During his speech on Kashmir yesterday, Derek O’Brien, Trinamool MP, highlighted the shutdown of the Internet in Kashmir, which has been happening with increasing frequency. O’Brien stated that when the Home Minister appealed for calm and peace in Jammu and Kashmir, it could not have been read by those in the state because of an Internet shut down. Excerpts from his speech:

There is a big difference in Kashmir today; I was trying to study this change in the last 2-3 days; this is what I think has changed on the ground in Kashmir. Sir, in 2011, the internet penetration in Kashmir was 3 per cent, today the internet penetration in Kashmir is almost 28 per cent. Sir, that is a major change that has happened in Kashmir. And today, if you ask me, why the Hurriyat or anyone else doesn’t have control over these people, nor can the security forces? Because how can you have an encounter with YouTube? You can’t, because the opinion is being made on the internet.

Mr Home Minister Sir, you tweeted on July 9, 2016: “I appeal to the people of Jammu & Kashmir to remain calm and maintain peace, the centre is working with the state government.” Excellent. But the problem is when the tweet went out, the internet itself was blocked in Kashmir. In fact, in Kashmir the internet has been blocked 13-14 times. You cannot get young people on your side if you keep blocking the internet. The only other State that has blocked it 8 times in the last 2-3 times, is a western Indian state (Gujarat). I am saying it because it’s a fact.

Sir, Kashmir is non-negotiable. Similarly, the welfare of the people of Kashmir also has to be non-negotiable.

Sir, I am coming to the issue which actually started all this – Burhan Wani. The issue of internet penetration and Burhan Wani are linked because Burhan Wani was more dangerous on the internet than he was on the streets. I feel Burhan Wani is more dangerous in his grave than his living room. And Burhan Wani is maybe more dangerous when he is dead than he was alive. Sir, this is the changing situation in Kashmir.

MediaNama’s take
1. The Data on Jammu & Kashmir:
internet penetration JK March 2016
2. Internet Shutdowns this year: 8 shutdowns so far this year, with three shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir alone. The latest was a WhatsApp block.

3. Should the Internet be shut down in case of riots or fears of riots?  There are no easy answers here: at one level, when someone who has to inform their friends and family that they are either fine (or in trouble), mobile connectivity is inefficient, in terms of reaching out to many friends and family. The Internet is also a means of appealing to a large number of people for help. Lack of internet connectivity can leave someone helpless and feeling vulnerable. At the same time, we know that because of lack of traceability of WhatsApp messages, and with no possible means of controlling the spread of messages, apart from the inability to identify and/or validate or invalidate messages, governments often feel helpless, and take extreme preventive measures such as curfews and Internet shutdowns.

Here’s the thing, if the shutdown prevents the death of even one person, it would be worth it. However, there’s no way of knowing whether something such as a shutdown prevented escalation of tension: there’s no way of accounting for lives not lost. And there are no easy answers. One, perhaps, is that the state could use the same medium to refute such claims, or as the Home Minister did, call for peace, using every medium possible. What matters then, is that the message goes through.

What is also important is that the state have a policy around this: clear guidelines regarding circumstances under which such extreme steps such as Internet shutdowns are taken, and it must not become a norm.

We don’t want situations wherein the Internet is shut in a district to prevent students from cheating on exams, which happened in Gujarat, earlier in February this year.