telecom blackouts is significant. "There is no getting around the fact that cutting mobile links [and internet] affects flow of information, from basic human contact to people facing health issues, to the injured—and there are thousands—not being able to reach families," said Najeeb Mubarki, a journalist in Kashmir.
He told me the blackout means Kashmiris don't know what is happening in their own communities, and try to send messages with people or ambulances traveling through their towns. Newspapers have resorted to working from memory sticks, and many people attempt to piggyback from the few wifi spots that are still working.
Police usually justify telecom shutdowns with section 144 of the federal penal code, a law that permits Indian states to disrupt the assembly of ten or more people if they suspect violence. Burhan Wani was popular on social media, and Hizbul Mujahideen gained traction through videos shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. Some of them included threats of attack on communities they deemed non-Kashmiri. The police in Kashmir cite violence, and militants organizing online and through apps like WhatsApp, for their crackdown.
But Wani's death doesn't explain an elongated two-month blackout, or why it was implemented with little public notice. And Madeline Earp, the Asia research analyst with civil liberties organization Freedom House, said the internet in Kashmir has been intentionally disrupted more than any other Indian state, and at least three times in the past year. This does more than cut people off from their families. She said a free and open internet could counter the same violence police are hoping to avoid.
"You have people trying to debunk aggressive messages, and then you're essentially cutting off access to information that would be countering threat in a more effective way."
Policing and censorship in Kashmir is heavier than the rest of India given its perception as a war zone. But the entire country has a history of draconian laws when it comes to free speech, particularly on the internet. In recent years, India has threatened press freedom (27 reporters have been killed with complete impunity since 1992), curbed mobile data access during protests, and shut down accounts on Twitter that mocked the prime minister.
In the world's largest democracy, not all of these bans are constitutional, said Karuna Nundy, a Delhi-based lawyer who was instrumental in striking down 66A, a section of the Information and Technology Act that prohibited any "objectionable" online content, at the Supreme Court of India. She said the police were only allowed to exercise blackouts with proper notice, with good reason and at a proportionate scale, neither of which happened in Kashmir.
In addition, an attempt to crackdown on violence still needs to comply with 69A, a law that governs speech on the internet and regulates when the government can prevent access to websites, including Twitter. "There's an incentive problem. Officials tend to be conservative on anything related to security. No one wants to be the guy who allowed the free speech but then something happens," Nundy told Motherboard.
"These kind of blanket bans are hugely problematic. People use these [mobile networks] to socialize, to work, to look people up in case of an emergency."
Meanwhile, Kashmiri families are nervous their connection to the world can be cut off at any given time. Some reports say the connectivity has been restored, but Mubarki has been forced to report and live from the city of Srinagar without internet on his devices. He said the police's arbitrary control of their phones and internet is not about security.
"Cutting those links is thus actually meant, classical authoritarian-style, to further cage a population," he said.