Cell Service Returns to Kashmir, Allowing First Calls in Months

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — When the cellphone started to ring, after 71 days of silence, the crowd erupted into a loud cheer.

After imposing a complete communications blackout two months ago, the Indian government on Monday partially restored cellphone service in the Kashmir Valley, home to about eight million people.

The region’s cell service had been shut off in the hours before the Hindu nationalist government of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi announced on Aug. 5 the revocation of a constitutional provision that gave partial autonomy to Kashmir.

The elimination of cell service was one of the most difficult aspects of India’s continuing crackdown in region, which has been caught in a longstanding and often brutal territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.

On Monday afternoon, a group of Kashmiris gathered inside a park in Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, and waited for service to return, some waving their cellphones in the air, searching for a signal.

As soon as service was restored, people made the calls they had been yearning to place for months.

Lovers wanted to know if their partners were doing fine; businesspeople wanted to know about their customers; doctors wanted to know what had happened to patients. And parents could finally speak with their children studying outside the valley.

Imran Tariq said he had not spoken to his fiancée since the day the clampdown began, which also saw the closing of schools, the detention of scores of regional politicians and the deployment of thousands of troops to guard neighborhoods and highways.

Mr. Tariq, a student, waited for hours in the park so that he could talk freely in this largely conservative society, where couples still avoid talking to their partners in front of family members before marriage. When the cellphone signal appeared, he quickly dialed.

“Are we still together?” Mr. Tariq asked his girlfriend, who lives outside the valley. “I thought you might have married someone else.”

His girlfriend broke down sobbing on the phone.

Restoration of mobile service meant some semblance of normalcy could return to the daily lives of the people here, who are living under a virtual siege.

On the streets of Srinagar, soldiers are everywhere, shops are open early in the day, causing a rush for goods before they close, and public transport is still missing. Sporadic protests still erupt between Kashmiris and Indian security forces.

Many people making their first calls wanted to know how the world was responding to the situation in Kashmir.

“Does the world know we have been dying a slow death?” Firdous Ahmad, a Srinagar resident, asked a friend on the phone inside the park.

Mr. Ahmad’s friend told him there had been protests in New York and in London, but that in the southern Indian city of Bangalore where he lived, no one cared about what was going on in Kashmir.

Doctors said the resumption of cell service would help save the lives of people in need of ambulances and other urgent medical care.

“People won’t die now because they can’t call an ambulance,” said Irfan Hussain, a cardiologist who works at a large hospitals in Kashmir. “A working phone will help people living in far-flung areas.”

Even after Monday’s partial restoration of service, many Kashmiris remain cut off, as service was restored only for those with billing plans with phone companies, not for those using prepaid phones.

The Kashmir Valley has more than six million mobile subscribers, out of which more than 60 percent rely on prepaid phones, which still don’t work.

So as others celebrated, Haider Nazir said he was disappointed because he uses a prepaid phone.

“They are hoping we would resume our normal life but that won’t happen anytime soon,” he said.

And there was no word on Monday when internet service would be restored.

Farooq Khan, a government adviser, said the partial restoration of cell service was a sign the region was “slowly moving towards normalcy.”

But business leaders said the economy would continue to suffer as long as the internet remained shut.

“Business is reliant on the internet for everything,” said Nasir Hamid Khan, an official at the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a trade body, adding that the crackdown has cost businesses billions of dollars, as shopkeepers have protested by refusing to restart trade.

Iqbal Kirmani contributed reporting.