Kashmir's 5-month internet blackout is the longest ever imposed in a democracy - and it's stifling local workers
- The Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir has been on lockdown since August - making it the longest lockdown to ever take place in a democratic state.
- India has imposed curfews and internet blackouts across the region, stifling local business like the saffron and apple trades.
- India's supreme court has since ruled the indefinite internet blackout unlawful, and ordered the government to review the restrictions.
- Business Insider Weekly visited Kashmir to learn how a government lockdown is affecting local farmers and traders.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
PAMPORE, Kashmir - Ashiq Rashid's family has been farming saffron for more than 80 years - since before their homeland, Kashmir, was a disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
"We've been farming saffron for generations - from my great-grandfather, grandfather, my father. Now it's me. I'm farming," Rashid told Business Insider Weekly.About 7% of the world's saffron is harvested in the Indian-controlled union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, making India one of the top exporters since it gained control of part of the region in 1947. Advertisement
But saffron farmers like Rashid have struggled ever since India's government has put Kashmir on lockdown, imposing an internet blackout and region-wide curfews as well as stepping up its military presence. It's been more than five months since the lockdown begain in August, making it the longest ever imposed in a democratic state.
This year, life in Indian-administered Kashmir became even more unbearable.On August 5, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of India's constitution, ending decades of semi-autonomous rule for the Muslim-majority Kashmir.The Indian government sent in 38,000 extra troops to smother any signs of dissent, critics say. Modi also imposed a curfew, blocked roads, and shut off most forms of communication, including the internet.Advertisement
India's supreme court ruled on Friday that the indefinite internet shutdown is unlawful, ordering the government to review the restrictions on the region. Additionally, the court ordered India's government to make public its orders on internet shutdowns, which the government deploys often. India has experienced 353 internet shutdowns since 2016.
The lockdown has enraged Kashmiris, and stifled businesses that rely on the internet."Many farmers, many product sellers in Kashmir used to sell their products on online websites like Amazon, Flipkart and other online websites," Sajad Rafeeq, a former saffron farmer, told Business Insider Weekly. "So when there's, you know, any kind of shutdown or when there's, you know, conflict and the communication is not good, so all of the industry gets affected."Advertisement
Recently, the Indian government has slowly begun restoring communications. Cellphone service returned in October, and on the first day of 2020, internet access was granted to government schools and hospitals, albeit with heavy restrictions. Most residents are still living without it.
Experts are already noticing early consequences of the lockdown."The Kashmiris have always felt that they have a distinctive identity, especially the Muslims in the Valley and that had actually been written into the constitution," Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University, told Business Insider Weekly. "Now they feel that that special status, which had been eroded over time, has now been completely abrogated."Advertisement
Turmoil in the region dates back to more than 70 years ago.
Turmoil in Kashmir started more than 70 years ago, when India and Pakistan gained their independence from the British in 1947. The dispute over who controlled the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir gave rise to three wars and other armed conflicts over the region.To this day, India blames Pakistan for stirring the unrest by backing separatist militants - a charge its neighbor denies.Advertisement
At least 4,000 people have died in violent clashes in Kashmir over the past decade or so - including 1000 Indian security forces, according to a nonprofit based in the city of Srinagar.Still, in the past five months, it's gotten even harder to sustain commerce at every level.In October, unidentified gunmen set fire to three apple trucks in Indian Kashmir's Shopian district, killing two drivers and stoking more fear. Advertisement
Apple farming is the pillar of the region's economy, employing half of the population, about 3.5 million people. In fact, 70% of India's apples came from Kashmir last year, contributing $1.5 billion to the Indian economy.
But now, Kashmiri fruit traders like Maqbool Hussain say they're having trouble getting their produce to market."If nobody comes to buy apples from outside, then how will Kashmiri apples sell?" Hussain said. "We can't find anyone to work in the markets. Almonds are spoiling. Walnut sales have gone down by 60%."Advertisement
The fallout can be felt hundreds of miles away in neighboring Ladakh.
The fallout from the conflict can also be felt hundreds of miles away from the violence, in the serene mountains of Ladakh, a neighboring region that's also administered by India. There, herders like Karma Takgol still gather raw wool from Tibetan goats the way they have since the 15th century."Old people say that the villages with the coldest weather have the best pashmina," Takgol told Business Insider Weekly.Advertisement
India officially split Ladakh from the rest of Jammu and Kashmir in October, creating a separate territory that is mostly Buddhist. The army maintains the only road connecting Ladakh to the rest of India.
But no matter where the government draws its lines around Kashmir, what happens across the mountains can still be felt in the birthplace of the material that carries its name - cashmere - known locally as pashmina.As traditional industries have suffered because of the conflict, the Indian government has at times tried to support the local economy. Advertisement
A federal agency offered to buy up Kashmir's apple crop in October, but farmers said the rates were too low and many didn't take up the offer. The country's leaders also devised a plan a decade ago to help saffron growers combat drought, with a $57 million proposal to irrigate the land.But several farmers, including Gulam Rasool Bhat, told us the scheme has failed."The government promised proper irrigation. Funds were sanctioned and infrastructure built, but no actual assistance was provided," Bhat said. "They even charged us 5,000 rupees per acre for providing irrigation - still nothing was done."Advertisement
Now, Kashmiris say the Indian government's help cannot make up for the way that the heavy military presence, internet blackout, and curfews have upended the economy. Saffron farmers like Rashid said that "because of the conflict here, the curfew here, our ambitions remain unfulfilled."
"Younger people feel angry that I want to increase the productivity of my land," he said. "We hope our desires will be fulfilled but the conflict and curfew here don't allow us to prosper."
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