Mobile telephony has always faced a wall in Jammu and Kashmir. Till 2003, security agencies expressed reservations over extending cellular services to the state.
Twelve years down the line, unknown militants cite almost the same reason, that security agencies are using mobiles as a counter-insurgency tool, and call for its shutdown, using violent methods.
In recent days, two civilians – one working for a cellular company and another hosting a tower – have died and three more injured in multiple attacks on mobile telephony infrastructure in North Kashmir and Srinagar.
The decision of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on the pursuance of chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and against the grain of security agencies, to introduce mobile services went a long way in making Jammu and Kashmir a part of the global village, deeply entrenched in the aspirations offered by the virtual world.
The government, private offices, universities and business set-ups – all have shifted completely to internet and mobile services for upward mobility. It has become a lifeline and its crippling will only send people to the Stone Age. Cell phones, SMS messages and internet services are modern day oxygen for the Kashmir Valley.
From filling a job application to college admission to checking the background of prospective grooms and connecting with friends, cellular services are a panacea for many things. They have spiked business prospects for people like never before in the trouble-torn region.
The forays by cellular companies into Jammu and Kashmir have significantly contributed in addressing employment problems. The thousands of crores of rupees invested in the communication systems have resulted in employment for hundreds of engineers, customer executives, sales managers and retailers and reached out to roadside vendors as a means to earn a livelihood.
On the flip side, the internet, fast turning into a political battleground, has always remained and will remain a double-edged sword.
In 2010, the internet turned into a major galvaniser for separatists and their supporters to express anger against the Indian government. The "I Protest" display pictures on Facebook and high-pitched protests online forced the state to impose a "curfew" on the internet.
Restrictions on cellular services were a regular feature till two years on Republic Day and Independence Day. Customary parades across the Kashmir Valley would only happen when switches of cell phone towers would go off and remain so till late afternoon.
Kashmir trending against India on Twitter always remained an eyesore for the mainstream political class, while security agencies feared the radicalisation of youth online, describing it as a breeding ground of militant recruiters.
The authorities also put in place tedious processes to ensure that cell phone connections did not fall into the wrong hands. People face layers of verification and reams of paperwork to get a cell phone SIM.
A blanket ban was imposed on post-paid services because of apprehensions among security agencies about large-scale purchase of connections by militants. SMSes remained banned for years together due to fears of militants coordinating attacks through them, only to be lifted a year ago.
But despite repeated bans on cellular services, particularly post-paid connections, militancy showed no signs of ebbing. It still continues to choose the target and the time of attack.
In 2010, the internet turned into a major galvaniser for separatists and their supporters to express anger against the Indian government. (Waseem Andrabi/HT File Photo)
The simple Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card also became the Achilles’ heel for militants. The successful exercise of planting SIM cards into militant ranks and easy-to-access militant conversations online gave an upper hand to security agencies in handling militancy. It reached a point where security agencies decided the date and time at ease to neutralise militants.
Militants talking on phones for hours together became sitting ducks for security agencies. Girlfriends and SIM cards literally became the last nails in the coffin of militants. The internet provided deep access to the world of militants and their supporters in Jammu and Kashmir.
The investment in communication systems by security agencies saw the wiping out of Lashkar-e-Taiba in northern Sopore, once their stronghold. The online war and telephone games continue between militants and security forces, with each finding ways to bypass the other.
However, the common man on the street in Jammu and Kashmir sees a voice in the internet, a space to express his sentiments and grievances. The internet is a space to collectively celebrate the first snowfall in the Kashmir Valley or collectively mourn those who die in the ongoing violence.
The common man finds an affordable mode of communication in cell phones to connect with near and dear ones, to find out about their well-being after every report of an attack or exchange of fire between militants and security forces.
While the militants may make a comeback by crippling communications and the security agencies look at it as a war game, the common man has to bear the cost of the ongoing political turmoil. The cost for the common man this time again could be dearer – having to compromise on a necessity of life again.
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Militants target mobile tower in heart of Srinagar, one injured
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @peerashiq)