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 worst-hit, 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.
Owais can take heart from the Supreme Court’s recent direction to the Jammu and Kashmir government to review all restrictive orders, saying freedom to use the internet should be seen as part of the fundamental rights as per Article 19 (1) (a) and the right to practice one’s profession is protected under Article 19 (1) (g). The top court said indefinite suspension of services is impermissible. A United Nations declaration in 2016 says the internet is a human right but the government, for its part, calls communication cuts necessary for public safety and national security. Home minister Amit Shah said in Rajya Sabha the curbs will be lifted at an appropriate time. He didn’t say when.
Some distance from Owais’s shop, Pervaiz Ahmad Bhat, president of Artisan Rehabitation Forum, sits alone in his office in a commercial complex. Almost all shops sell handicrafts, shawls and carpets. They are closed. Bhat says gifted skilled hands have been rendered jobless. “Handicraft is a delicate work. Artisans work on looms, do embroidery at home and all of them are dependent on a constant supply of material and work orders. What happened due to the lockdown and communication blockade is that artisans had no contact with suppliers and they couldn’t complete their work,” he says. In areas like Sumbal, Sonwari, Bandipora, jobless artisans are offering themselves for hard, menial labour like that of a porter. “The artisans spent their lives in this delicate work. These people are not meant for daily, hard labour,” Bhat says.
According to the directorate of handicrafts in Kashmir, there are nearly 2.5 lakh artisans directly dependent on the trade for their livelihood; with earnings of around Rs 1,700 crore as foreign exchange every year. Bhat says the number of artisans is far higher than what the handicrafts department says. In the Valley, almost 65 per cent of households are connected with handicrafts.
Handicraft dealers were looking for a promising year before August 5 happened. They had given work orders and were expecting a neat turnover during the New Year and Christmas holidays. Most orders lie cancelled now. In Delhi, Mumbai and other metropolitan cities, export houses send Kashmiri carpets, shawls and other handicraft items to Western countries and West Asia. The business is dependent heavily on the internet. Bhat says this vital communication between Kashmiri traders and export houses has been snapped. The losses for the craftspeople, 50 per cent of them are women, runs into crores. And counting. “The internet was their shop. It was their business. The internet ended their business,” Bhat says.
Online startup Phambbtush, started by an MTech student last year, had picked up quickly. “Most of the Western countries love handicraft products of Kashmir. Through Phambbtush I started focussing on a Western cleintele. We got good response and then there was this communication blockade. And it ended the venture and my interest in doing business in Kashmir,” says the owner who doesn’t want to be identified. “I am back to my studies. Here also, without internet access, I face difficulties. Don’t talk about my lost business, even life without internet is a dark hole,” he says.
Such stories are dime a dozen. Several Kashmiri girls had started online startups to promote their traditional outfits without enlisting them with the handicrafts department. Suddenly Kashmiri pherans became a must-have for a wide range of people across the world. The orders came pouring for designer pherans in aari, tella and zari work. This was last year, until August. “We will sell our products online and get our money through net banking. We promoted our products on social media. It has become difficult to do business now,” says a woman entrepreneur.
Sheikh Ashiq, president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), says business with the world outside the Valley is gone. “No one knows if there will be a customer for his unsold stock.” The handicraft industry is an unorganised sector and job losses are huge after August 5, he says and his pain pours out: “It is not a business alone. It has historical context. It started in the fourteenth century. It is our cultural heritage and a large population in Kashmir is associated with shawl-making and other crafts.” Dr A.M. Mir, vice president of KCCI, agrees. “We would send designs and proposals to dealers through WhatsApp”, but WhatsApp accounts of most Kashmiris got deleted on December 5 as they were inactive on the app for the past four months.
In Srinagar’s old neighbourhood, Owais sits alone in his shop. Ruminates. Last October, he had sold around 89 pieces of handcrafts, including pherans and shawls. “This month I didn’t sell any. I want to cry ,” he says with a deep sigh.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar