Our dependence on the Internet as a way to build, strengthen, and maintain personal relationships has grown along with global advances in digital technologies. A prolonged Internet blackout has taken a heavy toll on residents of India’s disputed Kashmir region, showing how the sudden absence of connectivity affects the dynamics of personal relationships. With authoritarian regimes blocking access to the Internet more often, it is time to ensure unhindered Internet access under international law.
The Internet has become an inseparable part of our daily lives, to the extent that our dependence on it goes largely unnoticed. Access to this cyber infrastructure is almost deemed a fundamental right. But what happens when a community is forced offline at a time when almost every aspect of life is managed by internet-based tools? How does the absence of the internet reshape individual attitudes, social interaction, or reconfigure intimate personal relationships?
For months, residents of the Indian-controlled Kashmir region were cut off from the outside world after the Indian government on 5 August 2019 scrapped Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which until then had granted this state’s population a certain degree of autonomy. The communications blackout turned this Himalayan valley into a virtual information black hole.
The impact of the Internet clampdown on Kashmir’s economy, governance, healthcare system and educational institutions, as well as on the mental wellbeing of its people, were widely reported. In addition, a report by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that the months of shutdown cost the valley’s economy $2.4 billion and resulted in thousands of job losses.
Amidst this, little attention has been paid to how the absence of the Internet affects personal relationships, considering that technology now functions as a third element in these bonds. The nature of daily human interaction has been reshaped by video calls, chatting apps and social media platforms, effectively mediating the exchange of intimate information and expressions of love, concern, and care.
Anxiety and distress
A childhood friend pursuing his higher education in Germany was gripped with anxiety for weeks following the internet shutdown in Kashmir. He kept reaching out, almost frantically, to ask how we could communicate with his family, particularly to get information about whether his brother with epilepsy was still able to get his chronic medication.
Another Indian friend whose estranged Kashmiri partner was in the state during this blackout period had to contact her ex-partner’s sibling based outside of the country, “risking all the embarrassment”, to ask about his wellbeing. For another acquaintance, it was counting down the days until she could hear from her fiancé, regularly urging me to send some someone in person to his house to ask about him and his family.
A news report in Indian national daily The Telegraph captured the intimate moments of a teenage couple following the partial restoration of mobile connections in mid-October last year. When the lines were opened, the first call made by Faesal Ahmad, a college student, was to his sweetheart. “Are you still mine?” he asked, voice quivering in excitement at being able to speak to her for the first time in months. “Always yours,” came the reply, as Faesal later told the paper.
Away from the public gaze
In a traditionally conservative place like Kashmir, premarital relationships are still frowned upon and even though attitudes towards such relationships have eased over the years, couples avoid being seen together in public. The internet thus played a significant role in romantic relationships in the valley, making it easier for couples to interact using smartphones rather than having to find comfortable public spaces such as parks or cafés, which also remained inaccessible in the wake of the political turmoil. Online dating platforms have reportedly also provided safe spaces for the valley’s LGBTQIA+ residents.
Another news report by VICE India detailed how the internet shutdown and restrictions on public movements wrecked relationships and marriages in the valley. For many couples, the report underlined, the lockdown meant no calls, no WhatsApp messages, and no exchange of romantic voice notes.
Days after the restrictions were imposed, local newspapers in Kashmir were filled with announcements cancelling marriage functions that usually span several days. Couples who had made elaborate arrangements were either forced to reschedule or curtail their marriage programme. Instead, ceremonies were conducted in an austere manner with family members having to queue outside government offices to get curfew passes for guests.
Given the scale of our digital dependence, it’s difficult to truly comprehend the impact of the Internet being down for a prolonged period. Authoritarian regimes are now regularly shutting down the Internet to curb dissent, and as such, this undemocratic exercise must be made illegal under international law.
This is a shortened version of an article originally published by New Frame.
About the author:
Haris Zargar is a PhD researcher looking at links between land reforms, social movements and armed insurgencies in Indian-controlled Kashmir. He has been a journalist for the past nine years, writing on the intersection of politics, conflict and human security. He worked as a political correspondent based in New Delhi with leading Indian new outlets including The Press Trust of India and The Mint. He holds degrees in Journalism and Development Studies from the University of Kashmir, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.