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Kashmir's Internet Shutdown Continues


Kashmir Valley is locked off from the world in many ways. It's home to about 7 million people, mostly Muslim. And for the last four months, India has blocked Internet service in the province, the longest Internet shutdown in a democracy. Kashmiris are traveling outside the valley to wait hours at cafes and other spots where there might be a connection to get online. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce says their economy has lost more than a billion dollars since August.

We spoke to Suvir Kaul at the beginning of the shutdown. He was having trouble reaching his family in Kashmir. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor, thanks for being back with us.

SUVIR KAUL: I'm very glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And any word from your family?

KAUL: My sister and my aunts and uncles - two sets - are in their 80s, so a cousin of mine actually went and pulled them out of there not long after the Internet shutdown happened because it's not simply a problem of communicating with them; it's a problem of their having access to doctors or hospitals. And everything is - certainly was then in shambles. It's marginally better now, but there are still the acute problems of a society and a people whose technology base is now dependent on the Internet and, all of a sudden, the Internet is taken away from you.

SIMON: The Indian government says the shutdown is necessary to maintain security. I wonder how you assess that.

KAUL: You know, I was willing to grant them that for four days, five days, two weeks. But now it seems to be a decision to punish Kashmiris en masse. Nowhere else in any democracy does a government decide that they're going to take away the fundamental right to communicate from an entire people. And there hasn't been a great deal of violence on the ground, so there is, in fact, no legitimate public order reason for the government to, in fact, continue this blockade. But they are doing it, and I don't understand why, except to think this is a way of telling the Kashmiri people at large, we can do this to you. We will, if you don't fall into line.

SIMON: Of course, I have to ask you about the controversial new citizenship bill that's been introduced by the ruling government. It excludes Muslim refugees...

KAUL: Yes.

SIMON: ...From coming into India. Protests of one kind or another have been held all over the country. I wonder if you see the situation in Kashmir and the shutdown of the Internet there as part of an overall policy from the Modi government that includes this citizenship bill.

KAUL: I'll just offer a minor amendment to what you are describing, which is that, for instance, Hindu refugees from Sri Lanka are not part of this bill, too. Of course, for the most part, it is directed not simply against any Muslim refugee who happens to come into India, but against the large mass of Muslims in India. And it is designed to make them feel as if they are second-rate citizens in their own country. This is very much part of the Modi and RSS game plan.

SIMON: RSS is the Hindu supremacist party.

KAUL: Yes, it is a Hindu majoritarian party devoted to the idea of India as being the land of Hindus [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION below]. And since we began this conversation by thinking about Internet blockades, let me tell you that when there were many protests in significant sectors of Delhi, the police shut off the Internet that is available to people on their mobile phones. A whole state in the northeast had been without Internet for the last five or six days, perhaps a week, so much so that the Guwahati (ph) - that's the state capital - the high court there has said to the government they need to turn this on. And so this has now become the government's de facto response to all public protests.

SIMON: And maybe we ought to throw in, Professor, you are Hindu.

KAUL: I am, indeed.

SIMON: But you don't share Prime Minister Modi's vision of what that means in India right now.

KAUL: What can I say, Scott? That is anathema to me. I believe in the possibility of a composite democratic future. That is the future that is being denied to us by a Hindu majoritarian party. I will remind you, as you know very well, that there is a template in the world for fascists being elected through parliamentary democracy, and I'm afraid I have no qualms about saying that the Narendra Modi government is functioning today as a fascist government.

SIMON: Suvir Kaul at the University of Pennsylvania, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAUL: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier version of this interview indicated the RSS, or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is a political party. In fact, it is a volunteer, umbrella group that advocates for a more Hindu India. Many members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are members of the RSS.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.