Over sixteen months have passed since the India’s government imposed a ban on high-speed mobile data services in Jammu and Kashmir with the exception of two districts—Ganderbal and Udhampur. This ban has been extended. On 25th December, an order was issued by J&K administration stating that the ban has been extended till Jan 8, 2021. On August 5th, 2019, the central government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A and mobile internet services were temporarily suspended due to security reasons. However, the suspension of high-speed mobile data services is not seeing an end. This has taken a toll on several businesses and students especially during the pandemic.
Iqra Ahmed—a fashion designer—took over four years to build her fashion brand online. Her clothing brand, Tuv Palav had a great recognition online through social media where Iqra had over 50,000 followers. She used Instagram to promote Kashmiri clothing. In August 2019, when the government revoked the erstwhile state’s constitutional autonomy, the valley saw a communication blackout and Iqra lost a large portion of her customer base. About 5 months later, 2G internet was partially restored, that is in Jan 2020 but social media services like Instagram were still inaccessible.
In desperation, Iqra and many others like her opted to use Virtual Private Network, or VPN.
VPN allows users to hide their location while browsing the web, effectively helping in circumventing the ban. Kashmir saw a sudden surge of interest in VPN applications a few months after the ban.
According to several residents of Kashmir, the use of VPNs created a tension between civilians and the army. In several regions of South Kashmir, Army personnel allegedly checked the phones of youth for VPN apps. If any such apps were found, the youth were either thrashed or their phones were seized and they were bullied and harassed to collect it from the army camps.
“I was traveling to Shopian (district in J&K) when our cab was stopped at a checkpoint. The army man asked the guy sitting beside me how many VPNs he has on his phone. The guy replied none. ‘You better not have VPNs, otherwise, you know what we will do,’” Shefali Rafiq, a local girl, narrated her experience on Twitter. Using VPN was not a choice made for entertainment but one that was made out of desperation. Several people hadn’t seen the faces of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings and other family members living away from Jammu and Kashmir in months.
For instance, 61-year-old Shameema Banoo hadn’t seen her younger son in over 6 months. Parray, her younger son works at Riyadh, Saudhi Arabia as a hotel manager. “Last time on the evening of August 4th, I saw him through a video call. It was only after six months, on 5th of February, that my elder son brought a VPN application in his phone, by which I got connected with my beloved son,” said Shameema with tears and a smile.
However, several Kashmiris were unaware about the security issues that come with free VPNs. Hackers have breached the bank accounts of several people across the valley. In some cases, when users used VPNs for e-banking, hackers have also managed to withdraw their money. Surfshark, a UK based VPN company conducted a research on free VPNs which revealed that these VPNs can potentially jeopardize more than just user browsing history. Free VPNs build a profitable business model by selling user information to bidders which includes government agencies or authorities. In some cases, third parties were directly allowed to access user information. On the grounds of their study, Surfshark stated that free VPN service providers were culprits of user data abuse.
The people of Kashmir seemed to be unaware of these issues. People who travelled outside Kashmir, came back with seven to eight VPNs as backups as authorities were blocking and barring VPNs every day. The government also cracked down VPN users by filing an open FIR under which over hundreds of suspected users were probed and arrested several for allegedly misusing social media to promote “unlawful activities and secessionist ideology.”
On 4th March 2020, use of social media was legalized in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiris didn’t forget about those who supported them during the times of restriction. Kashmiris have developed a strange love for VPN developers past the customs of law. They showed their hospitality and gratitude to all VPN developers. Among several VPNs, LetsVPN was widely used. Kashmiris expressed their kindness by sending chai samovar, a bundle of kangris sonn sund pond (golden coin), besrakh tooker (a basket of sweets) and other gifts to the Canadian based creator of LetsVPN. These are the items that are usually sent by the bride’s family to the to-be in laws as a token of respect.
Another user shared on twitter that the experience of using VPN applications was similar to the Islam holy month of Ramzan, at first, a little hardship is endured but as the days go by, one gets used to it and after the month is over, it is missed badly and dearly.
However, Kashmiris haven’t met their happy endings yet. The ban of high speed mobile data is taking a toll on students. Several students have missed an entire online semester and were even unable to take their exams. Several students wrote to the union education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal voicing their concerns about the apathy that universities all over India expressed toward the students of Kashmir.
Rashida Bashir, a 20-year-old sociology student from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi said that she and some of her friends were not able to join classes using 2G. “How can we appear in the online examination without any issues?” she questioned. She expressed that JMI asked the students to ensure high-speed, uninterrupted internet connectivity and also that owning a laptop was considered a necessity. She further stated that the students were asked to ensure that they have uninterrupted electricity while taking the exams. She mentioned that everybody did not own a laptop or WiFi connection and she mentioned that Handwara, North Kashmir, her place of residence experienced frequent power cuts.
“My classmates are privileged as the internet comes easy for them. But I have to go through a lot of issues and I’m suffering” said Masoodi. Durdana Masoodi, a student from Miranda House, Delhi said that she reached out to one of her professors for help who understood her problem and agreed to send her the lecture notes. However, that did not resolve the problem. It isn’t easy to download notes on the internet either. Anything over file size one-megabyte would take over an hour to download.
Many students, especially girls in Kashmir dropped out after 10th and 12th grade due to the pandemic which coincided with ban of high-speed internet. Students from Kashmir urged their schools and universities to scrap the autocratic decision to conduct online proctored examinations. They requested the union education minister and universities to consider their situation and sought help to resolve this issue.
It is important to deploy high level of security measures in J&K due to long standing issues with Pakistan and current impasse with China. However, the government must also consider the fact that education of students, careers of many, and livelihood of the people during this pandemic is at stake due to the ban on high speed internet. It should also understand that throttling the internet in J&K, instead of strengthening security, may prove to be more of a security threat by further alienating the people who are adversely impacted by it.