Ahead of US President Donald Trump’s first visit to India, four US Senators – Republicans and Democrats- have asked the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for an assessment of the situation in Jammu & Kashmir, including the Indian government’s restrictions on internet and cellular services, following the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year.

This letter has been sent just prior to the US President Trump’s scheduled visit India on February 24th and 25th, and the expectation of a trade deal being announced between the two countries. The US has recently suspended trade India’s preferential trade status dating back to the 1970s, after PM Modi capped prices of medical devices, and introduced new data localisation requirements and e-commerce restrictions. Being Trump’s first official visit since he took office, India is making all efforts to rebuild ties with the US, and has offered to partially open up its poultry and dairy market for a limited trade deal during Trump’s visit.

The letter to Pompeo ask for an assessment of restrictions in J&K, and impact of CAA and usage of force against protestors

In a letter to Pompeo dated February 12, Senators Chris Van Hollen (Democrat), Tedd Young (Republican), Richard J. Durbin (Democrat), and Lindsey O. Graham (Republican) said that PM Modi government “continues to block most internet” in Jammu & Kashmir after unilaterally revoking its autonomy over six months ago. “India has now imposed the longest-ever internet shut down by a democracy, disrupting access to medical care, business, and education for seven million people,” the letter reads. Apart from the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s autonomy, the Indian government has also taken “other troubling steps”, such as passing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), “that threaten the rights of certain religious minorities and secular character of the state”, the letter says.

The senators have asked Pompeo for an assessment of the following within 1 month:

  1. The number of people detained by the Indian government for political purposes due to the abrogation of Article 370, and an assessment “to the extent practicable” of whether the detainees face torture or other forms of mistreatment
  2. The Indian government’s restrictions on communications in the region, including access to internet and cellular services
  3. Level of access the Indian government grants to the region to independent observers, foreign diplomats and consular agents, foreign journalists, international organisations, and NGO representatives
  4. Restrictions on religious freedom in Jammu & Kashmir

Crucially, the fifth and final demand mentions an assessment of the number of people who will lose citizenship or face expulsion and/or detention because of the government’s proposed National Registrar of Citizens. The letter also asks for an assessment of any excessive force used against anti-CAA protestors.

The number of individuals — including the number of religious, ethnic, and other minorities — at the risk of statelessness, arbitrary deprivation or denial of nationality, expulsion of arbitrary detention pursuant to the Government of India’s latest National Registrar of Citizens list and any excessive use of force by Indian authorities against demonstrators opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Status of internet access in J&K

Following the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, the Indian government placed Jammu & Kashmir under a complete communications blackout and suspended major political leaders. Apart from imposing the longest internet shutdown in the world, India also imposed the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world: it imposed 106 shutdowns in 2019, 134 shutdowns in 2018, and 79 shutdowns in 2017.

The communications blackout in Jammu & Kashmir continued until the Supreme Court ordered a review of the internet blackout, in response to a petition by Kashmiri journalist and editor Anuradha Bhasin. The Indian government finally did restore limited access — it restored 2G internet to only 301 whitelisted websites on January 27. The government whitelisted another 180 websites to the whitelist on February 7, so a total of 481 websites are now accessible.

Access to social media platforms, including WhatsApp, remains prohibited, and telecom companies have to verify prepaid SIM users — in line with norms applicable for post paid mobile connections —  before allowing them to access the whitelisted websites. An analysis found that even the 301 blacklisted websites are not practically useful, and only 126 of them are usable to some degree.