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.
In 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.