The Day They Turned the Internet Off
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it's always good to have a better Plan B.
By Yashraj Sharma
I was in a rented accommodation in downtown Srinagar, ceiling fan limping overhead, when I got a call from a colleague saying that all lines of communication might shut down anytime. In a whatever-will-follow moment, we decided to huddle up.
You see, in Kashmir last August, everyone had heard the rumors: “Something big was about to happen.” The government’s denial? Intensified the panic.
And then, at about 11:45 pm, the internet facilities … snapped. I got on my phone as quickly as I could then and called my girlfriend and told her to take care before the phone line snapped off too. Kashmir was muted. I was alone.
After brief moments of freedom, I’d walk back into the blackout, feeling … humiliated.
Almost two hours later, while the city slept, a photojournalist friend found his way to my place and together we started walking toward The Kashmir Walla office where I work as an assistant editor.
“Be aware. They will shoot us upon suspicion and no one will know — ever,” my colleague said.
The government was making sure that nothing about this clampdown could get out of the Kashmir Valley. But at the office, to our surprise, the leased internet line was working. So we surfed through the internet, tweeted, published an editorial, and tried to rest.
The next morning, Kashmir was locked down. Razor-sharp barricades. And no voice, or any other information attempting to pass through, was getting through. Our internet at the office had finally been killed too.
At 11:45 am, outside the office, a group had gathered around a tea shop, which was hidden inside a lane, to listen to what All India Radio, the only means of information consumption other than satellite television, had to say. The state of Jammu and Kashmir had been stripped of its semi-autonomy and downgraded into a federally governed territory by the Indian Parliament.
Soon, hospitals were cut off, patients were waiting at checkpoints with slips of paper in hand. Civilians were begging military forces to allow them to go to homes just a few feet from barricades. ATMs were out of cash, and filling stations had gone dry.
“If telling a story is so important, try at forces’ door,” frustrated colleagues would joke about getting close to government forces buildings. “Either you would disappear or you might get a communication channel.”
Being born and brought up in the information age, I had no idea how to work without the internet. At the capital’s biggest maternity hospital, I met a woman who was from a far-flung village in north Kashmir. She had given birth to a baby girl and couldn’t call her home for help — or to report it. I didn’t even know how far her village was from Srinagar. And had no way to figure it out.
For the next 36 hours, we collected a pile of reports — asking people things and coloring a profile of Kashmir under lockdown — but with no means to disseminate it. Then, an idea: If we could make it to the airport, we might have a chance.
A few other journalists and I hid thumb drives and pieces of paper with messages and phone numbers in our pockets as we crossed several barricades, from shrinking streets to the highly guarded airport — posing as passengers. We bought a ticket and had a person board the flight. Every word sent out was important; every anecdote mattered.
We hoped the passenger might reach Delhi and tell the world about what was happening in Kashmir. And it worked. Another passenger flying in two days later told us. We had speared the internet blackout — if it was a war between the government and us, we had proven ourselves to be the steel.
We stood a chance.
The days passed. Maybe more than a week. The government, facing international pressure, set up an MFC, or what they called a Media Facilitation Center. We called it a Let’s-Fuck-the-Media Center.
It was under surveillance, we were sure. So, no one would log in to their emails. People with two-step verifications were the unluckiest as there was no way to recover the emails. If you wanted to restore your emails you had to fly out of the valley.
But we couldn’t. Flights were expensive and forces had come to know how stories were getting out. I typed my ID, stopped for a moment and thought it through. Then I gave my password. It was the only connection I had to the world.
There were hundreds of journalists. A few wrote on desktops. I typed on my laptop, and pasted the document into the email body and then a thumb drive before logging out. We reported and repeated the drill every day.
After brief moments of freedom, I’d walk back into the blackout, feeling … humiliated. It was as if I were a prisoner, in a place where Big Brother saw and heard everything.
As I wrote to editors offshore, asking if they’d want a story around mass detentions in Kashmir, a dozen journalists would stand at my back, staring at the screen, waiting for me to leave.
“How long can my country do this to Kashmir?”
I was watching New Delhi snatch the voice of Kashmir. And I felt like every word I wrote and managed to get out would somehow dilute the guilt I felt being an Indian in Kashmir.
I counted days. Of the blackout: 25, 26, 27 … 100.
Life slowly started limping back on track. Printing The Kashmir Walla was tough and after everything, we didn’t know if we would be printing another. New Delhi had made us feel intimidated and we lived an issue at a time and published a quarter of what we would on any other normal day. But we reported on the clampdown’s spillover to let the world know what was happening in Kashmir behind the blackout.
Today Kashmir, after having endured the longest internet blackout any democracy had ever seen — 175 days — is back online (albeit on a government restored 2G internet that’s limited to 300 specific websites). However, on the nights of Aug. 4 and 5 of 2019, the Hindu-nationalist government in New Delhi snapped its fingers and, afterward, 8 million lives disappeared from the internet. Mine was one of them.
- Yashraj Sharma, OZY AuthorContact Yashraj Sharma