Kashmir: India’s ‘draconian’ blackout sets worrying precedent, warns UN

Exclusive: special rapporteur speaks as Modi calls revoking special status start of ‘new era’

The unprecedented communications blackout imposed on Indian-administered Kashmir could signal a departure in the way in which democratic states clamp down on information in contentious areas, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, has said.

India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, made his first public statement on Thursday since the decision to remove Kashmir’s special status, describing it as the start of a “new era” that will help end decades of terrorism and separatism.

Kaye told the Guardian: “There’s something about this shutdown that is draconian in a way other shutdowns usually are not.”

Kashmir map

The territory faces its fifth day in a lockdown imposed hours before the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status, stripping away the autonomy it was granted in exchange for joining the Indian union after independence in 1947.

Communications are often blocked in Indian-administered Kashmir, but the current clampdown is unprecedented in a time of relative peace. Unlike previous instances, landline phones and cable TV have been cut off. A strict curfew also means people are unable to leave their homes during the day, while only limited movement has been allowed at night.

“I can’t recall a situation where there has been a total blackout of not only the two-way, multi-point communication systems that we are familiar with now – anything on the internet, WhatsApp etc – but also the one-direction communications like TV,” Kaye said.

Who controls Kashmir?

The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.

Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world's most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.

India and Pakistan have gone to war a further two times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.

How did the dispute start?

After the partition of colonial India in 1947, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.

Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.

In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.

In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.

What was Kashmir’s special status?

Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian union, had been in place since 14 May 1954. Under article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence. 

An additional provision, article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state and its way of life.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.

On Wednesday 31 October 2019, the government formally revoked Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision had  only ever intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.

What do the militants want?

There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerrillas fought a war rife with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.

Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.

For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.

Michael Safi and Rebecca Ratcliffe

“That’s pretty extensive and one of my concerns would be – in part because this is happening in a democratic state – it could be seen as a new departure for many states that are thinking about how to clamp down on the flow of information.”

He added that it was hard to identify a set of circumstances where a country shutting down access to the internet, especially for an extensive period of time, was legal under international law.

Before the announcement on Monday, thousands of extra troops were deployed to Kashmir, where the government is likely to face major opposition. An insurgency against Indian rule has been waged for decades, and tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict. Despite a heavy security presence and strict curfew, protests have occurred.

The restrictions have prevented people from calling for ambulances, accessing information or checking on family members. On Thursday, an opposition activist filed a petition in India’s highest court challenging the security lockdown and communications block.

In his first address to the nation since parliament was told article 370 – the part of the constitution guaranteeing Jammu and Kashmir special status – had been revoked, Modi described the changes as historic and attempted to assure residents the situation would soon become normal.

Governments around the world have used internet blackouts, or blocked popular platforms such as WhatsApp, at times of political crisis. Several countries have also used temporary outages to try to foil cheats in national exams.

Netblocks monitors outages worldwide, and has recorded dozens of cases this year alone. But it is rare for all communication, including phone lines, to be severed. Countries that have limited their citizens’ communications, both temporarily and long-term, in recent years include:

  • India partially restored internet access in Kashmir in January 2020 after an unprecedented five-month blackout, but only for institutions providing “essential services”, while social media sites were still be banned. In March restrictions were lifted further. All mobile and broadband internet connections had been suspended when the government revoked the decades-long special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which had given the region autonomy.
  • Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko shut off internet access in August 2020 in the hope of stifling dissent following the disputed presidential election.
  • North Korea is probably the most isolated country in the world. Its people cannot make or receive international phone calls, or access the global internet. Mobile phones operate on a closed domestic network, and North Koreans can only surf a highly restricted national intranet.
  • Xinjiang region in western China was largely isolated for 10 months in 2010. After riots, Beijing blocked internet access and barred international phone calls. Since then an unprecedented surveillance system has been put in place that allows authorities to monitor residents’ phone and internet use rather than blocking it entirely.
  • China has blocked its internet off from the rest of the world wide web with digital barriers known colloquially as the ‘Great Firewall’. Companies that are a staple of digital life elsewhere, including Facebook, Google and Amazon, are blocked and unknown in China. However the controls can be dodged with a VPN, and phone connections to the rest of the world are open.
  • Sudan had a month-long internet blackout during mass demonstrations this year. Other countries have shut down the internet or blocked major sites during times of political tension, including Zimbabwe during fuel price protests this year and Uganda for the swearing in of a president whose re-election sparked protests.
  • Iraq, Algeria and Ethiopia are among several countries that have temporarily blocked the internet to prevent cheating in national high school exams. These blocks have usually only lasted a few hours.

Emma Graham-Harrison

“The scrapping of article 370 is the beginning of a new era,” Modi said. Kashmir’s special status had been used by Pakistan “as a weapon to incite people of the region against India”, but now India would rid the region of “terrorism and terrorists”, he added. “There will be a lot of development,” Modi said. “All the citizens will be given their rights.”

Modi said the “mainstreaming” of the Kashmiri people with the rest of the nation would expedite development and create new jobs with investment from public and private companies, and even suggested a cinema industry could flourish. “I think the whole world will come and shoot their films there,” he said. “[This will] bring employment for the people there.”

In other developments on Thursday, the state-run All India Radio reported more than 500 people had been arrested since the clampdown began, and Pakistan had suspended a key rail service with India and banned the screening of Indian films.

A Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman also said authorities were considering approaching the international court of justice for a case against India. The two countries have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.

(August 1, 1947) 

With the end of British colonial rule, the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into predominantly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan. Mass migrations follow, with Hindus and Muslims moving to their country of choice. More than a million people are killed in the communal violence that ensues.

(October 1, 1947) 

India and Pakistan fight their first war over control of Muslim-majority Kashmir, a kingdom ruled by Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh. The war ends in 1948 with a UN brokered ceasefire, leaving Kashmir divided between the nations, with the promise of a referendum to chose which nation its people wish to join.

(August 8, 1965) 

A second war erupts over Kashmir, with India and Pakistan agreeing to a UN-mandated ceasefire the following month.

(December 5, 1971) 

The third war between India and Pakistan is fought in East Pakistan, ending with the creation of independent Bangladesh.

(May 10, 1974) 

India detonates a nuclear device in the first confirmed nuclear test by a non-permanent member of the UN security council.

(December 1, 1988) 

India and Pakistan sign an agreement that neither will attack each other's nuclear installations or facilities; it takes effect in 1991.

(May 8, 1989) 

Armed resistance to Indian rule in Kashmir begins. India says Pakistan supports local fighters with weapons and training, which Pakistan denies, saying it only gives local Kashmiris "moral and diplomatic" support.

(May 8, 1998) 

India detonates five nuclear devices and Pakistan responds by detonating six of its own. International sanctions are imposed against both.

(December 1, 2001) 

India masses troops along its western frontier with Pakistan and the Kashmir boundary after blaming Pakistani insurgents for a deadly attack at the Indian parliament. The standoff ends in October 2002 after international mediation.

(September 8, 2016) 

Suspected rebels sneak into an army base in Indian-controlled Kashmir and kill at least 18 soldiers. Indian forces later attack militant bases in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

(February 14, 2019) 

A car bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir kills 40 Indian soldiers. Militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, headquartered in Pakistan, claims responsibility. India blames Pakistan and promises a "crushing response"."

(August 5, 2019) 

India's central government changes part of the Indian constitution and downgrades Jammu and Kashmir from one state to two territories. The changes eliminate Kashmir's right to its own constitution, limit its decision-making power, and allow non-Kashmiri Indians to settle there.

(October 31, 2019) 

Delhi formally revokes Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy and splits it into two federal territories. The state’s constitution, as well as its penal code and state flag, was nullified.

Indian-administered Kashmir has had a special status since 1954, giving it a degree of autonomy including its own constitution, as well as rules that prevented people from outside the state from buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believe this is crucial to protecting the demography and traditions of India’s only Muslim-majority state. Delhi has insisted the ending of autonomy for the region is an internal matter.

On Wednesday, one man arriving at Delhi’s airport from Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, described the state as being “like a prison”. Soayib Qureshi, a Delhi-based lawyer who arrived on the same day, said he had been given a handwritten boarding pass for the flight because systems were down.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report


Rebecca Ratcliffe in Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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