The recent drone attack on an Indian airbase proved fatal for drone-based businesses in Kashmir.

Ruman Hamdani, a 29-year-old filmmaker from India-administered Kashmir was thrilled when producers of the Game of Thrones, a popular fantasy drama series on HBO, released a fan anthem – a compilation of tributes posted on social media by the show’s millions of admirers from across the world.

Hamdani’s 6-minute long video on YouTube, featuring an ensemble cast of local artists who re-enacted a scene from the epic show amid snow-draped vistas of the Kashmir valley, had found its way into the fan anthem.

Hamdani soon earned praise all over Kashmir and beyond. What distinguished his work from others was his ability to use camera-fitted drones, still a novelty in Kashmir, for panorama shots. So drone filmmaking in Kashmir became all the rage, helping Hamdani bag a lot of new clients, until the Indian government criminalised the commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) on July 4.

The new government decree is forcing drone owners to surrender their machines to the police, throwing a wrench into the works of professionals like Hamdani. 

The ban comes on the heels of a fresh escalation between India and Pakistan. On June 27, two explosions rocked the Indian air force’s technical airport in the Jammu district of the region. India was quick to accuse Pakistan of using hexacopter drones to strike the airport. News channels in India streamed images of a damaged ceiling purported to be of the building that was allegedly hit.

The erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed region whose control is divided between India and Pakistan. Since 1947, when the British withdrew from the subcontinent, the region has been seething with political turmoil. An armed rebellion broke out in 1989, which continues to this day, largely in favour of independence from India.

Intermittent clashes between India and Pakistan are very common. Both countries have fought at least two full-scale wars and exchanged artillery fire frequently along the de facto boundary line that divides Indian and Pakistani controlled territories.

The drone hysteria has since reached a fever pitch with India’s political commentators and most of the pro-establishment media batting for a “tough action” against Pakistan.

In late June, Indian functionaries in Kashmir termed drones as a “new technical threat.” Following the airbase attack, the anti-drone sentiment transitioned into a sweeping ban, which makes the use, possession, sale and transportation of UAVs illegal.  

The development came as a shock to Kashmir’s emerging cohort of vloggers, filmmakers, media professionals and hobbyists who are pioneering the use of commercial drones in the disputed region.

Earlier this year, New Delhi and Islamabad had agreed to honour the 2003 truce agreement requiring both countries to cease gunfire along the de-facto border dividing Kashmir. The reaffirmation of the ceasefire deal and a string of other similar peace deals were brokered by third parties such as the UAE.

The two archrivals came at loggerheads in August 2019, when India unilaterally scrapped Kashmir’s special status,  rushed in more military personnel and ramped up federal control. 

"A permanent state of emergency"

The UAE brokered ceasefire deal was seen as a step toward a long-sought thaw in the bilateral relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. 

The armed drone attack is likely to cast a shadow of uncertainty over efforts to secure rapprochement between the two sparring nations.

Last week, the Indian army said it fired at a reconnaissance drone approaching from the Pakistani side. A day before the suspected attack on the Indian air force facility took place, a drone was also spotted hovering above the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, which has since been put on a state of high alert, fuelling speculations about whether the two events could be connected. The Indian authorities claim it has reported further sightings of unidentified drones in the Jammu region, reinforcing a sense of scare in the public.

If the owners of commercial drones do not adhere to the ban, they will be punished as per Section 144 of India’s criminal procedure code (CrPC),  a colonial-era law whose application in Kashmir has already come under criticism.

The prohibitions on operating drones are likely to impact not only the profession of photography but also inflict a severe blow on the region’s event management enterprises that use drones for film-making, advertisements and shooting ritual ceremonies. This is a new addition to numerous civil restrictions the Indian authorities have routinely enforced across the disputed region

“We have been dragged several years back when it comes to the video production,” said Hamdani, who heads Master Visuals Studio. “Drones are an essential part of our work. They increase the production value. Already a lot of our customers have lowered the price because of the news that drones have been grounded in Srinagar.”

Hamdani started his production company in 2017. The Game of Thrones homage video gave his fledgling business a much-needed boost. 

He diversified from producing artistic videos to tourism promotion ads and taking up pre-wedding shoots. His work was widely recognised and more and more Indian couples hired him to film them in Kashmir amid pine trees, apple and cherry orchards, lush meadows and snow-capped mountains. He was paid handsomely. 

“There’s no point in producing the pre-wedding films without the drone footage,” he said. “Drones provided wide, aerial and establishing shots. If there’s no use of drones, no one will approach us.”

34-year-old Imad ur Rehman quit his job with a facility management company in the UAE to return to Kashmir. He turned to travel vlogging, posting breathtaking aerial imagery of the Kashmir valley shot entirely through UAVs. He shared them on his social media handles. His YouTube channel Imad Clicks has 63.4K subscribers.

"I started a business where we toured the visitors to unexplored places across the region. Then we would shoot the entire journey on camera so that tourists could immortalise their memories of coming here. Drones were an indispensable part of the whole effort,” he said.

The latest restrictions have all but wrecked Rehman’s contracts scheduled for this year. Three of Rehman’s clients from the Indian cities of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi have cancelled the contracts and signed deals with one of India's leading bridal media brands, causing significant financial losses for him. “These big companies have access to top ministers so they can easily manage to obtain permits. We on the other hand are Kashmiris,” Rehman said.

Another client, a tourist couple from New Delhi, deducted a significant sum from their payments to Rehman because he could no longer ferry his UAV to the location where the shooting was supposed to happen. “Even if I decided to shoot outside the precincts of Srinagar city, it would have been dangerous since transportation of drones has also been banned and stop-and-frisk searches are common in Kashmir. I don’t want to be at the receiving end of law enforcement in this place of the world,” he said.

Private and commercial drone operations in India are regulated by the Digital Sky plan under the aegis of the Indian government’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation. An operator should be registered under the platform and procure an identification number and operator permit before uploading a predetermined 24-hour flight plan. As soon as the flight concludes, operators are supposed to maintain logbooks.

But the guidelines also allow for exemptions for drones if they weigh up to 250 grams (Nano category) and up to 2 kgs (micro category). In fact, in the case of Nano drones, which most Kashmiris use, the operators are not obliged to obtain identification numbers or flight permits. They are also exempted from uploading the flight plan provided that the drones are operating in ‘uncontrolled spaces’ and soar only up to 50 feet. The micro-drones that Rehman uses are also exempted from regulations and can fly up to 200 feet under the condition that the operators produce identification numbers obtained under the Digital Sky plan.

“We already take care of all these protocols,” Rehman said. “And most drones today have built-in software which ensures adherence to the regulations.”

There are an estimated 250 UAV operators in Srinagar city alone. “90 percent of my contracts have been cancelled,” said Umar Hamid, a 25-year-old filmmaker from Srinagar. Now I and my fellow drone operators are thinking about what to do since we are supposed to surrender our drones before the police. That would literally throw me out of work because drones form an important component of video production today.”

Human rights advocates have previously slammed the use of Section 144, which Indian authorities have invoked to ban drones, saying it creates a “permanent state of emergency.”

Until the enactment of Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, the Indian government could use the law to ban the Internet in Kashmir on a whim because Section 144 has few mechanisms to push back against authoritarian excesses. 

“Resorting to Section 144 to issue a blanket ban when DGCA already has spelled out guidelines for the authorised use of drones seems questionable,” said Habeel Iqbal, a Kashmiri lawyer and a US State Department Fellow.

Source: TRT World