“I see my dreams vanishing”: Kashmiri researchers during the internet blockade

Kashmiri students wait for their turn to use the internet at the Divisional Commissioner's office in Srinagar, as internet facilities were been suspended across the region as part of a communication blockade by the Indian government. The internet blockade economically, emotionally and academically devastated researchers in Kashmir. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP / Getty Images

“Ours is a different world and the government wants to remind us that we don’t belong to the time and space that exists outside our geographic frontiers,” Rameez Parray said, while showing us that his browser was not connecting to the internet. Rameez, the son of a farmer, hails from Kupwara district, in Kashmir, and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the University of Kashmir. “My father has invested a lot in me,” he told us. “He has given me deadline to finish my PhD and start working. I find it difficult to explain to him that I have lost half of my year because of no internet facility.”

We met Rameez at his rented accommodation in Srinagar’s Hazratbal locality, which he had left vacant for around four months during the Indian state’s clampdown on Kashmir since August last year. Rameez told us he feels overwhelmed by the stress of not meeting the deadlines for his research. He had just returned from his home to restart his research but did not know where to start without a proper internet connection.

In August 2019, the Indian government abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and enforced a communication blackout in the region. This included an internet shutdown, the longest such shutdown ever imposed in a democracy. Seven months later, on 4 March, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued an order directing the restoration of internet access, while restricting access to slower 2G networks. We spoke to 30 researchers from Kashmir in late February. They told us about their everyday struggles and how the internet blockade had economically, emotionally and academically devastated them.

On a frosty morning in the University of Kashmir, the valley’s oldest institution for higher education, we spoke to a professor of political science who did not want to be named. “The government has placed an ‘internet apartheid’ in the state of Jammu and Kashmir since August 5 of last year,” he said. The professor believed that this process had debilitated academic spaces in Kashmir because of the lack of any other sources for academic material, such as libraries. The Indian government—whose focus in Kashmir has largely been to contain secessionist activities in the past three decades—has failed to establish well-stocked libraries in Srinagar and other places.

The only libraries in Srinagar are the Shri Pratap Singh Library, and the City Central Library, both of which are government-owned and offer only a limited collection of books. Even those wishing to make use of these limited books find it difficult to do so because the libraries have become largely inaccessible due to the restrictions on traveling by road, following the August lockdown. The doctoral scholars we met said that they have been forced to completely stop their research due the absence of any access to scholarly databases available on the internet. This, several researchers told us, has caused them severe mental stress due to lost career opportunities, and put many in financial distress.

Nadeem Bhat, a student who is pursuing a masters in tourism studies at the Central University of Kashmir, met us in a deserted campus of Central University in Ganderbal district. “We have been put into a vast, endless field of darkness that doesn’t even let us breathe and all we feel is helplessness,” he said. The university is fairly new, only having opened in 2009. He spoke to us about how he has been coping up with studies in times when students like him have no access to the outside world. He took us to the varsity’s central library, where we found almost no students. A huge hall filled with newly installed book racks and computers mounted on broad tables that had only a few users, punching away on their keyboards. “This is a new university; students here rely mostly on online reading,” Bhat said. “Without internet, they don’t find any reason to come here.” 

For Madiha Majeed, a 29-year-old PhD scholar, enrolled in the University of Kashmir, the virtual siege pulled the plugs, if momentarily, on her dreams of earning a doctorate. Majeed is the daughter of a small-time grocer in Srinagar’s Nowgam suburb. She is researching how small-scale industries survive conflict situations, such as the one in Kashmir, and has been struggling to stitch together her thesis since last August. Since then, she has made ends meet with a paltry university stipend of Rs 5,000, and is struggling to arrange even the fundamental material required for her research. Majeed said she has run from pillar to post to find an internet cafe where she could sit and arrange material for her research or convince some organisation to fund her research. “It has become a daunting task for me to manage my research without Internet that would suffice all my research-related needs,” she says. “Modern-day researchers rely mainly on online repositories related to data and literature,” Majeed explained.

Some scholars migrated to different cities to make up for the time lost during the shutdown, while hundreds of researchers who receive little or no grants find it near impossible to fund migration. Majeed’s father barely made any sales in his grocery store during the months of shutdown. She said they had to take loans from friends “to travel to New Delhi for some preliminary online research on small industries. With internet, I could have done it in few hundred bucks from my study at home.” She said many who could not afford the journey had to begin doing manual work for their daily expenses.

Majeed’s research demands interviews with workers of small-scale industries located in far-flung areas across Kashmir—some more than a hundred kilometres away from Srinagar. “It is impossible to conduct research on a topic like mine, which needs shuttling throughout the length and breadth of Jammu and Kashmir,” she said. “For now, I have shelved all my fieldwork, which involved visiting the remotest places like Uri in Baramulla and Lolab in Kupwara districts. I have to physically visit these places to set up interviews in the absence of communication services, which otherwise I could do with just one phone call.” Majeed said she had made nearly no progress in her research for the past seven months.

The situation for researchers in Kashmir’s other cities is similar. We met Imran Ahmad Parray, a doctoral scholar, at the decade-old Islamic University of Science and Technology in the southern district of Pulwama. He said, “This is just inhumane on the part of government that they have throttled the Internet space endlessly to such an extent that neither it seems to be alive nor dead­––set up on a ventilator for an indefinite time.” Imran hails from Hajin, in Bandipora district. . “This intensification of problems,” he said, speaking about the continued pressure on Kashmiri youth, “leads to more complexity and breeds more chaos when the students have to stand in long queue for hours, and hours outside government offices to get their emails checked out.”

23-year-old Tabeen Gani Mir, had just started her bachelor’s degree in journalism from a government college in Srinagar when the clampdown began. Speaking of government representatives, she said, “They think that students use internet for entertainment only. They are wrong but who will make them understand about the amount of work we do on internet?” She continued, “The internet is our library. We are robbed off of our books.” Mir’s father, who is an auto driver in Srinagar, has not been out much since August because of the restrictions. Mir says she cannot afford to buy books or travel outside in these circumstances when even arranging meals has become a challenge for her father. “I am mum over my studies. I told my father they are going good so that he doesn’t have another reason to bother. When the fact is that I haven’t been able to keep up with my studies from home without a cheap and portable net connection.” Mir continued, “Can you imagine the hue and cry that would be made over any college students in the remotest places of India left with no classwork, no books, no internet?”

Mudasir Ahmad is studying the business models of female entrepreneurs who use internet as medium to sell their commodities. “The female entrepreneurs, who form my case study, vanished in thin air due to internet shutdown in Kashmir,” Ahmad said. “Their businesses collapsed and many of them shifted to more secure means of livelihood.” Ahmad, whose ambition was to create a business model for online entrepreneurs in Kashmir, has himself become a casualty of the lockdown. He told us he has nothing to work on when all the online entrepreneurs in Kashmir have shut shopwith Internet ban. “I am left with too few case studies, which aren’t sufficient for me to write a comprehensive doctoral thesis on internet-business management in small places like Kashmir.”

Senior members of the Indian government have frequently reduced the gravity of the denial of internet services to Kashmir despite concerns raised by human-rights bodies such as Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Council. For instance, VK Saraswat, a member of the NITI Aayog—a think-tank which replaced India’s planning commission—said Kashmiris only need internet because they “they watch dirty movies.”

Under criticism, in October last year, the state administration set up 844 internet terminals in government offices to facilitate students with enrollment in different competitive exams such as the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering, the University Grants Commission, National Eligibility Test, and the Union Public Service Commission exam. The facilitation centers could not handle the influx of thousands of students leaving many without a chance to take the exams.

A report by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society—a rights group working in Kashmir—stated that the internet was shut down 51 times in the first half of 2019. From 5 August 2019 till 5 February 2020, the internet remained shut down endlessly. The state administration has, however, allowed some access to internet and telecommunication services in phases over that period of time. This includes mobile telephonic service, 2G internet and broadband. On 5 March, the government lifted the ban on social media and millions of blacklisted websites on postpaid 2G networks. However, the internet speed in the Valley barely touches 300 kilobytes-per-second. On 2 March, the local daily Greater Kashmir reported that students were unsuccessfully waiting for hours to access websites on the “snail-paced” internet.

In January, the University of Kashmir partially restored internet service to its scholars, after making them sign an undertaking that accessing sites other than those allowed by the varsity’s IT department would lead to the deactivation of their internet services. Majeed told us, “For five-long months, I was out of touch with my research. When I restarted the work, I had no idea where I had left it.” Ahmad echoed the sentiment. He said, “I feel like I lag behind two years in my research.”

Students spoke to us about the difficulty of applying for courses in universities outside of Kashmir. To fill the application form, students have to book their slot at an internet facility in the Tourist Reception Center in Srinagar three days prior to their turn. “Imagine waiting for three days, then the server getting down just a few minutes before your turn. It is a horrible experience to have in these stressful times,” Bushra Mushtaq told us with tears in his eyes. 

Mushtaq had been preparing for two years for the examination for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. She was engrossed in her books when we met her in the Baramulla district library. She told us that she was anxious about the fact that she had to waste three days to simply fill the entrance from at a government facility in district magistrate’s office in Baramulla. “How much punishment would they give you just for being a student and a Kashmiri?”

In the second week of February, we met Shazia Farooq, a researcher from Srinagar who studies international relations. She wanted to apply for a two-day national conference titled, “Revisiting Himalayan Borderland: A Bridge Between India and Central Asia.” She was desperately looking for textual materials that were unavailable in her university’s library in Awantipora. Even commercial websites such as Amazon and Flipkart remained inaccessible in Kashmir. As a last resort, she called a friend in Delhi to provide soft copies of texts regarding central Asia. Though her friends sent it immediately, the slow speed of the internet made her miss the deadlines and crushed her plans of participating in the conference. “Due to absence of internet facilities, I have failed to make any progress in my research activity,” said Farooq. “I see my dreams vanishing and the prospective hopes that I expressed to my parents at the time of joining the research kills me silently.”

Shahrukh Inayat, a 22-year-old engineering student from Srinagar, had developed an innovative inkless whiteboard for classrooms in Kashmir that works on WiFi. He was offered an internship for his innovation at a university in the United States. But the lockdown prevented him from joining the internship. “I couldn’t complete the application process required for my apprenticeship. I was in the middle of writing my application when the internet was clamped down,” he said. “I waited for over a month for internet service to be restored before I had to give up on my dream internship.” Inayat was orphaned at the age of 16 and is supported by a brother who is only three years his senior. He told us that the internship was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him to settle in a developed country and support his brother and family. “My morale is so low since I missed the opportunity to work and learn in USA,” he said. “It has dented my academic career.”

The dreams of studying abroad had been crushed by the lockdown for several scholars we met in Kashmir. Uzma Manzoor, finished her masters degree last year and had intended to secure admission in a doctoral programme in social sciences abroad. She said she is struggling to access the few libraries in Srinagar, to collect books for her entrance test. “I cannot waste a year just because there is no internet which is the easiest way to study these days.” Many students including Manzoor who are aspiring to go for higher studies abroad have failed to submit their scholarship applications in American and European universities.

The constant pleas by the student fraternity in Srinagar to resume full internet connection have fallen on deaf ears. Several scholars and students we met felt that government officials were giving flimsy reasons to justify the internet gag. “There is no violence. No protest marches. Why on earth are we deprived on basic modern-day knowledge resources available via internet,” Mohammad Arif Shah asked. Shah had recently finished his post-graduation in anthropology. Students and research scholars had started using the Twitter hashtag #Restore4GinKashmir to urge authorities to restore high-speed internet in the state.

From our interviews, it was evident that the interruptions to the internet in Kashmir worked to undo the small space of freedom that the Kashmiri youth had won in academic spaces. For subaltern families, the route towards independence and self-respect, from primary schools to higher education, is critical. This experience can already create a sense of bewilderment and alienation. When tied to draconian attempts at censorship and stifling such as the internet blockade, this poses a threat to the psyche of students, who already struggle to study with minimal access to quality resources.

In the absence of internet for months, researchers feel helpless. Many of the scholars we spoke to described the internet as the one avenue they had out of the region, which had disappeared due to the restriction placed by the Indian government. The internet shutdown, which completed eight months on 5 April, is pushing researchers and the student community towards a dark future. A researcher, who wished to remain anonymous, told us he had failed to check the status of his manuscript sent to a journal for nearly five months earlier. He told us in frustration, “This is no democratic India, this is Kim-Jong’s North Korea.”