Long queues for two-minute phone call to outside world

SRINAGAR • Outside a guarded government office in Indian Kashmir's main city, an interminable queue forms daily for a near-priceless opportunity: a two-minute phone call to the outside world.

Residents of Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley have been starved of phone and Internet use for a week as India imposes a military lockdown in the Himalayan region.

Only two mobile phones with an outside line are on offer in the deputy commissioner's office, but so desperate are people to contact families in the rest of India and overseas that they come from across Srinagar and beyond to wait in line. The office began offering its mobile service to the public last Thursday.

Under the watchful eye of Indian paramilitaries, the calls and conversations are tightly controlled, and simmering frustrations often boil over.

One 56-year-old woman, who had walked miles and was stopped at dozens of checkpoints along the way, became embroiled in an argument with security forces outside the office after she was turned away.

"They stopped me from entering because they don't have a female police officer to frisk me," said the dejected woman, who was hoping to call her two children studying abroad. In the end, she was left with no choice but to give her children's numbers to a stranger in the queue and plead with him to try and contact them.

India deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to back its move last week to strip Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not indicated how long the communications blackout and lockdown will last.

A crippling curfew has been eased ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival today, but there is still a massive security presence on the streets.

The government has issued a few hundred satellite phones to police and top bureaucrats, while dozens of other officials have mobile and landline numbers linked to a private network.

 

According to the Software Freedom Law Centre, a New Delhi monitoring group, there have been dozens of Internet shutdowns this year alone. But the current restrictions - affecting the mobile network, landlines and cable TV - are on a different scale.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'Long queues for two-minute phone call to outside world'. Print Edition | Subscribe