Panic grips Kashmir after internet crackdown

A girl weeps during the funeral of Raja Umar Maqbool Bhat, a suspected militant, who was killed in a gunbattle with Indian soldiers, in Lurgam village in south Kashmir’s Tral town. (Reuters)
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Updated 20 February 2020

Panic grips Kashmir after internet crackdown

  • Authorities use UAPA charges against those ‘misusing’ social media

NEW DELHI: When Yahia Mir steps outside of his home in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir, he is careful to leave his smartphone behind. 

The 23-year-old journalism student from Kashmir University explained that he does so because he is scared of security forces discovering the Virtual Private Network (VPN) installed on his mobile phone.

Recently, Mir (not his real name) said, a friend of his was assaulted by officials who found a VPN on his phone.

“Everyone in the valley uses a VPN to connect with the outside world,” Mir told Arab News on Wednesday. “Tell me, how do you expect life to be normal when there is no internet?” 

The disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir has been under curfew following New Delhi’s annulment of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution — which guaranteed special autonomy to Kashmir, parts of which are governed in part by both India and Pakistan, but all of which is claimed by both countries to belong to them.

Since the Indian government annulled Article 370, there has been a crackdown on mobile and Internet services in the valley which, to date, have only been partially restored.

To get around the internet ban many in the valley turned to proxy networks, which allow users to anonymously connect with a third-person server outside of Kashmir.

On Tuesday, in a renewed crackdown, the Indian government filed charges against people “misusing” social media.

Local police in Srinagar registered cases against various unnamed individuals under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a draconian law that means anyone charged cannot seek bail for six months.

Police said that action would be taken against those who misused social-media sites to propagate “secessionist ideology and (promote) unlawful activities.”

“There have been continuous reports of misuse of social media sites by the miscreants to propagate secessionist ideology and to promote unlawful activities,” Jammu and Kashmir police said in a statement released on Tuesday, which went on to say that the “miscreants” were “propagating rumors with regard to the current security scenario of the Kashmir valley … and glorifying terror acts/ terrorists. 

“A lot of incriminating material has also been seized in this regard.” A First Information Report (FIR) has been registered against the “miscreants.”

Mir told Arab News that this is “the government’s new way to terrorize the people of Kashmir.”

Legal professional Deeba Ashraf said the crackdown feels “as if we are living in the 19th century.”

She told Arab News: “My profession demands that I remain updated about recent cases and case laws. How is that possible without the internet?” She added that “even security personnel” in the valley are using VPNs.

“I have lost trust in the government and I don’t see which way Kashmir is going,” she continued. “The government’s crackdown scares everyone. But I wonder does the government have any policy for Kashmir besides lockdown?”

Computer engineer Muddasir (not his real name) agreed.

“Most of the people who needed the Internet for their professional survival have left the valley,” he said. “I am also thinking of leaving Srinagar to escape the prison that we are in. The sense of fear is so strong. Imagine: Security forces are checking your phone and trying to see what apps are on (it). Is this normal?”

Iltiza Mufti, daughter of the detained former Chief Minister of Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti, strongly condemned the government’s measures.

“The rest of the country — and the envoys who visited Kashmir — were told that we enjoy equal rights, but in reality you can’t even use VPN in Kashmir. What rights do Kashmiris have right now?” she asked in a press conference in Delhi on Tuesday.

“The clampdown in Kashmir (is taking a huge toll) and Jammu and Kashmir is grappling with an economic, psychological and emotional crisis,” added Mufti, who has become the face of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) after her mother’s arrest last year.

Srinagar-based political analyst and writer, Gowhar Geelani, told Arab News: “This is an official admission by the Indian government of thought control of the entire population of Kashmir. This is a war against the people of Kashmir. The arrest of the three former chief ministers of the state and the detention of other political activists show that, in Kashmir, the only opinion that matters is the opinion of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”

Geelani added that there are “darker days ahead and not much hope.”


Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

Updated 08 July 2020

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

  • Devastated family mourn latest victim of health system struggling to cope with outbreak

NEW DELHI: The death of an expectant mom and her unborn child after 13 hospitals in one day refused to treat her has put India’s strained health care system under the spotlight.

The devastated husband and 6-year-old child of eight-month pregnant Neelam Singh, 30, are still struggling to come to terms with the “unwarranted loss” a month after her agonizing death in an ambulance outside a hospital in New Delhi.

With more than 100,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the Indian capital, Singh became another victim of a health system battling to cope with patient demand due to a lack of bed space and infrastructure.

That, however, has been little comfort for her family members who said they would never be able to overcome the trauma.

“Those 12 hours were the most traumatic experience of our lives, and we have to live with that trauma,” Shailendra Kumar, Singh’s brother-in-law, told Arab News on Tuesday. Singh had developed complications with her pregnancy on June 5, and Kumar said she was rushed to the same hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh where she had been going for regular checkups, but was turned away.

“Shivalik (hospital) gave no reason for refusing to admit her. Despite our pleadings, the hospital did not budge from its stand,” Kumar added.

A day-long ordeal ensued, with one hospital after the other unable to treat her. Eventually, she died in an ambulance some 35 kilometers away from her home in Khoda.

“I took her to 13 hospitals, both government and private facilities, and every one refused to admit her. The image of her writhing in pain will always haunt me,” said Kumar, who was accompanied by Singh’s husband. He added that the reasons provided varied from “high costs” to a lack of facilities.

“One hospital told me that I could not pay the high cost so better try my luck somewhere else. At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida, I was asked to buy a coupon for COVID-19 treatment for 4,500 rupees ($60), which I did, but still, they refused her entry. It was not the loss of one life but two lives,” he said, referring to her unborn child.

He pointed out that the entire family was in a state of shock following her death with her husband “the worst impacted.”

Kumar filed a complaint against Shivalik and other hospitals but said so far “no action has been taken.”

A day after Singh’s death, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, which Noida falls under, ordered an inquiry and issued instructions for all hospitals “to admit patients regardless of the nature of the case.”

However, 20 days later, on June 26, a similar incident was reported in the Dadri area of Noida.

On that occasion, 21-year-old Robin Bhati had developed a fever, and relatives had taken him to a nearby hospital where a week earlier he had been admitted suffering from influenza. However, the hospital refused to admit him and referred him to a different facility.

Five hours and four hospitals later, a city hospital agreed to take him in, but by then Bhati was already seriously ill and hours later he died after suffering a heart attack.

“We don’t know whether he was a COVID-19 patient or not, but why should hospitals refuse to admit a patient in need of immediate attention,” his uncle Jasveer Bhati told Arab News. A number of the Noida hospitals which allegedly denied admission to Singh and Bhati refused to comment on the cases.

In a statement on Monday, the office of Noida’s chief medical officer said: “Strict instructions have been given to all the private and government hospitals to admit all patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Dr. Loveleen Mangla, a pulmonologist working with Noida-based Metro Hospital and Heart Institute, said: “The government did not prepare itself to face this situation. Now the government is trying to create extra beds and medical facilities, but it’s late. They should have done this three months ago when the nationwide lockdown started.

“With the entire medical infrastructure overstretched and not many quality health workers available in the government hospitals, it’s a grim scenario now,” Mangla added.

With more than 723,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, India is now the world’s third worst-affected country after the US and Brazil, with approaching 21,000 people losing their lives.

And the problem is not unique to northern India.

On Saturday, the southern Indian city of Bangalore reported the case of 50-year-old Vasantha, who was rejected by 13 hospitals before she was accepted by the K.C. General Hospital where she eventually died.

Lalitha, a relative of Vasantha, said: “Some hospitals said they didn’t have beds; some said they didn’t have COVID-19 testing facilities, and that way we lost critical hours. She died because of a problem with her respiratory system.”

Experts have questioned whether health care facilities in India are being overstretched purely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a Delhi-based independent researcher in global health, policy and bioethics, said: “Is there a real shortage of beds or is it the shortage caused by lack of efficient management? If the cases increase further, we might find it difficult to provide care.”