Posts Tagged Kashmir

In Kashmir Uprising, Government Bans SMS

30 June 2010

Kashmir, the restive and contested region divided between India and Pakistan, has in recent weeks seen a surge in violence after a long period of relative calm.  Kashmir has been the flashpoint of three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, and Indian-controlled Kashmir saw brutal, persistent violence from 1989 up until the early part of this decade, as the Indian government tried to crush an independence movement, with Pakistan-based terror groups throwing fuel on the fire. The past few years, however, have been characterized by relative calm, with violence abating, tourism returning, and tensions relaxing.

KashmirIn the past few weeks, a great deal of that progress has evaporated.  On June 11, a 17-year old Kashmiri student was killed by an exploding tear gas shell during an independence demonstration in Srinagar.  Since then, at least 11 more Kashmiri civilians have been killed, as Indian forces have shot and beaten protesters after being pelted with stones.  In their latest move, the Indian Army has instituted a lockdown on the cities where protests have occurred, and, as of yesterday, the Indian government has banned text messaging.

Back in November, I wrote about the Indian government’s ban of pre-paid cell phones in Kashmir– a part of their effort to diminish the photos, videos, and other first-hand accounts of the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. This new ban of SMS messaging is not cloaked in any excuse about fighting terror– it’s simply part of an effort to prevent protesters from organizing themselves while under citywide lockdown.

India certainly has legitimate security concerns in Kashmir; Pakistani terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba have exploited the situation to stage attacks on Indian forces. But banning text messages is just the latest iteration of the Indian government violating the rights of all people in these cities to quell violence that began with their own army’s misconduct.  Increasingly, tools like SMS and pre-paid cell phones are vital tools for information access and communication, and denying access to these tools has to be seen as a violation of the right of equal access to information. 

What’s more, this episode is evidence that mobile phones– which put extraordinary power in the hands of individuals– tend to empower groups of individuals, rather than centralized authority.  Yes, the government has the power to switch off the network, but that’s an extreme move.  Maybe the most accurate way to say it is that the advent of the mobile phone makes it harder to be “just a little autocratic.” If you’re going to crack down, you’ve got to crack down all the way, or the power of the network will remain.

To some degree, that’s what’s happened in Iran since last year’s fraudulent election.  A government that used to be “somewhat authoritarian,” was faced with an increasingly well-organized opposition, and forced to either let the opposition movement continue to gain steam, or crack down hard.  The government opted for the latter, and in so doing, lost an awful lot of legitimacy in their own country and around the world.

Ultimately, I do think this growing global network will be a force for freedom rather than oppression.  In the shorter term, I think it is likely to widen the chasm between democracies and dictatorships, as it will force the countries in between to choose one path or another.



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.