When her university emailed to announce classes had moved online, Seher Ibrahim Shah did not find out in time because she didn’t have internet. That was the first problem. In her village, tucked between some of the highest mountains in the world, even phone signals are hard to come by. When classes began in earnest, things got worse. There was a lockdown in the area, courtesy of Covid-19, so she couldn’t travel anywhere else. Where would she go, anyway? Internet all across Gilgit-Baltistan was unreliable. Instead, she began climbing mountains, hoping to find a stronger connection.

Occasionally, she’d catch a signal, and email and WhatsApp messages would begin whirling in, her phone writhing with notifications. She’d watch her classmates’ conversations unfold belatedly — sometimes weeks later — referencing chapters she hadn’t been able to download, terms she hadn’t yet come across. She felt herself sinking, overcome by a sense of life passing her by.

While classes were in session, she’d hike for an hour and settle under a tree. As her readings dribbled, byte by byte, onto her laptop, she played Candy Crush on her phone to kill time. Gahkuch Valley yawned below, pretty as a postcard: glittering streams swerving through mountains, solemn and immense, birdsong everywhere. Gilgit-Baltistan, her home, was where city people flocked from all over the country in the summer to escape modern life.

Her laptop kept blinking: “Internet connected.” “Internet disconnected.”

Connected. Disconnected. Connected. Disconnected. It was enough to drive you mad.

Most summers, Pakistani social media teems with vacation photos from Gilgit-Baltistan: pristine lakes and peaks hashtagged #nofilter #paradise #heavenonearth. This year, as tourism came to a near standstill over the summer, the closure of universities and workplaces sent hundreds of thousands of students and professionals back to the region, causing internet usage to skyrocket by 250% by the end of June, a staggering figure given that its population is less than 2 million. In July, a new category of photos began emerging: angry students hunched over laptops next to those familiar lakes and mountains, often on the bare ground, under the naked sun, or lugging fat books up rocky trails.

We are students not mountaineers.

We have breathtaking views with literally breathtaking internet.

Dear tourists! If you can’t raise your voice for internet issues in Gilgit Baltistan, you don’t have the right to spend your vacation in our lush green lands.

Soon, #Internet4GilgitBaltistan began trending throughout Pakistan.

Gilgit River runs along the highway towards Yasin Valley, an area with extremely poor Internet access.

In the mid-1970s, so the story goes, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto found himself in what was then known as the Northern Areas, incommunicado and annoyed. The region, located at the crossroads of South Asia and Central Asia, bordering India, China, and Afghanistan, did not have a telephone grid at the time, and the prime minister did not enjoy being cut off from the world. It was difficult to lure the private sector there, given the rocky terrain and scattered settlements, so Bhutto directed the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a functional unit of the military, to provide telecommunication services. The SCO’s monopoly — in the Northern Areas and the adjoining region of Azad Kashmir — became enshrined in the Pakistan Telecommunication Act of 1996; it remained in place even as technology in other parts of the country leapt from fixed phone lines to wireless communications to second-, third-, and fourth-generation cellular networks. In Gilgit-Baltistan, as the Northern Areas became known following a constitutional amendment in 2009, however, technology stopped at 2G. 

Put simply, the Pakistan military operates the internet in Gilgit-Baltistan. This may seem odd to an outsider, but most Pakistanis would shrug at it — after all, the armed forces own and run hundreds of commercial enterprises in the country: cement, cereal, fertilizers, banks, golf courses, stud farms, and, perhaps most crucially, real estate. But Gilgit-Baltistan is a little different from the rest of Pakistan. In some ways, its status is similar to that of Puerto Rico in the U.S.: it’s technically part of the country, but residents don’t have the same rights as other Pakistanis — not even on paper. Internationally, it is considered part of the disputed area of Kashmir, to which both Pakistan and India lay claim; their ongoing rivalry, spanning seven decades, has transformed it into the most militarized border zone in the world. Yet internally, Gilgit-Baltistan is in an even more precarious position than Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, whose residents enjoy greater democratic freedoms. Adult franchise was introduced in Azad Kashmir in 1970, for instance, and not until 2009 in Gilgit-Baltistan. Consequently, a protest that may seem innocuous elsewhere — for faster, cheaper, more reliable internet — is, in Gilgit-Baltistan, a stalking horse for other grievances, namely, its ambiguous constitutional status and its fear of being erased from the national imagination.

It is worth noting that India claims all of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan, as a part of its territory and sees Pakistan as illegally occupying those lands. Pakistan, for its part, insists that the future of the region must be determined through a plebiscite. Each side has a long list of grievances against the other, and it has been many years since any headway has been made.

As a result of this dispute, Gilgit-Baltistan remains in constitutional limbo. Compounding this is the fact that, up until a decade ago, many Pakistanis didn’t really know much about it. Anthropologist Nosheen Ali remembers, as an eighth grader in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, making a sculptural map from styrofoam, cardboard, and cotton, depicting the country’s physical and social diversity. There were the Indus and her four tributaries, like a watery handprint across the country; there were the four provinces, Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and the North-West Frontier Province, later renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with their distinct ethnic and cultural identities. In the completed map, she recalls, Gilgit-Baltistan remained unlabeled and unpeopled, mere mountains made out of clay.

Even years later, as she was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the area, Ali saw people scrunching their noses in confusion. “They wouldn’t know where you were going, and those who did would act as if it’s another planet.” That has changed slightly in the past decade: as Pakistan’s plummeting global stature and a crumbling economy have made international travel difficult, Gilgit-Baltistan has been rediscovered as a tourist destination by the urban middle class. In 2017, 1.72 million tourists reportedly traveled there, a more than threefold increase over the previous year. This fall, despite some degree of local resistance, the federal government reopened it for tourism, ostensibly to prop up the crumbling local economy but also to attract affluent Pakistanis unable to travel abroad in a pandemic. But although Gilgit-Baltistan’s huddle of mountains and valleys make for a perfect Instagram-ready backdrop, its residents often blur into the background.

Ali remembers when mobile phones arrived in Gilgit. It was August 14, 2006 — the rest of Pakistan had already been using cellphones for the greater part of a decade. Great big banners proclaimed SCO’s cellular services as a “gift” to locals on the occasion of Pakistan’s’ 59th year of independence; when she went to their retail store, a long expectant line snaked out onto the road. She recalls how cellphones revolutionized people’s private lives, facilitating romances and covert conversations, despite being heavily and crudely surveilled by government intelligence agents — on her calls, you could clearly hear men listening in and mumbling. But as hypnotized as people were by the new technology, they were also resentful. Why had it taken so long for cellular services to reach them?

Talking to people in Gilgit-Baltistan today, there is general bewilderment as to why they’ve been forgotten by the government, despite throwing in their lot with Pakistan right from its inception. Is it because Gilgit-Baltistan is a predominantly Shia area, unlike Sunni-majority Pakistan? Is it because Gilgit-Baltistan had already declared loyalty to Pakistan and didn’t need to be further appeased? Whatever the reason, one thing is infuriatingly clear: everything is delayed and worse in Gilgit-Baltistan — including internet.

College students sit next to a cell tower for internet access to finish their homework and download assignments

Pakistan was one of the last countries in the region to acquire 3G services, years after even neighboring Afghanistan switched over. Today, internet penetration in the country stands at roughly 35%, with 76 million 3G+ connections. The Inclusive Internet Index, which assesses countries on availability, affordability, and people’s readiness to use the internet, places Pakistan in the lowest quartile. Although some private companies do provide cellular services in Gilgit-Baltistan, because the SCO insists on its monopoly, slow internet is seemingly locked in place. This isn’t only a nuisance — it affects where residents choose to live, where they study, and the kinds of jobs they are able to take.

According to an official statement by the SCO — which did not respond to Rest of World’s list of queries for this story — services buckled under increased demand during the pandemic. According to Shaan M. Khan, however, the internet was always this shoddy. Khan grew up on the outskirts of Gilgit City, in Danyore, and moved to Islamabad for college. When he decided to pursue a degree in software engineering, he knew he was likely committing to a life outside of Gilgit-Baltistan because there was no IT industry back home. Still, he tried to do something about it: in 2015, along with a few friends, he established a coworking space in Gilgit City, which 60 or so young professionals use on a regular basis. But they remain handicapped by unreliable internet. “We use SCO’s most expensive package,” he says. “But we’re not satisfied with that even.” The 16Mbps internet in Gilgit City doesn’t even compare to 4Mbps in Islamabad — and yet the connection costs him 20 times more than what he would pay in the capital.

Arifah, a woman in her 30s who lives in Hunza, works remotely for a fintech media company based outside Pakistan and relies on SCO’s 4Mbps DSL connection. Accustomed to regularly running to nearby cafes or NGO offices in search of stable internet, she has researched other options. She could get a satellite connection, which is prohibitively expensive and beholden to the region’s capricious mountain weather. She could also pay to have a fiber-optic cable installed at home. To extend it from the SCO headquarters in Karimabad to her house in Aliabad, a distance of 15 kilometers, would cost a flat rate of over $9,000 (1,500,000 Pakistani rupees).

She paused, incredulity in her voice. “I can’t even think about that much money.”

Arifah, a young mother that works for a fintech company, helps her son put on his shoes.

The third option: To quit her job. The fourth: To give up on Gilgit-Baltistan and move to Islamabad.

To add insult to injury, in July, while #Internet4GilgitBaltistan was gaining steam on Twitter, the state announced that the Pakistan-China Fiber Optic Project, a $44 million endeavor to bring high-speed internet access from the Khunjerab Pass on the Pakistan-China border all the way to Islamabad, was officially up and running. It also said that access would be extended all the way south, to the port cities of Karachi and Gwadar. More than half of the project’s fiber-optic cable — 466.54 kilometers — runs through Gilgit-Baltistan, but it doesn’t provide internet to the region.

“It’s like there’s a stream flowing past your house,” said Arifah bitterly. “You’re looking at it, you’re thirsty, but you’re not allowed to drink from it.” One difference between Gilgit-Baltistan and the rest of the country might be that the state is simply more honest about its desire to control access to information. In other parts of Pakistan, it has vacillated between publicly championing connectivity and going to great lengths to prevent people from getting online at all. In the past year, amid much fanfare, the federal government unveiled its Digital Pakistan initiative, broadcasting its ambition to bring the country fully online. But this sits awkwardly with other measures, including a slew of recent bans: on Tinder, on TikTok (later reversed), on unregistered VPNs, and on at least 800,000 websites. Between 2012 and 2017, according to one study, the Pakistani state switched off the internet at least 41 times, a number that has only increased since. And so, one can’t help but wonder: does Gilgit-Baltistan’s limited access represent the past or the future of the internet in Pakistan?

Arifah works out of a local coffee shop in Hunza.

#Internet4GilgitBaltistan emerged from a series of offline protests. Inayat Abdali, who teaches at a local university, remembers distraught students approaching him in Gahkuch City, a district capital and one of the few urbanized areas in the region. Many had returned home in the wake of the pandemic and, once online classes became compulsory, had to scramble to make alternative arrangements. Some crashed at relatives’ houses; others found places to rent in Gilgit City or one of the other district headquarters where internet was marginally better. And even then, there were students who made it to Gilgit or Gahkuch to sit for exams — only to have the connection capitulate midway through.

The students were frantic — they had more exams soon — so Inayat and his activist friends helped them organize a protest the next day. They made banners demanding 3G/4G services and an end to online teaching until the internet situation was resolved. About 150 students showed up. Word spread across the region, and two weeks later, they convened again. Roughly 300 people showed up in Gahkuch, and even more in Gilgit and Baltistan. Photos and videos from the protests made it online and were shared and liked tens of thousands of times across Facebook and Twitter.

Young Gilgitis began tagging celebrities, especially those with profile photos where you could clearly see the mountains and lakes of Gilgit-Baltistan in the background. (“Where are the singers who love to shoot their musical videos in Gilgit Baltistan?” tweeted Arifah, the fintech employee, tagging several singers.) Others cracked dark jokes, appealed to Elon Musk, and posted screenshots of their paltry internet speeds or text messages from SCO asking customers to refrain from using the internet between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. so that students could avail themselves of better connections. Some trolled the SCO social media accounts directly: they’d respond positively to a post, then follow up with a snarky “I posted this last year, it just uploaded.”

Inayat Ali, teacher and activist fighting for better internet in Gilgit.

Of course, there’s a paradox at the heart of these protests: if you don’t have internet, how do you mobilize an online movement? Arifah explained that some people had just enough of a connection to use Facebook or Twitter and that others simply gave up and were agitating from elsewhere. “A lot of the students and young professionals who returned to Gilgit-Baltistan during the pandemic went right back because it was so impossible to study or work here. They’ve been tweeting too. Even people who now live outside of Pakistan have been participating.”

Among them is Alveena Mir, who grew up in Gilgit and is now based in the south of Germany. Mir told me she visited home last year for the first time in two and a half years. “I was there for just one month, and I’d say it was one of the hardest months of my life,” she said sadly. She was wrapping up her graduate thesis, and although she took all her study materials with her, she wasn’t able to work at all. Even now, back in Europe, she is still affected by Gilgit’s patchy internet. “To talk to my family, I first place an international call to check if their internet is working or to ask them to move to a room where the signal is better. Then, I call them on WhatsApp.”

Sonum, a student doing a bachelor's degree in nutrition and dietary has to go to her rooftop to do her homework as she resides in one of the remotest villages in Gilgit, Pakistan on October 6, 2020. Saiyna Bashir for Rest of World

Critics of military overreach in Pakistan like to joke that this is not a country with an army — here, there’s an army and it has a country. Officially, Pakistan has weathered three dictatorships, each lasting a decade or so, but even during democratic periods, it often feels as if the generals are calling the shots. Space for dissent seems to be shrinking by the day, both online and offline, as state brutality ratchets up. In late July, when paramilitary forces opened fire on demonstrators in Chaman — locals were protesting the continued closure of the border with Afghanistan — authorities immediately throttled internet services. They wanted to prevent videos from circulating on social media.

In addition to the usual reasons repressive governments tend to worry about expanded internet access, Usama Khilji, a digital rights campaigner based in Islamabad, suggested that Pakistani officials might be particularly leery because of the emergence of organizations like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, a civil rights group demanding accountability for military excesses. PTM mobilized almost entirely on the internet, and when the movement’s leader, Manzoor Pashteen, livestreams on Facebook, he can draw tens of thousands of viewers in real time. Khilji thinks this may have motivated the government’s decision to give themselves the right to halt livestreams as parts of a series of curbs on social media introduced earlier this year.

Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, a Pakistani digital rights think tank at his home in Islamabad.

In strictly legal terms, disrupted internet access violates several rights under Pakistani law. There’s the right to freedom of speech — Article 19 in the Pakistani constitution — and the right to information, especially crucial during a pandemic. Activists have been fighting planned outages in courts with some success: in February 2018, for instance, a high court ruled that the Pakistani government’s penchant for switching off cellular services, including mobile internet, as a security measure ahead of major religious and political processions was unconstitutional. But the Pakistani government ignores or makes exceptions to its own laws often enough: in the former federally administered tribal areas, internet has been suspended since June 2016, following an armed clash between security forces at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. As late as April, there were locals there who had never heard of Covid-19.

The demand for better connectivity is also a pushback against discrimination. Pakistan has a Universal Service Fund, amounting to millions of dollars, to which all private telecom companies contribute a percentage of their annual revenue; its express purpose is to extend telecom services to regions underserved by the market. “Given that the government has a big say in infrastructural development,” Khilji explained, “if it’s providing service in a certain area and not in another, that’s automatically discriminatory.” So far, no USF projects have been undertaken in Gilgit-Baltistan.

#Internet4GilgitBaltistan’s popularity finally compelled the SCO to tweet out a statement. Officials characterized the movement as an attempt to “create chaos among innocent people,” and scolded followers for minimizing the 72 lives that had been lost while providing telecom services to the region. The students bristled at the notion that demanding better internet could make someone a traitor and responded by making the hashtag #ApologizeSCO go viral. The SCO deleted its tweet and, in subsequent weeks, announced plans to upgrade its infrastructure. Four months on, according to Khan, the SCO has switched on 3G services in a few valleys, but users have still seen little improvement.

It never issued an apology.

Evening in one of the most remote village in Gilgit.

Gilgit-Baltistan has a history of brutal political repression. In January 2010, an enormous landslide tumbled through Hunza Valley, killing 20 people, displacing thousands more, and spontaneously forming an enormous lake. When locals protested the state’s inadequate compensation for affected families, they were batoned and tear-gassed; two people were killed. Activists who protested these deaths were imprisoned under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Some are still serving time. Given these recent experiences, jitters abound.

One could argue that demand for better internet can’t ever be apolitical. But still, #Internet4GilgitBaltistan finds itself in a fortuitous position. Because it is so straightforward, “it is essentially a citizenship rights movement,” Nosheen Ali said. “People are very aware of the occupation logic that controls Gilgit-Baltistan, and this is a resistance to that. But there’s a lot you can bypass when you’re talking about the internet.” As is often the case with movements that gain traction, #Internet4GilgitBaltistan means different things to different people. Students want to be able to sit for their exams. Others want to be able to work. Activists see it as a bellwether for future mobilization.

Shaan M Khan, a software engineer owns a co-working space in Gilgit.

“It is a political issue, and we want to engage with it politically,” said Khan, who runs the coworking space. “It won’t be solved through sessions or trainings. There’ll be protests. People will be intimidated and threatened. I can see how that might be scary for some young people.” Others, such as Ali, fear that a younger generation raised to view politics with suspicion and cynicism may be ultimately appeased by authorities through “some sort of public-private partnership vis-a-vis the internet.”

When it comes to the region’s broader existential quandary, opinions are varied, often by sectarian affiliation, political orientation, and perhaps most importantly, lived experience. Some in Gilgit-Baltistan want to become a fifth province within Pakistan — in the run-up to local elections, which took place on November 15, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that it would in fact be given provincial status, even though this is only possible through a constitutional amendment. Others want to become fully sovereign. Some want to be merged with Azad Kashmir; others are vehemently opposed to it. But everyone wants better internet. “Everyone is participating in #Internet4GilgitBaltistan: from Gilgit, from Hunza, from Chilas,” he continued.

As a result of the hashtag, young Gilgitis scattered across the country — across the world, in some cases — have been able to find each other and form a virtual community. “Now, there’s conversation flowing through this hashtag. … If our internet issue is resolved, naturally we won’t stay silent on other issues,” said Khan. “We’ll have this community, and we’ll start to question other things too.”

Spurred by the movement’s success, people in other remote parts of Pakistan have also started voicing discontent. There is #Internet4Chitral, another tourist magnet in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; there is #Internet4FATA, the recently incorporated tribal areas that have long borne the brunt of Pakistan’s so-called War on Terror; there is also, occasionally, #Internet4AzadKashmir. “It was difficult to believe that an issue pertaining to Gilgit-Baltistan could trend in Pakistan,” said Khan. “Other groups in the region are approaching us, asking us to highlight their issues, because now there’s hope that someone might listen.”

For the time being, said Khan, their focus is on ensuring that the 3G/4G auction takes place so that private providers can operate freely. They’ll tag ministers and parliamentarians on Twitter and Facebook, to needle them to legislate on the issue. But before that, they will take a brief, if somewhat obligatory, break. Eid was approaching, and people had to return to their towns and villages in the valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan. Khan, who remained in Islamabad, watched their WhatsApp group go dark.