The internet has become an inseparable part of our daily lives, to the extent that our dependence on it goes largely unnoticed. Unsurprisingly, access to this cyber infrastructure is now taken for granted to the point that it is deemed a fundamental human right.
But what happens when a group of people is forced offline at a time when almost every aspect of life is managed by internet-based tools and systems? How does the absence of the internet reshape individual attitudes, social organisation and interaction, or reconfigure intimate interpersonal relationships?
The internet lockdown in the disputed Kashmir region of India is nearing six months. Kashmiri residents were cut off from the outside world after the Indian government on 5 August 2019 scrapped Article 370, which granted the state’s population autonomy and forbade non-Kashmiris from settling in the state and buying land. Aimed at allowing the Indian authorities to act with impunity by detaining those opposed to the removal of the legislation, the ongoing communications blackout – which includes mobile networks, the internet and landlines – turned this restive Himalayan valley into a virtual information black hole.
Despite harsh condemnation from interested international parties and rights organisations, restoration of the internet continues to remain a distant prospect. The Indian authorities have shown no urgency or concern about restoring internet access for Kashmiris, citing security reasons.
The impact of shutting down the internet on Kashmir’s economy, governance infrastructure and healthcare and educational intuitions, as well as the mental wellbeing of its residents, has been widely reported and debated, with international bodies and rights groups flagging the grave implications of this action. Many key services remain hard hit and the impact on the economy has been devastating. A report published in December by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that the months of shutdown and restrictions have cost the valley’s economy $2.4 billion (about R35 billion) and resulted in thousands of job losses.
Amid the legal and political melee, there has been little attention to how the absence of the internet affects interpersonal relationships, considering that technology now functions as a third element in these bonds. The nature of daily human interaction has been reshaped by video calls, chatting apps and social media platforms such as Facebook effectively mediating the exchange of intimate information and expressions of love, concern, affection and care. Given the scale of our dependence, it’s difficult to comprehend the impact of the internet being down for a prolonged period.
Those born before around 1990, who did not spend their formative years depending on digital technology for human interaction, would probably revert to older modes of communication and make use of letters, sending messages through people or telephones to stay in touch. But even that luxury has been denied Kashmiris, with the state authorities restricting public movement severely and locking down places for weeks in a move that has paralysed even essential services.
A childhood friend pursuing his higher education in Germany was gripped with anxiety for weeks following the internet shutdown in Kashmir. He kept reaching out, almost frantically, to ask how we could communicate with his family, particularly to get information about whether his brother with epilepsy was still able to get his chronic medication.
Another Indian friend whose estranged Kashmiri partner was in the state during this blackout period had to contact her ex-partner’s sibling based outside of the country, “risking all the embarrassment”, to ask about his wellbeing. She shared how, when he got back and they talked, they momentarily forgot their shared grief at separation.
For another friend, it was counting down the days till she could hear from her fiancé, regularly urging me to send some contact to his house to ask about him and his family.
Dating made difficult
A news report in Indian national daily The Telegraph captured the intimate moments of a teenage couple following the partial restoration of mobile connections in the valley in mid-October. When the lines were opened, the first call made by Faesal Ahmad, a college student from Capital Srinagar, was to his sweetheart, who lives in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district and would commute every day to a Srinagar college.
“Are you still mine?” he asked, voice quivering in trepidation and excitement at being able to speak to her for the first time. “Always yours,” came the reply, as Faesal later told the paper. He added: “Twice I went to meet her but returned disappointed, careful not to ruffle the feathers of her family or neighbours.”
In a traditionally conservative place like Kashmir, premarital relationships are still frowned upon and even though attitudes towards such relationships have eased over the years, couples avoid public sightings. The internet had thus played a significant role in romantic relationships in the valley, making it easier for couples to interact using smartphones rather than having to find comfortable public spaces such as parks or cafés, which also remained inaccessible in the wake of the political turmoil. Online dating platforms have reportedly also provided safe spaces for the valley’s LGBTQIA+ residents.
A senior Kashmiri government official presently on an educational sabbatical pursuing higher education in the United Kingdom told of how he felt like quitting his course midway through after not being able to see his wife and three young daughters. “I had my third child just four months before I moved to the UK and while I can talk to my wife, I terribly miss seeing my daughters,” he lamented.
“This distance and sense of constant anxiety about their wellbeing wouldn’t have been so palpable if I could see them through a video call. But life continues despite these adversities,” he said, adding: “And perhaps it is adversity that brings about the best of humanity.”
Another news report by VICE India detailed how the internet shutdown and restrictions on public movements wrecked relationships and marriages in the valley. For many couples, the report underlined, the lockdown means no calls, no WhatsApp messages and no exchange of romantic voice notes.
One resident told about how he swipes through dozens of pictures of his girlfriend, numerous times a day, to placate himself. When the memory becomes unbearable, he listens to her voice on recorded calls. “I haven’t been able to see her all this time because of the curfew … If I hear her voice this time, I will scream and break down.”
Marriage arrangements altered
“Due to prevailing situation in the valley the marriage ceremony of my son and daughter, which was scheduled on 17th and 18th of August 2019 is cancelled. However, Nikah ceremony will be held with simplicity. Inconvenience is deeply regretted.”
A local newspaper in Kashmir was filled with such announcements cancelling marriage functions following the lockdown. It was mainly through the classic ad spaces of the few running newspapers that the family members and relatives of would-be couples informed invited guests of the changes in wedding programmes. Couples who had made elaborate arrangements were either forced to reschedule or curtail their marriage programme. Instead, ceremonies were conducted in an austere manner with family members having to queue outside government offices to get curfew passes for the guests.
Tsolhama roshay, roshay, Walo myani, poshay madno
(You stole away with furtive gait… Come back to me, O’ lover of flowers, my sweetheart)
Duniya neendri te khwabas, Kus weni dedi tai babas, Walo myani pooshay madno
(The world is fast aslumber, Love, I yearn for a response from you… Come, O Come, my flowery Cupid)
These despairing lines by illustrious 16th-century Kashmiri poet Habba Khatoon, written for her husband, the exiled King of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak, encapsulate the yearning of today’s Kashmiri people for their loved ones, whether partners, family members, friends or freedom. Not only her poetry but also Khatoon’s life is a perfect illustration to explain contemporary Kashmir’s social and political cataclysm.
I shed incessant tears for you,
I am pining for you,
What is my fault, O, my love?
Why don’t you seek me out?
Why are you cross with me?
Known as the Nightingale of Kashmir, Habba Khatoon’s life was difficult. But she went on to become the queen of Kashmir after her marriage to the king. However, Yusuf Shah Chak was soon deposed by Mughal Emperor Akbar, who banished him to Bengal. He was never allowed to return to Kashmir. This separation broke Khatoon completely and she took up an ascetic life. All her poems were written in memory of her husband. She immortalised her pain and longing for her beloved through poetry and kept her husband alive through the songs she sang, many of which were about the sorrow of separation and have a lyrical quality.
As renowned Left scholar Tariq Ali writes in the book Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, Khatoon’s songs of pain and separation went on to become the songs of melancholy for women whose husbands or sons either suffered an enforced disappearance or were killed by the Indian army following the eruption of militancy in the late 1980s.
Khatoon’s pain of separation and yearning is similarly being experienced today by people forced apart in the real and virtual world. When the state denies access to critical technology like the internet, it is not just used as a tool of collective punishment but also as a weapon to disallow people to document, remember and maintain personal relationships.
In Kashmir, people often quip that the fight against oppression is a fight against forgetfulness, and while the internet shutdown may cause temporary strain in relationships and affect attitudes, the yearning for life shall always prevail.