Article 370: A Year On, How Internet Restriction Affected Kashmiri Youth

Amid internet blockade last year, many young Kashmiri felt ‘like caged birds who weren’t allowed out’. Not only the communication crisis affected their psyche, but also their careers, ventures and projects.

By Hameeda Syed

LAST Fall when Masrat Amin, 22, stepped outside of Indira Gandhi International Airport, she saw a few faces like her grimacing at the apathy that welcomed them. The tapping sounds of smartphones and caller tunes were the first thing that made her blink twice and register a thought that she hadn’t registered for a while.

“Everything was normal here,” Masrat recounts the day she landed in Delhi for studies after spending weeks under internet blockade back home in Kashmir.

“Life was going on,” she continues. “New Delhi bustled with life and fervour, but Srinagar was silent. The feeling was so alien and overwhelming that I lapsed into disassociating from my surroundings. I could hear my relatives exclaiming in my presence and wrapping their arms around me, but I couldn’t feel myself being there.”

She felt like she had left a part of herself somewhere hidden behind the snow-clad mountains, and its absence made her realise how hollow she was without it.

“Nothing was normal anymore,” she recalls the distressed time in her flat in Delhi. “And nobody could see it.”

In the morning of August 5, 2019, weeks after Kashmiris could feel an inevitable turning of events brewing close, Article 370 of the Constitution which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated by the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

During that time, Kashmiris witnessed the longest communication blackout in the region, with no access to cellular networks or the internet.

Five months later, the internet was restored with restrictions. Only a few sites could be accessed with 2G connectivity. The government is yet to provide the erstwhile 4G connection, the refusal of which has made life tough for people living in the valley.

Now, completing a year since the abrogation move and a few months since the pandemic has gripped the world awake, the restrictions to the internet in Kashmir has been underlined more than ever before.

Social media site Twitter is one of the many platforms that Kashmiri youth use to propel and gesticulate their thoughts amid these restrictions. On observation, the site provides a means through which they can profess their opinions and discuss the ongoing situation in Kashmir, which has been turned into a union territory after its abrogation.

For instance, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s latest interview drew raging flak from K-twitter.

The platform has given a space to vibrant, niche voices with an informed and progressive outlook towards the Kashmir situation.

Speaking to a few of those voices coming from the younger generation, the connection between the internet and the youth is clear.

“I’m a freelance columnist, who’s also a social media buff,” Jamsheed Ahmad, a Srinagarite, says. “The worst thing that I experienced last year was that I wanted to write but couldn’t as I had no medium of communication.”

Free access to the internet is a fundamental right, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy by a lecturer from the University of Birmingham last year. Kerala agrees, with its high court having defended internet rights of a student in a case by quoting the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

“As a student of law, I think the internet is not just a necessity but it is a way of life, and when someone disrupts your way of living freely, your human right or basic right of life is violated,” Misba Mir, studying at Central University of Kashmir, says.

“Mentally it causes trauma, because that makes us realise that in the 21st century, when we talk about all kinds of rights and privileges that human beings enjoy, we are still caged and oppressed. We are still deprived of our basic rights. And that puts my mental state in a constant fear and trauma, which will ultimately result in chaos of any sort.”

A policy brief on internet shutdowns by the Internet Society last year details the far-reaching impact of shutdowns on different folds of human society. An excerpt from the brief states: “People routinely depend on the Internet to stay in touch with family and friends, create local communities of interest, report public information, hold institutions accountable, and access and share knowledge. To that end, it can be argued that Internet access cannot be distinguished from the exercise of freedom of expression and opinion and the right to peaceful assembly.

Apart from that, the brief showcases how the technical impact of an internet shutdown includes affecting websites, global traffic and internet infrastructure. Economically, it lowers the GDP of a country.

“We are a generation heavily dependent on the internet for various purposes,” Junaid Bhat, an active netizen from Srinagar, says. “We use it for educational, commercial as well as for entertainment purpose.”

Post August 5, he says, the environment has been of fear and psychosis. “We were cut off from the rest of the world and not only the internet but even phone services were also snapped.”

Amid internet blockade last year, Junaid and a lot of others, “felt like caged birds who weren’t allowed out”.

It affected the psyche in a negative manner, he says. “Our academics, business were suffering simultaneously with its suspension and it still continues to be this way.”

Another active netizen Shayan Nabi compiled a thread of posts from Kashmiri entrepreneurs who relied on digital means to keep their business going. Post August 5, their business was heavily affected.

Meher, doing her second Masters in Journalism in Delhi, recalls her relationship with the internet before the August shutdown.

“I use it for 18 hours a day,” she says. “From August till November, I slowly forgot what to even do with it. I had stopped relying on it naturally. Then I went to Delhi and it took me awhile to get back as a normal user.”

Amid normalcy in Delhi, Meher experienced panic attacks for the first time in January.

“I can’t really tell how it started,” she continues. “I think it was because of being under siege for so many months without any way to communicate. When I was among people in Delhi, I couldn’t process it. The freedom, the life, it triggered the attacks.”

Meher has been diagnosed with clinical depression and manic depressive disorder. She undergoes therapy through online video calls, which is a task in and of itself due to the restricted connectivity.

“It [Internet] acts as a space of escape,” she says. “Even though I am in therapy, it still acts as a space where I can disconnect from reality.”

Misbah, another Kashmiri studying in Delhi, agrees when I ask her whether internet has given hope.

“Yes it has,” she says. “I believe in times like these, where there is uncertainty over every single thing, the people you interact with, the friends you make on SM (social media), the things you learn on all SM platforms is worth cherishing. It gives a sense of hope and upliftment to see, that we are not alone in this. We are together, and supporting each other.”

The younger generation has grown up with the internet and it has been a part of their life in much greater ways, says Ruchita Chandrashekhar, a trauma therapist based in Mumbai.

“But when something like this is taken away from you, it’s basically about what it represents. It’s your rights being taken away from you,” she says. “Somebody’s telling you that we can silence you, we can assert power over you and you can do nothing about it.”

Ruchita underlines how the internet has been a mode of expression for a younger generation.

“One day your WiFi doesn’t work at home, and you’re already irritable,” she says. “But for a year, it’s punishment. Kashmir faces a lot of violence from the Indian state just for being itself, and it can evoke a lot of trauma responses.”

An accumulation of traumatic experiences can lead to complex trauma, which, Ruchita believes, is prevalent in Kashmir.

“From what you’ve witnessed, from what you’ve read in the news, what you have personally experienced- all of that can set in a degree of numbness and different trauma responses,” she says.

“I think, one year in, what they’ve (the people of Kashmir) done is just tried to survive through every day.”

But this survival comes with its own cost for people, says Ruqaya, an active netizen and teacher from Srinagar.

“The youths here are deranged and hopeless now, especially after the developments which took place after 5 August 2019,” she says. “Those who had a trust element in ‘mainstream politicians’ have lost that after living a life full of uncertainties.”

Now with the onset of this pandemic, Ruqaya says, “whenever I talked with people they’d be like, ‘What kind of life are we living anyways, even if Covid kills us, it won’t matter’.”

Kashmiri youths, she says, have developed major trust issues due to uncertainty in the future and their jobs.

“The bizarre throttled internet access on the other hand has its own effects on the people, those who want to attend online classes can’t attend them. The futures are being jeopardised by such steps,” she says.

And when the body has shifted to focusing on survival, Ruchita says, going to the source of pain can be extremely triggering and can disrupt it.

“I think a lot of trauma work in the beginning is creating a space for them [Kashmiris] to feel the way they feel,” she says.

“Normalising anger is also a big step.”

A lot of work, she says, goes into validating and normalizing, however, the people feel, whether its anger, numbness, disappointment, increased frustration, sadness, grief, or a disarming sense of anxiety.

“Whatever it may be,” Ruchita continues, “I think it’s important to meet them where they’re at, and what they want to work on first. I can’t sit as an expert in the room and be like ‘I think this is what you should work with’.”

How does the internet play its role here?

“It’s about finding solidarity together in hopelessness, finding a community that can serve as a catharsis. Why not socialise to recognise that the human experience is about all the emotions? I think the pain has to find space to exist, to just feel validated,” Ruchita says.

Among Kashmiris in reality, and even more so in the virtual spectrum, one finds specks of the community spaces through discussions and childlike banters which provide a window into their resilience and apt use of the internet to keep going.

Detailing how the internet has helped her in times of the pandemic, Misbah says, “It keeps me updated on what is happening around me, it helps me in my education even when the universities are shut. The internet has made life easy in the sense that I can have things at my doorsteps through e-markets, without going out in crowded places.

“I think we would succumb to the change that our plagued political problem, and this pandemic has brought into the world. But the internet is somehow keeping us afloat.”

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