The Cold Pashmina in a Long Blackout
The Cold Pashmina in a Long Blackout
A heritage gasps as longest internet shutdown strangles Kashmir’s handicraft industry
Naseer Ganai

A Kashmiri winter, a blanket of snow—the whiteness of the landscape reflects the bleak black-and-white starkness of the times for people like Owais Ahmad Baba, 30, a fourth-generation craftsman and owner of a shop selling fine, embroidered pashmina shawls in Srinagar’s old quarters. He opens it every morning and closes by 1pm. He has no choice. There’s civil disobedience against the revocation of Article 370 —that axe-slice on August 5 last year that chopped up Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories, yanked away its special status, and brought the longest internet shutdown in a democratic nation. Hardly any buyer shows up at his shop, and he can’t look for customers online because of the internet curfew. A desperate Owais prays and pleads: “I am ready to sign any bond with police and civil authorities in Kashmir if they restore the internet for me. I will use the internet for my business and business alone.”

Strangulation of our wired world— commonly known as internet shutdown—is a tool governments are using increasingly to maintain law and order, or nip volatile rumours (official alibi) on social media, or quell dissent (public opinion). With 4,196 hours of internet blackouts that cost more than Rs 1,000 crore in 2019, India is the third worst-hit and economically affected country after Iraq and Sudan, a study by UK-based tech research firm Top10Vpn reveals. The most affected states are Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Rajasthan and UP.

The lockdown has cost Kashmir more than Rs 10,000 crore since August. Sectors directly dependent on the internet such as e-commerce are the worsthit, but the beautiful shawls and pherans at Owais’s shop are taking a hit too. “These shawls cost anything between Rs 46,000 and Rs 1 lakh. But there are no customers for them,” he says, showing shawls stitched by his grandfather, Mohammad Yousuf Baba. “I would post designs of my shawls on Facebook and Instagram. I would get orders from different corners of Kashmir and outside, even Western countries and Bangladesh. That seems long ago,” he sighs.

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January 27, 2020