Prepaid phone ban stirs anger in Indian Kashmir

AP News
Posted: Nov 13, 2009 1:26 PM

A government ban on prepaid cell phones to prevent rebels from using them to clandestinely plan attacks has stirred resentment among Indian-controlled Kashmir's impoverished residents, who depend on prepaid connections for inexpensive communication.

The move has led to angry protests amid warnings it put thousands of jobs at risk and jeopardized peace efforts in the disputed territory between the Indian government and Muslim separatists.

Authorities believe rebels use fake documents to obtain the phone cards to evade detection and detonate bombs. The Indian government announced last month that no new cards would be issued beginning Nov. 1.

"We have to reconcile the security of the country and the interest of service providers and whatever decision is in the interest of the country will be taken," Home Minister P. Chidambaram said last week during a visit to Jammu-Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state.

Communications have long been a sensitive subject in Kashmir, which is split between nuclear-rivals India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting for independence from Hindu-majority India or a merger with mostly Muslim Pakistan since 1989. More than 68,000 people have died.

India banned the Internet and international calls in Kashmir for a year after a string of attacks it blamed on militants supported by Pakistan. That was lifted in 2002. Cell phones were first allowed in the territory in 2003.

The telecommunication industry quickly filled the vacuum, with giant companies like Airtel Bharti, Tata Indicom and Vodafone as well as the state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. opening more than 50,000 retail outlets across the region. Independent phone repair shops followed suit.

Basheer Ahmed Dar, the chairman of the regional telephone owners association, said 20,000 jobs were in jeopardy.

Last week, hundreds of activists from the pro-India People's Democratic Party demonstrated against the decision in Srinagar, accusing the government of discrimination. Members of trade organizations took to the streets this week.

"Our party will launch a movement against the retrograde steps like the banning of mobile phones, which have added to the feeling of siege among the people," said Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the pro-India People's Democratic Party.

The top administrator in Kashmir blamed service providers for inadequate identity checks and said the government was unfairly targeting the territory.

"The general population should not suffer," Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told reporters this week. "I have always held this view that Jammu and Kashmir should not be treated separately in such cases as this is not the only state that is facing violence."

There are 3 million prepaid card subscriptions in the region, according to the Home Ministry. The cheaper cards are highly popular among young people who yearn to communicate with their peers _ and also among their parents who have used them to keep tabs on children in the violence-wracked region.

"I use my prepaid cell phone just to check on my two sons while they're at work. This ban has caused enormous anger and worry," said Mohammed Yousuf, 68.

Prepaid cards generally cost 100 Indian rupees ($2) as opposed to long-term subscriptions, which cost 100 rupees per month in addition to call time charges. Regular accounts also require a 500 rupee deposit.

The government has said it will review the ban once security concerns are addressed, but that did not quell the dismay.

"Ever since this ban I've done no business. All my time is spent on explaining and arguing the ban with my clients," said Arif Joo, the owner of a prepaid recharge and collection center.