I woke up this morning and, while still beneath the covers, reached for my phone. I checked mail, messages, WhatsApp, and Signal to see if anything had come in while I was asleep that would impact my day: someone I needed to meet, someplace I needed to be at. I then rapidly scrolled through my Twitter timeline to see if anything major had broken during the night.
I made myself a cup of coffee, came to my workdesk, fired up my laptop, and opened the ‘Morning News’ bookmarks folder, within which I collect the sites I need to check to get a broad overview of what’s happening in the world.
It’s my daily routine, and on the rare days when my internet provider stuffs up, or I am traveling in some remote area where the connection is splotchy, not being able to do any or all of this leaves me uncomfortable; I am aware of a nagging sense of unease.
Think for a moment about Kashmir, where all of those things I take for granted — the ability to check messages, to keep myself updated on happenings in my country and around the world, to check my bank balance and plan my finances, to work, to read for profit and for pleasure — have all been shut down since August 5 last year.
Executive Editor of Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin had approached the Supreme Court challenging the shut-down and seeking immediate lifting of the restrictions on communications. That was on August 10. It took the Supreme Court six months to hear the case — and when it did, it declared that the shut-down was “unconstitutional”. (The judgment is here for those interested).
So what would you expect the Supreme Court, the ultimate defender of the Constitution, to do in the case of an act it deems unconstitutional? Order that restrictions be lifted? What the court in effect did was tell the government, what you did was wrong, so you review it and do what you think is right.
Leaving it to the government to review its own unconstitutional act was never going to end well, was it? It didn’t.
I’m no lawyer (and if there is one thing I’ve learned in three-plus decades as a journalist, it is to not write about things I am not qualified to understand). But we now — if we are outside Kashmir, that is — have access to lawyers who are on social media; that access has meant that media houses are able to tap into them for informed commentary.
There is an abundance of such commentary on the net, accessible via a simple Google search. Here are just four that I think is worth reading to get a broad understanding:
- In this piece, constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia places the SC judgment of January 10 in context of the court’s actions (and inactions) in a previous case of suspension of basic human rights: the Emergency.
- Here, Bhatia points out that while the SC judgment does little in the way of providing immediate and total relief, it does lay the groundwork for future legal challenges against the Modi government’s indiscriminate use of the internet shutdown as a weapon to stifle dissent.
- Manu Sebastian in Live Law questions the SC’s failure to address the “emergency” nature of the case it was hearing, and argues that this failure is hugely problematic.
- Apar Gupta argues that when it came to choosing between human rights and the government of the day, the SC leaned towards the latter. It is, he says, a ‘statist interpretation’ of the law.
- Dushyant Dave notes the cautious optimism the SC judgment has led to, and says it is a sign that the rest of India has reconciled itself to the ‘othering’, the ‘orphaning’ of Kashmir. (A point I will come back to later, because that is what led me to write this post in the first place)
There is plenty more in the form of commentary, but the above stories suffice to provide a broad overview of the legal minuses — and a few slender silver linings — of the judgment. But what of the aftermath?
The GoI has partially restored broadband and 2G services in J&K. And you can access 153 websites that the government has “whitelisted”. There are other provisions, restrictions, but focus on just these for now and ask yourself — how does this comply with the SC judgment?
But that is precisely the point: the government’s gameplan is to do as little as possible in seeming compliance, then wait for a legal challenge to emerge. (And given the tardiness of the SC in hearing the original complaint, it is a fair assumption that between them, the GoI and the SC can continue to run out the clock).
There is another clause the GoI has inserted into this partial restoration of the internet: ISPs have been ordered to build firewalls to ensure that the people of Kashmir have no access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms.
“There are fears that locals will log on to these social media platforms and upload videos recorded in the past five months, posing threat to the current calm in Kashmir,” a senior police officer told The Hindu. “Besides, Pakistan may also use the social media to coordinate with militants.”
The GoI “fears” that the people of Kashmir might go on social media to upload videographic evidence of what happened in the state during the six-month blackout. So what is it precisely that the GoI fears? That stories such as this — dismissed thus far as coming from “vested interests” — will now come out into the open? That the full extent of the damage — both economic and social — will begin to come out? That the human rights abuses will now get a public airing?
While going through an Evernote folder last night, I came across this story I had saved, of the lengths to which Kashmiris have had to go to access basic communications facilities. And I just went back and checked the list of the 153 websites the government has permitted Kashmiris to access.
If I was in Kashmir now, I’d be totally hamstrung. I can’t access WhatsApp, or Twitter, or any other social media sites — which is the first thing I do every morning. And not a single one of a little over four dozen websites I check each morning for the news appears in that list.
In a piece this morning in The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan makes the larger point:
Make no mistakes: This firewall is an augury of what the future holds for us all if the Modi-Shah approach to fundamental rights is allowed to prevail. For the first time since the Emergency, the government is arrogating to itself the right to tell citizens what they can and cannot read. Indeed, Modi has gone step beyond Indira Gandhi. She ‘only’ had her censors black out select news items and opinions. Our Dear Leader, on the other hand, has decided that digital news of any kind is to be blacked out from Kashmir.
How are we still silent? How did we remain silent about this gross, continuing injustice all these six months? Why was this egregious and continuing violation of our basic rights not important enough for us to take to the streets en masse? How did we slip into this mindset of thinking of Kashmir as being somehow not a part of India, of thinking that its concerns do not concern us? How did we become okay with what Dushyant, in the piece linked to earlier in this post, called the “orphaning” of Kashmir?
When I began blogging again recently, after a prolonged interval, I had started my first post with a quote from MLK Jr’s seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. I’ll leave you with that same quote, because the thought MLK expressed is, I think, central to our today’s and tomorrows.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.