US Report is Followed by Letter on Kashmir

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Senator Edward John Markey

In view of Coronavirus pandemic, valley needs free access to internet, Senator Markey tells State Department

EXCLUSIVE

Zafar Aafaq |Clarion India

NEW DELHI— A United States senator urged the State Department to press Indian government to lift restrictions on the Internet in Kashmir in view of the Coronavirus pandemic. High-speed Internet service has not been restored in Kashmir as the state is still under stringent lockdown imposed by the Centre on August 5, 2019 after revoking Article 370.

“Although video conferencing is helping people around the world cope with isolation during lockdowns, a lack of access to this technology puts further strain on the 1.8 million Kashmiris, or nearly half of all adults, who have some form of mental illness after decades of conflict,” Edward John Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a letter addressed to State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.

The letter was written on June 4, but released on Friday, hours after Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo released a US panel report that has raised concerns over religious freedom in India. Titled, “International Religious Freedom Report” for 2019, the US administration has given a detailed account of the protests and criticism against the Indian government’s decisions on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Article 370.

The report has been prepared by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission established in 1998 under the International Religious Freedom Act.

Senator Markey called on the State Department to “urge the governments in South Asia to reverse telecommunications restrictions and other policies that harm vulnerable populations, particularly as they face a pandemic”. Other than India, he talks of internet restrictions in parts of Pakistan and Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.

While acknowledging the partial ease of restrictions on internet services in Kashmir, Senator Markey, who is also an environment activist, says in his letter addressed to Thomas L Vajda, a senior bureau official, “remaining restrictions on high-speed internet are preventing doctors from accessing COVID-19 treatment guidance, hindering access to telemedicine, and impacting the efficacy of social media awareness campaigns about the virus.”

 

The internet and telephone services were blocked by authorities in Kashmir in August last year when Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took an unpopular but historical decision over Kashmir. It revoked the decades-old autonomy of the region and bifurcated it into two federally administered. To stymie any chance of public protests, the authorities enforced an unprecedented military lockdown for months.

Partial internet services on mobile phones were though resumed after a period of almost six months, high-speed internet services continued to remain blocked as local administration repeatedly issues ban orders citing “security concerns”.

These restrictions amidst a renewed lockdown over coronavirus  have affected the response to coronavirus as people including doctors have complained that they are unable to properly access the video content and updated information on Coronavirus.

Mental health experts say the violent conflict in Kashmir is leaving a large section of Kashmir population mentally traumatised. After last year’s decision and the subsequent lockdown, the experts warned of a huge spike in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) cases.

While urging the State Department to take up the issue of internet restriction with the Indian government, the senator stresses “that communications restrictions inflict harm not only on affected communities but also on India’s democracy and economy.”

A deserted street is seen through barbwire set up as a blockade during curfew in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Aug. 6, 2019.  (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Besides Kashmir, the senator also talks about the rise in anti-Muslim violence, human rights and press freedom concerns. He says the “failure to address” these issues seem to contradict the pluralistic and democratic principles of India.

“I urge the State Department to take steps to act on the recommendations related to India in the Annual Report of the USCIRF.”

Senator Markey made an appeal to his government to follow the “the report’s recommendations to strengthen engagement with communities affected by discrimination and to designate India as a country of particular concern for engaging in and tolerating religious freedom violations”.

Senator Markey has also raised the issue of lack of high-speed internet in the restive region of Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He says university students from the region are unable to access high-speed internet which is affecting their education. Despite a high court order, the 3G and 4G services continue to remain blocked in the region.

Markey  urges the State Department officials “to press your counterparts in Islamabad to follow through on the Prime Minister’s March 9, 2020 remarks, in which he directed his government to ensure that the areas in question gain 3G and 4G access.”

Rohingya refugee children wade through flood waters surrounding their families’ shelters following an intense pre-monsoon wind and rain storm in Shamlapur Makeshift Settlement, Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh on 20 May 2018.

Markey also talks about the restriction on the telecom services on Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar.

While appreciating Bangladesh government’s “generous willingness” to host Rohingya refugees fled the military oppression from their homes in Myanmar, the senator said, “Lack of access to mobile phones and internet is exacerbating the outbreak and hindering an adequate response.

“It is imperative for Bangladesh to allow the Rohingya community to legally acquire SIM cards and to enable access to 3G and 4G telecommunications and internet in the camps to support the delivery of lifesaving services,” he adds while urging the State Department to take up the issue with the government in Bangladesh.

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