With no phones or internet, Kashmiris struggle to reach families

BANGKOK/ NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With no phones and internet for 10 days, Indians are using their feet, cars and planes to move essential supplies into Kashmir as it deals with a communications blackout on a scale rarely seen in today’s world.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Himalayan Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug. 5 and moved to quell widespread unrest by shutting down communications and clamping down on freedom of movement.

“Most of us have not spoken to our relatives there in 10 days,” said Faiq Faizan in Delhi, adding that people in Kashmir are trekking and waiting for hours to make calls from a few phone lines in government offices and police stations.

“My grandmother, who is over 70 years old, was finally able to call a relative to say she was ok ... We are sending messages, food and medicines through people who are going there, like in the old days.”

India eased restrictions in Jammu but said on Tuesday a clampdown on communication in the Kashmir valley would remain in place to restore order.

Security has been heightened for Pakistan’s Independence Day on Wednesday followed by India’s on Thursday.

Police have used tear gas to fight back thousands of protesters in Srinagar, the main city in Kashmir where militants have been fighting Indian rule for nearly three decades.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has long campaigned to end Kashmir’s special privileges, which it sees as appeasing Muslims and hindering development, and to fully absorb the Himalayan region into India.

The latest spike in tensions, though, has been particularly disruptive for Kashmir residents because nearly all contact with the outside world, including postal services, has been severed.

Kashmiri businessman Syed Nazakat posted photographs of smashed windows in Srinagar on Twitter on Wednesday, as he flew back from a visit to check on his parents.

“I haven’t been able to contact them since the lockdown started,” he tweeted from the airport at the start of his trip.

The shutdown has brought Kashmir’s economy to a halt, with farmers, herders, small businesses and daily wage laborers worst-hit, said Kavita Krishnan, a civil society activist who returned from a five-day visit to Kashmir on Tuesday.

“People can’t go to the next village freely, let alone to a hospital far away,” Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Those who can afford to take a flight to go somewhere can do so. But what about others, who have no means of even letting their families know if they are safe or not?”

It is the 51st internet blackout in Kashmir this year, according to tracker, which has recorded 75 disruptions in India this year, compared to 134 in all of 2018.

Despite a United Nations declaration in 2016 that the internet is a human right, shutdowns have risen in recent years as governments from the Philippines to Yemen said they were necessary for public safety and national security.

There were 196 blackouts last year in 25 countries - with India topping the list - compared to 106 in 2017 and 75 the year before, according to internet advocacy group Access Now, which called them “an inherently disproportionate response.”

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran in Bangkok and Annie Banerji in New Delhi. Editing by Katy Migiro and Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit