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Prepaid phone ban stays despite pleas

Jammu and Kashmir residents dismiss security fears as a valid reason for withdrawal of the facility, pointing out no other insurgency-hit area has seen similar action.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // The Indian government has refused to revoke a two-month-old blanket ban on prepaid mobile services in the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir, citing security reasons, and leaving retailers and 3.8 million mobile phone users in the region fuming.

The ban, which became effective on November 1, was introduced to combat separatist militants who have used prepaid mobile Sim cards to organise their activities and detonate explosives. But critics say it has disrupted communications for mobile phone users, cost jobs and affected the local economy. Some also believe that religious discrimination is at play in the Indian-ruled, Muslim-majority region.

The decision was challenged in the Supreme Court by Bhim Singh, a regional leader of the opposition National Panthers Party, who called it "authoritarian and arbitrary". On Friday, however, India's solicitor general, Gopal Subramanium, told a bench of the Supreme Court in New Delhi that the ban could not be revoked as it was made for "security reasons". Mr Subramanium brought an 11-page affidavit on behalf of the department of telecommunications explaining the grounds for banning the prepaid services. It said the decision was necessitated by the "national interest" under the provisions of Unified Access Service and Cellular Mobile Telecom Service licences "as the terrorists and those linked to them were misusing the facility".

The bench, comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice B S Chauhan, asked the petitioner to file the reply and set the next hearing for January 25. Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars since independence from Britain in 1947 over it. The Indian-administered area of Kashmir has been in the grip of insurgency since 1989-90, when its Muslim youth took up arms to fight New Delhi's rule.

Many in this part of Kashmir see the ban on prepaid services as a deliberate attempt to hinder local development and deprive Muslim Kashmiris of the benefits of India's telecom revolution. The ban has not only created inconveniences for about 3.8 million users but has left more than 55,000 retailers, many of whom were running recharge kiosks, unemployed. "I don't know how many of them will have to go," said Irfan Reza Ansari, the chief executive officer of Access Infrastructure & Telecommunication, pointing to hundreds of young men and women working at his call centre in Srinagar. "I can't summon up the courage to tell them they are going to lose their living."

Out of the 4.3 million phone connections, 3.8m connections are prepaid and service providers estimate a business loss of around three billion Indian rupees (Dh242m) in the state. Mobile phone services were introduced in Jammu and Kashmir in 2004 after various intelligence agencies gave the go-ahead, almost a decade after people in the rest of India had begun to use them. Yet police verification was made mandatory before a Sim card on a regular account could be issued to a subscriber. Mobile phone networks are still not available in certain areas close to the borders with Pakistan and China.

The ban on prepaid services has also affected young couples and secret lovers who use their mobile phones to communicate and arrange dates away from the watchful eyes of parents or peers in largely conservative Kashmir. With only the bill-paying option left to them, keeping in touch will now be comparatively expensive and also far riskier as it means receiving bills and providing proof for verification, including photographs. Moreover, in Kashmir, getting a mobile connection on a postpaid option involves a number of security checks and the official registration of personal details and photographs.

Indian officials maintain that the monitoring of mobile phone use through registration is essential to security. The interior minister, P Chidambaram, has pointed out that in a number of cases militants had obtained multiple prepaid Sim cards, enabling them to avoid detection by security services. "This situation had given rise to serious security concerns," he said about Jammu. "We're persuading the people to switch over to postpaid Sim cards."

Still, some critics argue that Muslims have been singled out, pointing to other restive areas where similar bans have not been introduced. "People genuinely feel they are being discriminated against, apparently for political reasons, as prepaid mobile services are available throughout the country, even in those hit by Maoist or Naxalite violence and in north-eastern states where violent campaigns have been spearheaded by separatist groups over the years," said Mehbooba Mufti, the president of People's Democratic Party, the main Kashmiri opposition party.

The state's advocate general, Muhammad Ishaq Qadri, said he hoped the ban would be lifted but the authority to do that rested with the federal government. "The ban should be lifted in the interest of the state to eradicate unemployment," he said. "But since security is a different issue in which the centre [federal government] can intervene we could only call for reviewing the ban." foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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