Holding a smartphone in his hand, Ghulam Nabi, a resident of North Kashmir’s Sopore town, desperately awaits the restoration of the Internet. With office hours demanding a login at 6 PM and the Internet being shut in his town till midnight, the circumstances compelled him to take a leave from the office.
“When I woke up in the morning, the news of an encounter underway in our area with the suspension of the Internet got me worried. I had to begin my office hours by 6:00 PM but unfortunately, I had to call the manager of the company, informing him about the situation in our area.” says Nabi.
On Thursday, the Jammu and Kashmir authorities suspended mobile internet services during an encounter in which security forces killed two militants in Hardishiva area of North Kashmir’s Sopore town.
As work from home has become a new normal, most of the employees from Kashmir, who are working in Multinational Companies(MNCs) across India, have come back to the Valley and started working, but with frequent digital blackouts in Kashmir, they continue to face obstacles. “As lockdown started taking a toll on the world, companies promoted their employees to work within the comfort of their homes rather than mark their presence felt at the workplace. This prompted me to move from the National Capital to Kashmir, my hometown. But the frequent Internet shutdowns here elevate the stress and workload further,” says Nabi, a senior analyst at R1 RCM (Revenue cycle management) company based in Delhi.
“With a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, it became unsafe going to the office and with time the transport services also suffered. Also, it is important during hard times, to stay close to your family for all the mental and emotional support.” he further added.
Even after more than seven decades of Independence of India, Kashmir remains a soft target for disputes. What accompanies the gun battles are long periods of no data services, sometimes lasting even months. The Central government’s decision to abrogate article 370, last year in the month of August resulted in six months of data suspension which was later restored on 25th January this year, but only limited to 2G services. Past events like the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016, in Anantnag district of South Kashmir led to curfew being imposed in the Valley along with 136 days without Internet.
After the government announced a nationwide lockdown to keep in check the community transmission of COVID-19 virus in the last week of March, the number of gun battles between militants and security forces considerably rose in the Valley, causing substantial damage to militant networks.
Over the past few weeks, gun battles have become an undeniable part of the Valley. The Internet services restored in the last week of January after remaining off-limits for nearly six months even now are frequently being blocked. It has led to an immense downfall in trade and tourist attraction. The COVID blow came even as the industry was still working out the glitches since Jammu and Kashmir was split into two Union Territories— of J&K and Ladakh. During the current pandemic, these recent shutdowns in J&K, post the lockdown announcements have created enormous trouble for the employees. This often forces people to move to the other parts within the Valley to be able to connect to an Internet service.
Rohman Kantroo, an employee with the IT company based in Delhi, had to travel 65kms from his home in Tral area of South Kashmir to Srinagar to complete his office work, as the internet was snapped in Tral during the battle between militants and security forces, which led to the killing of three militants by security forces.
“The internet services in our area were cut short abruptly late at night, soon after the encounter began. The next morning, I had to travel approximately 65 kilometres from South Kashmir to Srinagar to access the internet,” says Rohman.
Many households in the valley have now opted for broadband services at their place, as it provides high-speed connectivity, but considering it as an important precaution the authorities have blocked access to some websites.
“In order to avail better connection, I got a broad-band network installed at my home, but even after creating all the necessary environment required to work peacefully, many websites have been blocked by the authorities to prevent people from indulging in any sort of dispute with the government. This leaves no alternative but to keep working with available 2G services. It always makes one apprehensive as any incident could result in a halt to Internet services.” adds Rohman.
On 17th June, Jammu and Kashmir(J&K) administration extended the ban on high-speed internet till 8th July, limiting it to 2G speed only. The government has maintained that the continued ban was in place to prevent infiltration attempts and curbing fake news, adding that neither education nor COVID-related activities have been hampered.
Suspension of internet services irks students
Saqlain Mushtaq, an undergraduate student at Sharda University, New Delhi, was supposed to appear for his final year online exams on Thursday, but fate had different plans pre-ordained. As the internet was suspended in his hometown, Sopore, during an encounter, he had no other option left but to leave the town and move to another area where he could access the internet and appear for the exam.
“As the news regarding the encounter broke out, I was sure that it would be accompanied by a halt to Internet services. I made sure not to miss my exams whatever the situation is going to be. So, I took my car and went to another area where Internet services were operational, parked the car on the roadside for 2 hours and completed the exam.” says Saqlain.
The frequent suspension of 2G internet services by authorities in Kashmir’s districts during disputes serves as a hindrance for college and university students who nowadays are appearing for their online examinations.
The student community of the valley, already bearing the brunt of slow internet speed during the Covid-19 lockdown, is left high and dry by the authorities when they snap mobile internet whenever a gunfight starts in a particular district leaving the examination schedules in disarray.
The slow internet speed is causing major trouble for students as many departments at different universities have opted for open book examinations and assignments. However, due to the low speed internet, restricted to 2G only, the students are finding it rather difficult to send across files. Many students complain that it takes them more than an hour to upload a two-page university assignment and sometimes the files are not even sent.
A student at Jamia Millia Islamia, who didn’t wish to be named, said that he wished to submit the internal assignments before the deadline, but due to continuous internet shutdowns in the valley for the past few weeks, he had to call the concerned authorities of the University and ask for an extension in the deadline. “Sometimes it takes us 10-15 minutes to send a mere 2Mb file, which usually takes 2 minutes on high-speed internet.” the anonymous person further adds.
Earlier, the University Grants Commission (UGC) had issued examinations-related guidelines and academic calendar to the universities in view of the COVID-19 lockdown. As per the guidelines, universities have been asked to hold the terminal examinations in July. It has also asked institutions to evaluate students of intermediate semesters based on internal assessment of the present and previous semester.
Aaqib Fayaz is a student of Convergent Journalism in AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia university.