India to Ease Restrictions in Kashmir After Protests, and Economy, Slow

An Indian soldier kept watch during the official celebration of India’s independence day in Srinagar,Kashmir on Thursday. Photo: Faisal Khan/Zuma Press

NEW DELHI—India’s government said it would begin to relax communications and other restrictions in the disputed northern state of Jammu and Kashmir after initiating the curbs last week in a bid to prevent unrest.

New Delhi on Aug. 5 triggered a political uproar when it unveiled a presidential order to revoke the Muslim-majority state’s autonomy under the constitution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which has roots in Hindu nationalism, pushed through the order with allied and other parties.

Nearly all communications links to the area have been blocked, including the internet and mobile and land-based telephone lines, while curfew-like conditions and numerous checkpoints have hampered citizens’ movements.

“We are taking measures to ease the restrictions in a gradual, calibrated manner” over the next few days, BVR Subrahmanyam, chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, said at a news conference Friday.

He said schools will be opened after the weekend, government offices are now functional, and that telecom connectivity, “which has been a point of some concern,” will be restored in phases. It is unclear which areas of the state will see which restrictions lifted, and when.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed India on the 73rd Independence Day from the historic Red Fort in New Delhi Thursday. Photo: Partha Sarkar/Zuma Press

The blockade on the flow of people, products and information to and from the area may have helped the government tamp down potential panic and protests, but it has also hobbled the state’s economy.

New Delhi strictly rationed information in the region in hopes of stopping rumors and antigovernment sentiment from spreading. That seems to have worked. There have been limited protests so far, according to what local and international media have been able to report.

But the physical blockade of the region has slowed the flow of goods and people to a trickle in its largest city, Srinagar. Many businesses in the region have been largely unable to function without the internet.

Governments around the world sometimes shut off social-media services like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to stem the flow of information amid riots and terrorist attacks. People have still managed to access them by using virtual private networks, or VPNs, which reroute traffic so authorities can’t tell where they are logging on from.

India’s shutdown is more drastic because the region’s internet backbone, the very infrastructure that allows people to access the web, has been cut, according to Alp Toker, the director of NetBlocks, a London-based organization that tracks online censorship.

“This is among the most severe forms of telecommunication restriction that we track, because it can’t be worked around,” he said.

When the party of Mr. Modi announced last week that the special autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir would be abolished, it was quick to emphasize that the move would help its economy.

Ending the state’s special status—under which outsiders couldn’t buy land or hold many government positions—would open the floodgates of investment and talent from across India and accelerate growth, according to the ruling party.

To prove its point, India is already planning a Jammu and Kashmir investment summit in a month, Navin Kumar Choudhary, principal secretary for the state’s industry and commerce department, said Wednesday.

“We are confident that things would be 100% conducive to host the conference from a security point of view,” by the time the event starts in Srinagar on Oct. 12, he said.

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and chairman of one of its biggest conglomerates, Reliance Industries Ltd. , this week promised to unveil big plans for Kashmir.

“You will see a lot of announcements on Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh and our developmental initiatives in the coming months,” he said at a shareholders meeting on Monday.

Despite New Delhi’s assurance that the state would benefit from closer ties to the rest of the country, Jammu and Kashmir by most measures already does better economically than most of India.

It attracts very little foreign direct investment, but its poverty rates are half the national average while its infant-mortality rates are lower and average life expectancy higher.

For now its businesses are suffering, cut off even more than usual from the rest of India.

In the long run, more investment could come to the state, which accounts for less than 2% of India’s gross domestic product, but it is hard to back New Delhi’s claim that shutting the state down is a good thing for the economy right now, said Shilan Shah, the Singapore-based senior India economist at Capital Economics.

“It is a political move rather than an economic one,” he said. “If you have a shutdown on activity then that is obviously going to weigh on economic growth.”

Write to Eric Bellman at [email protected] and Newley Purnell at [email protected]

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