NEW DELHI - Nearly six months after India imposed a communications blackout in Indian Kashmir, internet services were partially restored on Saturday, but the region’s seven million residents will still have no access to social media.
The move came two weeks after the Supreme Court ordered the government to review the ban ruling that its indefinite shutdown was illegal and calling freedom of internet access a fundamental right.
The shutdown of the internet in Kashmir was part of strict curbs imposed in August when India scrapped the semi-autonomous status of its only Muslim-majority region. While phone services were restored after about two months, Kashmir continued to remain offline, severely disrupting daily life and business activities in the region.
Digital rights groups have called the outage the longest ever in a democracy.
Kashmiris will be able to access about 300 websites approved by the government associated mostly with banking, education, news, travel, entertainment, utilities and employment.
However authorities said that social media applications allowing peer-to-peer communication would still remain offline.
Several news websites and those of political parties also remain blocked and internet speeds will be low. Authorities said the decision to restore the internet will be reviewed at the end of the month “
Any easing of restrictions will be welcome but it is too little after a long time,” Political Science Professor at Kashmir University, Noor Ahmad Baba told VOA. “There is lot of resentment in Kashmir because all these months people have suffered a lot. You cannot compensate that loss people have undergone in economy, even in psychological terms.”
Businessmen said the lack of access to the net had caused losses of over $1 billion, ordinary people struggled to pay utility bills, make banking transactions or just send a message to family members living outside, while job applicants had to travel outside the region to access the net.
Hundreds used to take a two-hour train journey from the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, to the nearest town where the net was available.
The government had justified the months-long ban saying it was imposed to prevent violence in a region that has been wracked by a separatist insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the last three decades.
The restoration of internet services was welcomed by the United States. “I was pleased to see some incremental steps, including the partial return of internet service in Kashmir,” Alice Wells, the U.S. State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, told reporters in Washington on Friday after authorities in India announced that they would restore the net.
She also urged New Delhi to release political leaders detained without charge in Kashmir and to grant American diplomats regular access to the restive region.
Among the political leaders detained by India in the wake of the harsh crackdown imposed in August are three former chief ministers of the state.
While many curbs have been eased, analyst Baba pointed out that the detention of local politicians has severely hampered political activity in the region.
Earlier this month India had taken a group of diplomats based in New Delhi, including the American ambassador to Kashmir, in a bid to showcase that normalcy is returning to the region.