Losing connection with Kashmir

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Would a blanket ban on prepaid mobile phones in any other state of India be acceptable?
Harinder Baweja

Illustration: Anand Naorem

FIRST THINGS first – the powerful government of India and its agencies do not sewem to consider Kashmiris as their own citizens. Too strong a statement, some would say, but here are some choice examples of insensitivity: a Kashmiri model incarcerated for months before being let off for lack of evidence, the Services team refusing to go to Srinagar to play a match and now, 39 lakh innocent Kashmiris — Indians, we keep repeating — without mobile connectivity, only because Home Minister P Chidambaram has decided that pre-paid SIM cards are a security risk.
This is not the first time communications in the Valley have been curtailed. For some years now, phone lines between Kashmir and Pakistan have been jammed and families divided by the Line of Control for no fault of theirs have no means of talking with each other. Every now and then, when troops are being moved in and out of the Valley, Internet connectivity is frozen. But this summary ban of pre-paid connections has literally left Kashmiris speechless. Consider the timing too — the ban was imposed immediately after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi returned from the state where the Prime Minister offered a dialogue for peace. That they also inaugurated a railway line between Qazigund and Anantnag for better connectivity is irony that has not escaped the Kashmiris and Kashmiri youth, the constituency that the Prime Minister tried to reach out to.
Sensitivity and compassion apart, the Home Ministry’s order lacks common logic – supposedly, the standards of proof of identity required for pre-paid connections are not stringent enough. How come all the babus in North Block could come up with no plan to strengthen these standards short of a blanket ban? And if post-paid numbers can be monitored, why does the same principle not apply across the board?
The problem is that we are either a wimp state or a plain paranoid one Either way, it shows us up as an unthinking lot. Some years ago, when the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad was still on the table, the Home and External Affairs ministries were concerned that terrorists would be its main passengers. Perhaps Ajmal Kasab and his nine accomplices could have saved themselves the trouble of going through marine training – if they had bothered merely to purchase a bus timetable.

The SIM cards used in the 26/11 attacks were procured not from Srinagar, but from Delhi and Kolkata

If Manmohan Singh’s recent trip to the Valley was aimed at addressing the deep-seated alienation that every Kashmiri feels, his advisors should be letting him know that the Home Ministry’s move has touched a raw nerve. If mobile connectivity is important to each one of us — no matter which part of the country we live in — it is of that much more importance in Kashmir. In all the years of the insurgency, when cellular phone towers had not scaled the Valley, men would not leave home without tucking a scrap of paper with their address on it into their pockets. Unsure of returning home safely, they carried those pieces of paper with them so that if they were killed, at least their bodies could reach home. In today’s smothering atmosphere of insecurity that still surrounds Kashmiri families, the mobile phone has replaced that piece of paper. But this is not something that will strike the bureaucrats occupying the corridors or power. For them – Kashmir remains a piece of prime real estate; the crown on India’s head; an unalienable part that has to be kept at any cost.
Surely Chidambaram knows that the 10 terrorists of 26/11 carried Indian SIM cards that they activated as soon as they reached Mumbai. Those cards had not been procured from Srinagar but from Delhi and Kolkata. Does the solution lie in banning mobile connectivity for 39 lakh people or in improving intelligence? The answer is a no brainer.