India Bans Pre-Paid Mobiles in Kashmir – Security or Suppression?

10 November 2009

For eight years, the Indian government dragged its feet until, in 2003, it finally permitted mobile phones in conflict-torn Kashmir. Intelligence officials had feared that Kashmiri and Pakistani militants would use the phones to plan attacks on Indian army outposts throughout the region, but in ’03 they relaxed the ban, and the past six years have been the most peaceful since the conflict began in 1989. Causation? Probably not. But correlation, anyway.

Srinagar Cell PhoneLast week, the Indian government walked back on technological freedoms in Kashmir, banning pre-paid mobile connections. In Kashmir, as in much of the developing world, pre-paid is a popular option thanks to its known costs, and low commitment; the new ban will take phones out of the hands of 3.8 million Kashmiris. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of Kashmiris have taken to the streets of Srinagar, the capital city, to protest the law in recent days.

The stated reasons for the prohibition are that mobile vendors are not conducting proper background checks on new subscribers, and that militants are using mobile phones to detonate bombs– a practice observed in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. I suspect the actual reasons are considerably more Machiavellian.

Srinagar is one of the most heavily-militarized cities in the world, and the dense presence of Indian troops has led to frequent clashes between Kashmiri civilians and the military. As the BBC documented earlier this year, young Kashmiris have been using their cell phones to bear witness to the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. With a camera phone in every hand, every citizen is a journalist, and the explosion of photos, videos and other first-hand accounts of the violence in Kashmir has brought images of the violence to the world.

What’s more, the Indian intelligence services have met with some success finding and killing militants by monitoring the cell phone conversations of Kashmiris. The consistency and higher background-check requirements for post-paid cell phone plans makes it much easier to monitor those subscribers.

It’s my strong suspicion that the pre-paid ban in Kashmir has more to do with suppressing critical citizen media and monitoring civilian phone conversations than it does with preventing phone-bomb attacks. The ban consists of a suppression of basic freedoms and a violation of privacy in an already repressed state. Further, the government is denying citizens a valuable tool for economic development and access to the global ICT network– increasingly a fundamental right in itself.

FD: I spent some time reporting in Kashmir. My views are certainly informed by that experience. My reporting is published here.

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