Final Draft

Downloading Dissent, Uploading Identity


When Reliance Limited made its voice over LTE service publicly available in 2016, it took 333 million subscribers less than three years to transform Jio’s literal translation ‘live’ into their everyday lives. But the North-South division is a classic symbol of life that marks the disconnect in India. In Kerala, the High Court held that the right to have access to the internet is part of the fundamental right to education as well as the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution. In Kashmir, however, it is day 144. In this essay, I seek to briefly respond to internet shutdowns and its effects on Kashmiris.

History of internet shutdowns

Populist governance, as opposed to fascism, has a remarkable ability of adapting. The Arab Spring, in 2011, rose from the collective will forged on the internet. The consequences were for all to see. But for some of those who saw, the task was to nip this mobilization of citizens in the bud. So, technology which was supposed to make lives simpler, is currently a potent weapon in the hands of autocrats capable of subverting democracy. While it has the potential to bridge social cleavages, as of now, the key is with authoritarian forces. Inherent is their ability to deflect our attention from where it needs to be, refocusing our attention to distant victims which elicit mere sympathy instead of tackling the problems these powerful forces have created.

In doing so, autocrats articulate a framework comprehensible even to the least literate. This is the language of fear, designating groups of people as a single collective group which concurrently disintegrates the vague liberal ideas of universal humanity. The perpetration of falsehood, supported by constructed narratives, disseminated by emotional appeals on social media, works better than liberals’ articulation of crises. The Kashmiri blackout is emblematic of a larger syndrome which has gripped the world governed by such autocrats.

In August 2019, the Modi government in India, fundamentally changed India’s constitutional relationship with Kashmir and its people – all carried out in virtual darkness. Jammu and Kashmir’s chequered history with internet shutdowns dates back to 2012. Justified on the basis of law and order, between 2012 and 2019, 278 Internet shutdowns have been recorded. In 2016, mobile internet services were suspended for 133 days. And the current Kashmir internet shutdown which started on August 4, 2019 is effectively still in place. Software Freedom Law Centre, in its report published in 2018, demonstrates that out of the 278 internet shutdowns, 160 were observed to be preventive measures i.e. restrictions imposed in anticipation of law and order breakdowns, whereas 118 shutdowns were reactive in nature i.e. imposed in order to contain on-going law and order breakdowns.

Shutdowns work to create white holes, where the governments want the people to look, by simultaneously constructing black holes of information where they do not want attention. There is no benefit in creating such attention holes permanently, because of the rapid rate of information production, which constantly shifts focus from one spectacle to the next. Smart governments and businesses are constantly creating and destroying white holes and black holes. From managing expectations about jobs to creating new dystopic images about anti-nationals, every modern state is in the business of constant focusing and refocusing of citizens’ attentions

The Kashmir clampdown

Far from being a tool for political dissent, the Government of India solidified control over the Valley by arrogating to itself the power to maintain peace, law and order. It is not merely the control over the narrative, but the disassembly of the counter-narrative through propaganda. This formed the Gramscian structure of domination, where the civil society is conditioned to subscribe to the State’s rationale and perpetuate it by delegitimizing any dissidents. Data trails left by users offer a significant insight into their behavioral patterns, but the monopolization of power to invade the network services of a region goes far beyond passive interference to a type of networked authoritarianism.

The relationship between the central government and Jammu and Kashmir was radically altered on August 5, 2019. The annual Hindu pilgrimage to the holy site in Amarnath was cancelled, unprecedented military personnel were stationed at different locations, the political elites and influential leaders were detained and most critically, mobile network services were (still are) suspended. Later, in the same week, Home Minister Amit Shah tabled a resolution to delete the special status conferred to Jammu and Kashmir by revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, along with a range of unilateral measures that seceded the Kashmiri agency.

This pattern is not uncommon in India, which leads the world in temporary shutdowns of the internet. From local bureaucrats to Home Minister Amit Shah, government officials cite public security as a reason to suspend a channel that has become the routine mode of communication for most Indians. Since the medium is the message, the politics of free speech is the politics of the internet. The shutdown of WhatsApp? , however temporary, is how the government controls people’s minds. Moreover, the shutdown is temporary by design.

The idea of Kashmir now

For 144 days, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have been made invisible, not visually but communally. The absolutist powers of a State refashion law to simply a vehicle to erase identities. For most part, this identity is most powerfully expressed through the internet. But the remote control lies in the hands of those who control not just Kashmir, but the idea of Kashmiriness. In the internet age, attention is a scare resource. As Kasturirangan argues, the way to control minds is by controlling attention. The future of politics isn’t between left and right, but between predictors and explainers – where the former deploys the internet for a political advantage and the latter, for the advantage of politics. Liberal politics’ success is contingent on effectively explaining and countering the language of fear of the autocrats.

Till then, for us, everything has returned to normalcy in Kashmir. Or so they say.