‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

In this photo taken on January 29, 2022, local newspapers are placed on a newsstand along a road in Srinagar. (AFP/File)
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Updated 29 September 2022

‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

  • India shut off the Internet at least 85 times last year in Indian-administered Kashmir, largely on security grounds
  • India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which Internet can be shut

SRINAGAR, India: For editors at The Kashmir Walla, fact-checking a story used to involve a flurry of googling before press time. So when an 18-month Internet and phone shutdown began in the Himalayan region in 2019, they had to improvise.

“We used to leave blank spaces in news stories when we couldn’t verify certain facts. Every week, a team member would fly to Delhi and fill in the blanks,” said Yash Raj Sharma, an editor with the weekly magazine.

It was one of numerous headaches for journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir. Unable to use his mobile, Sharma, 25, recalled driving to a telephone booth at Srinagar airport to dictate an 800-word news story to a friend in Delhi.

“That incident will remain with me forever as a memory of working during the longest communication and Internet shutdown,” said Sharma, who also used to call friends in Delhi to ask them to read out and respond to his emails.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug. 5, 2019 in a bid to fully integrate its only Muslim-majority region with the rest of the country.

Anticipating major unrest, authorities imposed a communications blackout, cutting off phone and Internet connections.

The shutdown lasted until Feb. 5, 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated in the region. Slow-speed Internet was restored a year earlier, but with limited access.

For older Kashmiris, it was a journey back in time to the pre-Internet days of their youth of letters and landlines.

For the young, it felt like “living in the stone age,” said Umer Maqbool, 25, who took out a bank loan to buy cameras and other equipment to set up a videography business in August 2019 — just as the shutdown began.

He got no bookings until the Internet was restored, and had to borrow from family and friends to make the loan payments.

“I had put all my hopes on the earnings from the business, but there was something else written in my destiny,” Maqbool, who supports a family-of-five, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RECORD SHUTDOWNS

India shut off the Internet at least 106 times last year — the highest number of shutdowns globally for the fourth consecutive year, according to digital rights group Access Now, costing the economy an estimated $600 million.

Of these outages, at least 85 were in Jammu and Kashmir, largely on security grounds.

Elsewhere in the country, authorities have also shut off the Internet and mobile Internet during elections, protests, religious festivals and examinations.

It is “extremely easy” to suspend the Internet in India, as federal and state officers can do so “without any prior judicial authorization,” said Krishnesh Bapat, an associate litigation counsel at the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation.

“The suspensions are justified as ‘strong decisions’ in response to protests or cheating in exams or other law and order issues ... despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence to suggest they lead to better law and order outcomes.”

India’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

LAWS FLOUTED

Internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated worldwide, lasting longer, harming people and the economy, and targeting vulnerable groups, according to Access Now, which recorded some 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, up from 159 shutdowns in 29 nations the previous year.

India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which the Internet can be shut.

And in 2020, the Supreme Court said that access to the Internet was a fundamental right, and that the indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Indian-administered Kashmir was illegal. It also said that all orders on Internet shutdowns must be made public.

Yet officials have continued to pull the plug — including in Indian-administered Kashmir — often without giving reasons, and the courts have rarely challenged the government, Bapat said.

“It is difficult to challenge the suspension of Internet services because by the time the aggrieved parties reach the courts, the Internet shutdown orders expire,” he said.

“But the legal challenges are needed because of the frequency with which the laws are flouted.”

In a significant shift earlier this year, the Calcutta high court struck down an order by the West Bengal state government suspending Internet services in several districts, aimed at stopping students from cheating in the exams.

In its judgment, the court said the order was “unreasoned” and did not show a public emergency.

FILL IN THE BLANKS

There have been more than 400 Internet outages in Kashmir over the past decade, and shutdowns have become more frequent in recent years, a tracker showed.

Kashmir has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the countries of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

The region is divided between India — which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city — and Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated area in the north.

During the 2019 shutdown, Kashmiris waited in long lines to make calls from phone lines in government offices, police stations and other public places, or boarded crowded trains to travel to towns with Internet access.

With Internet speed restricted to 2G during much of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people struggled to work from home, attend online classes or even access health care information online.

It cost Indian-administered Kashmir tens of thousands of jobs as small and medium-sized businesses closed, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and took a heavy toll on young Kashmiris like Maleeha Sofi, 22.

The Monday that the shutdown began, she had planned to go to a college in Srinagar to check on the admission process.

She eventually joined the college eight months later, and struggled with her classmates through the outages that made it difficult to do course work and prepare for exams.

“We have now become used to Internet shutdowns. We know it can happen anytime, so we have learned that we should never rely on the Internet, and learned to live without it,” she said.

But others have run out of patience with the disruption to their studies.

Insha, 22, moved to Delhi four years ago for college.

“I couldn’t stay in a place where the Internet can get disrupted anytime — for days and even months,” she said.

“I didn’t see a future in Kashmir.”


UN launches record $51.5bn emergency funding appeal

Updated 01 December 2022

UN launches record $51.5bn emergency funding appeal

  • United Nations: 339 million people worldwide will need some form of emergency assistance next year
  • UN aid chief Martin Griffiths: ‘next year is going to be the biggest humanitarian program’ the world has ever seen

GENEVA: The UN appealed for record funds for aid next year, as the Ukraine war and other conflicts, climate emergencies and the still-simmering pandemic push more people into crisis, and some toward famine.
The United Nations’ annual Global Humanitarian Overview estimated that 339 million people worldwide will need some form of emergency assistance next year — a staggering 65 million more people than the estimate a year ago.
“It’s a phenomenal number and it’s a depressing number,” UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told reporters in Geneva, adding that it meant “next year is going to be the biggest humanitarian program” the world has ever seen.
If all the people in need of emergency assistance were in one country, it would be the third-largest nation in the world, after China and India, he said.
And the new estimate means that one in 23 people will need help in 2023, compared to one in 95 back in 2015.
As the extreme events seen in 2022 spill into 2023, Griffiths described the humanitarian needs as “shockingly high.”
“Lethal droughts and floods are wreaking havoc in communities from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa,” he said, also pointing to the war in Ukraine, which “has turned a part of Europe into a battlefield.”
The annual appeal by UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations said that providing aid to the 230 million most vulnerable people across 68 countries would require a record $51.5 billion.
That was up from the $41 billion requested for 2022, although the sum has been revised up to around $50 billion during the year — with less than half of that sought-for amount funded.
“For people on the brink, this appeal is a lifeline,” Griffiths said.
The report presented a depressing picture of soaring needs brought on by a range of conflicts, worsening instability and a deepening climate crisis.
“There is no doubt that 2023 is going to perpetuate these on-steroids trends,” Griffiths warned.
The overlapping crises have already left the world dealing with the “largest global food crisis in modern history,” the UN warned.
It pointed out that at least 222 million people across 53 countries were expected to face acute food insecurity by the end of this year, with 45 million of them facing the risk of starvation.
“Five countries already are experiencing what we call famine-like conditions, in which we can confidently, unhappily, say that people are dying as a result,” Griffiths said.
Those countries — Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia and South Sudan — have seen portions of their populations face “catastrophic hunger” this year, but have not yet seen country-wide famines declared.
Forced displacement is meanwhile surging, with the number of people living as refugees, asylum seekers or displaced inside their own country passing 100 million — over one percent of the global population — for the first time this year.
“And all of this on top of the devastation left by the pandemic among the world’s poorest,” Griffiths said, also pointing to outbreaks of mpox, previously known as monkeypox, Ebola, cholera and other diseases.
Conflicts have taken a dire toll on a range of countries, not least on Ukraine, where Russia’s full-scale invasion in February has left millions in dire need.
The global humanitarian plan will aim to provide $1.7 billion in cash assistance to 6.3 million people inside the war-torn country, and also $5.7 billion to help the millions of Ukrainians and their host communities in surrounding countries.
More than 28 million people are meanwhile considered to be in need in drought-hit Afghanistan, which last year saw the Taliban sweep back into power, while another eight million Afghans and their hosts in the region also need assistance.
More than $5 billion has been requested to address that combined crisis, while further billions were requested to help the many millions of people impacted by the years-long conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
The appeal also highlighted the dire situation in Ethiopia, where worsening drought and a two-year-conflict in Tigray have left nearly 29 million people in desperate need of assistance.
Faced with such towering needs, Griffiths said he hoped 2023 would be a year of “solidarity, just as 2022 has been a year of suffering.”

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Ten killed in bombing of Afghan religious school — Taliban official

Updated 30 November 2022

Ten killed in bombing of Afghan religious school — Taliban official

  • No group has claimed responsibility, though Daesh has been waging violence in Afghanistan
  • Samangan province, where the incident took place, has a majority population of ethnic Uzbeks

ISLAMABAD: A bomb blast hit a religious school in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least 10 students, a Taliban official said.

The explosion went off at around the time of afternoon prayers at the Al Jihad Madrassa in Aybak, capital of Samangan province, a resident of the city who heard the explosion told The Associated Press. Most of the students at the school are young boys, said the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for his own safety.

Video distributed by the Taliban to the media showed the blast site, a hall littered with debris, mats and shoes, with dead bodies and bloodstains on the floor. Sirens can be heard in the background and men, some of them armed, move through the hall surveying the explosion’s aftermath.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor said a number of students were wounded in the attack. Samangan province has a majority population of ethnic Uzbeks.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Afghan affiliate of the Daesh group has been waging a campaign of violence that escalated since the Taliban took power in August 2021.

Daesh has carried out bombings targeting in particular Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslim minority but has also targeted Sunni mosques and madrassas, especially ones connected to the Taliban. The Taliban and the Daesh group both adhere to a hard-line ideology but are bitter rivals.


EU proposal would send proceeds of frozen Russian funds to Ukraine

Updated 30 November 2022

EU proposal would send proceeds of frozen Russian funds to Ukraine

  • Moscow says seizing its funds or those of its citizens amounts to theft
  • "Russia must ... pay financially for the devastation that it caused," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU's executive said

BRUSSELS: The European Commission proposed a plan on Wednesday to compensate Ukraine for damage from Russia’s invasion with proceeds from investing Russian funds frozen under sanctions.
Officials in the EU, United States and other Western countries have long debated whether Ukraine can benefit from frozen Russian assets, including around $300 billion of Russia’s central bank reserves and $20 billion held by blacklisted Russians.
Moscow says seizing its funds or those of its citizens amounts to theft.
“Russia must ... pay financially for the devastation that it caused,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive said in a statement.
“The damage suffered by Ukraine is estimated at 600 billion euros. Russia and its oligarchs have to compensate Ukraine for the damage and cover the costs for rebuilding the country.”
European Commission officials said that one short-term option for Western nations would be to create a fund to manage and invest liquid assets of the central bank, and use the proceeds to support Ukraine.
The assets would be returned to their owners when sanctions were lifted, which could be part of a peace agreement that ensured Ukraine received compensation for damages.
“It’s not easy so it will require strong backing from the international community but we believe it is doable,” one official said.
With regard to the frozen assets of private individuals and entities, seizing these is usually only legally possible where there is a criminal conviction.
The Commission has proposed that violations of sanctions could be classified as an offense that would allow confiscation.
Von der Leyen also said that the Commission was proposing the establishment of a specialized court, backed by the United Nations, “to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression.”
Moscow denies its invasion, which it calls a “special military operation,” constitutes aggression, a war crime under international law.


French authorities rescue 61 migrants including Pakistanis in English Channel

Updated 30 November 2022

French authorities rescue 61 migrants including Pakistanis in English Channel

  • This was one of the largest emergency operations in recent months 
  • Afghan, Indian, Iranian and Pakistani nationals were aboard the dinghy

BOULOGNE, France: French authorities rescued 61 migrants including small children in the English Channel on Tuesday in one of the largest emergency operations in recent months as calm seas drew a rush of migrants in small boats toward the coast of Britain.

Rescue workers in the port of Boulogne, where the migrants were brought ashore, said about 30 people had to be plucked out of the cold waters as they rushed to climb aboard a French rescue vessel from their rubber dinghy, which had been taking on water.

Officials said the rescue took place about one nautical mile inside British territorial waters.

Afghan, Indian, Iranian and Pakistani nationals were aboard the dinghy, which left the French coast in the small hours of the morning, the refugees said.

At the quayside, the migrants were handed fresh clothing and heat-retaining blankets by emergency workers.

French police earlier on Tuesday had stopped close to 50 migrants from trying to cross the Channel to Britain after mild weather and calm waters led a growing number of people to undertake the dangerous journey in recent days.

Guy Allemand, mayor of the small village of Sangatte near Calais, said some migrants had been forced by police to turn back, but that another 100 had made it to the open waters.

He told Reuters that migrant trafficking networks had recently changed their methods.

“They [traffickers] now arrive with ‘taxi boats’ and the refugees are being asked to run into the water to catch them ... rather than launching their own boats from the beach,” he said.

So far this year more than 40,000 people have crossed the Channel to Britain in small boats, up from 28,526 in 2021. Unusually mild November weather led to a hike in departures.

Earlier this month, Britain and France signed an agreement worth 72.2 million euros ($74.5 million) over the coming year to ramp up joint efforts to prevent illegal migrants making perilous journeys across the Channel.


Australian parliament censures former PM Morrison over secret ministries

Updated 30 November 2022

Australian parliament censures former PM Morrison over secret ministries

  • It marks the first time a former prime minister has been censured by parliament, though the motion is symbolic in nature

SYDNEY: Australia’s parliament on Wednesday voted to censure former Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison after an inquiry found his secret appointment to multiple ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic undermined trust in government.
Morrison, who lost power in a general election in May, secretly accumulated five ministerial roles during the pandemic: health, finance, treasury, resources and home affairs.
The historic motion, brought by the ruling Labor party, passed by 86 votes to 50 in the country’s lower house.
It marks the first time a former prime minister has been censured by parliament, though the motion is symbolic in nature.
“The fact is, that our democracy is precious,” Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said during the debate, speaking in favor of censuring Morrison.
“There’s no room for complacency.”
Morrison has said his decisions were lawful, and that the decision was necessary in case ministers became incapacitated during the pandemic.
“For those who wish to add their judgment today on my actions in supporting this censure motion, I simply suggest that they stop and consider the following: have you ever had to deal with a crisis where the outlook was completely unknown?,” Morrison said in parliament before the vote on Wednesday.
“In such circumstances, were you able to get all the decisions perfectly right?“
Morrison said he had only used the powers on one occasion, to block BPH Energy’s PEP-11 gas exploration project.
He accepted the recommendations of an inquiry into the appointment, including legislation requiring public notice of ministerial appointments.