A Land With No Shadow

5-03

(Se)curing the City

September 19, 2019

There once was a land so utterly beautiful that everyone who lived near it wanted to call it their own. Nestled in the foothills of the largest mountains in the world, this lake-spotted land was once a kingdom amongst kingdoms. But as the kingdoms around it dissolved into larger territorial swathes, the time had come for this land to join one of its neighbours. But it was coveted too deeply, utterly beautiful as it was, and so its people and landscape were split in to two halves that would never see each other again. In exchange for its acquiescence, this ruptured land was given special freedoms on either side of the newly carved border—its own constitution, flag, and the semblance of autonomy. Never were its people asked what they wanted.

Many decades after these violent incisions were made, the benevolent ruler of the larger territory decided one evening that the land would be better off without the burden of its freedoms. It had been cut off for too long from the rest of the territory, which had made Great Leaps in the intervening years. The land must be liberated, the benevolent leader cried, opened up for the rest to buy property and enjoy its splendours, for great cinema to be filmed on its snow-capped peaks and lotus-filled lakes, for those who fled the violence of the partition to return to their homeland!

These events occurred during a strange time on the planet when every place existed in two simultaneous dimensions: the warm crust of the earth and the glistening surface of the digital universe. These realms of being had become increasingly intertwined, neither able to exist without the other. The leaders of the physical world relied on the land of data to survey its territory and keep track of its people. And in case of troubles in the physical realm, the people could use the internet to coordinate, to whistle-blow, to broadcast. Cities effectively had digital twins, built with the bricks of personal messages, emails, user reviews, and billions of photographs that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere. Information that once existed on earth now lived here, more nimble and with a wider audience. Cut the connection, and darkness falls suddenly on both planes of existence.

The people of the land were surprised by the announcement of the benevolent leader. They hadn’t seen it coming. To implement his desired change in the beautiful land, he announced, a rebirth was required, a temporary return to the womb. And so he sent his benevolent troops to keep the people at home, ordering the immediate halt of all information flowing in and out of the land. The internet went down and phones failed to function. The lifeblood of contemporary society trickled to a dead stop.
With no digital tether to the rest of the world, the information trapped in the land began to bubble to the surface. People moved in great swells, only to be tamed by the troops. Rebirth must be peaceful, said the leader, ordering tear gas and pellets to maintain decorum. The Holy Day of the people of the land passed in this manner; cities transformed in to ghost towns on what was usually the busiest time of the year. No one could share their photographs of the occupied streets, the maimed people, the vicious security. Days passed in this state, then months. The rest of the world watched as the land’s digital twin flickered, unable to reflect the state of its physical counterpart.

The benevolent ruler believed that the heartbeat of the land and its people could be slowed to a fatal rate without the lines of connection to its virtual presence. One cannot live without the other, he thought. The land’s voice was quietened, replaced by false information spread from the political centre. Dissidents could be jailed without official tallies, uncertainty could be propagated and weaponized. A conspicuous hole in the internet was made, growing bigger each day.

Arundhati Roy’s recent article on the revocation of Article 370 is titled “Silence is the Loudest Sound.” The silence she refers to is the stringent security controls imposed by the thousands of troops deployed to Kashmir. This silence also pertains to the communications blackout that is still largely in place since the announcement was made on August 5th. But it also refers to the general lack of criticism from domestic media outlets, who are either working with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party currently in power) or threatened by them. Finally, it points to an alarming apathy found in the majority of the Indian populace, the conspicuous absence of public protest against an alarming breach of both constitutional powers and human rights. The world looks on in horror, while in India, Google searches for Kashmir might soon only result in film stills and real estate ads.

When a government can so quickly crack or manipulate the black mirror we depend on today, we realise the fragility of this new facet of urbanity. Since coming to power in 2014, Narendra Modi has allowed the internet to become a destructive tool through which lies are spread and lynch mobs are incited. This fanatic, digital landscape is reflected in cities and villages across the country, where Muslims are beaten to death for refusing to repeat “Jai Shri Ram,” a Hindu chant, and the Gau Rakshak, a group of vigilante cow protectors, routinely attack those they suspect of possessing or selling beef.

On September 5, 2019, one month after the occupation of Kashmir began, landline phones in the region were reconnected. But none of the calls would go through. People outside the state still have not been able to speak to their families trapped in Srinagar or Jammu. Kashmiris can now reportedly leave their houses in the daytime but must navigate an obstacle course of army checkpoints. Sporadic protests continue, only to be met with a violent response.

In an age of endless streams of information, the sudden halt of any flow commands global attention. The people of Kashmir have been silenced, but they are not quiet. That we cannot see them in our topography of screens does not mean that they have disappeared. It only means that we should allot them a greater digital presence, amplify their messages, and, when their broadband connections eventually return, be prepared to listen. The child of the world’s ugliest geopolitical divorce must be given what it is due, and finally asked what it wants.