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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Kashmir back on-line
Pedestrians walking past Indian soldier in Srinagar
The shutdown caused widespread anger

The Indian government has reconnected public long-distance phone lines and restored internet access to the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Who'll make up for the loss we have suffered over the past five months?

Public call office owner
The authorities shut down the services in January in an attempt to thwart Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed territory.

Officials say the public lines have been restored because cutting them off failed to improve the security situation, given the sophisticated communications available to militants.

Although many in the state are relieved that they can talk and write to loved ones again, some are also angry over what they saw as an ineffective attempt by the government to score political points with the shutdown.

And as fears rise that Pakistan and India are once again on the brink of war, many are asking why the government has decided to restore the services now.

Cut off

Queues of people wanting to speak to friends or relatives in other states or abroad have begun forming again outside Public Call Offices (PCOs) in the strife-torn region.

Indian border guards display seized communications equipment
Militants have access to their own communications equipment

"We were put to a lot of hardship by not being able to speak to our dear ones back home," said Rashmi, one of a group of labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states waiting outside one office.

"It was so painful. Now, we are so happy," she said.

Both Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) and International Subscriber Dialling (ISD) facilities were withdrawn in January.

The move was prompted by an attack by suspected militants on the Indian parliament buildings in Delhi, which claimed 14 lives.

Delhi, which accuses neighbouring Pakistan of backing the militants, deployed hundreds of thousands of troops along its borders after the attack.


But the situation is no calmer now following an attack by militants on an Indian army camp in Jammu last week, which left 34 people dead.

Tensions on the border have never been higher.

Indian soldiers preparing for a patrol along the Punjab border
The security situation is deteriorating rapidly

"What has changed since (January) that the government no longer fears misuse of the facilities by the militants?" asked call office owner Nazir Ahmed.

Mr Nazir is bitter because he believes the government in Delhi withdrew the facilities in a show of strength ahead of state assembly elections in India in February.

"Many of us (call office owners) were forced into starvation. Who'll make up for the loss we have suffered over the past five months?" he asked.

There has been no official explanation of the decision to restore services.

But a senior police officer told the BBC that the initial withdrawal was made on the advice of the Indian army, but was restored because it made little difference.

"Now, for once, the Indian government has disregarded the army's view and accepted the state government's pleas," he said.

Military customers

Ironically, call offices draw most of their customers from among the tens of thousands of military and paramilitary soldiers deployed in the state.

"After the PCOs were shut down, I could hardly call my family once a month," said paramilitary soldier Mohan Lal. "Now, I'll speak to them once every week."

Customers may be happy, but call office owners are still fearful for their future.

"What is the guarantee that we won't be thrown out of a job again?" said Aisha Saleem, general secretary of the PCO Owners Association.

She welcomed the government's decision, but pointed out that many private subscribers have installed STD and ISD services on their own lines in the past five months, depriving them of yet more custom.

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See also:

20 May 02 | South Asia
19 May 02 | South Asia
18 May 02 | South Asia
17 May 02 | South Asia
16 May 02 | South Asia
16 May 02 | South Asia
15 May 02 | South Asia
15 May 02 | South Asia
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