Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Fish out of water: Scholars and researchers in Kashmir

For graduate students, or those pursuing research, high speed internet is an essential tool, especially when access to physical libraries is restricted. Methods used earlier to circumvent the internet problem are also unusable now (travelling to other areas to access the syllabi and resources, ferrying in hard drives with necessary content). In order to avail of the fixed line internet services on campus, Kashmir University made research scholars and university staff sign bonds. Amongst the conditions it laid down, there was to be no social networking, no use of VPNs, and no encrypted files to be uploaded or downloaded. Additionally, the username of the person using the service would be linked to their usage, and violation of the conditions would result in a bar on internet access on campus for them.

Those working in the sciences have been hit especially hard, since they are unable to keep themselves updated on their fields. In a fiercely competitive market this could have adverse effects on their future employability. Those attempting to register for higher education institutions are also facing difficulties in accessing university websites and in uploading documents online. The overall impact of it all could be students turning away from fields they see as difficult to pursue (such as computer technology).

A report in Times of India detailed the travails of conducting scholarly and advanced research work amidst a digital siege. Shunaid, who has completed a year of his doctoral studies in nanotechnology at the Kashmir University, described how the internet shutdown brought his work to a sudden halt. “I have also completed the first year of a project for Dept of Science and Technology. Only if I submit the progress report will I get the funding for the second year,” he told the Times of India. Shunaid tried the Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar, where the internet could be accessed to check mail: “A policeman would be stationed there. He would decide on whether to grant permission to access the net for 10 minutes. Mostly, if you had to download a roll number or something.” Shunaid eventually travelled 400 km to Ladakh to check the status of two manuscripts that he had sent to a peer-reviewed scientific journal in solid-state physics. For a five-day stay in Ladakh in September, Shunaid spent over Rs 25,000. Without the internet, a research scholar is like “a fish out of water” he said, and described how the commercial software he uses for his nanotech course-work needs to be annually renewed. The licence renewal certificate lay idle in his email, which he could not access. Even his offline work went poorly.

Not just scholars, professors helming research projects and guiding advanced students were adversely impacted too. “Look at the irony,” said M Tariq Banday, who has taught in KU since 2002, and currently heads the department of electronics: “I am an investigator for a [Government of India] project of almost Rs 50 lakh on cryptography security solutions for the Internet of Things. How am I supposed to work?” Calling the suspension of the web the worst thing to happen in the Valley in the last 20 to 30 years, Banday detailed how in the field of electronics “everything is obsolete within six months.” He notes wryly, “I have lost six months.”

The Diplomat reported that many scholars who were ready for the submission or final presentation of their research work encountered problems in communicating with their advisors and research supervisors, throwing years of work into jeopardy. One such user said that he received a WhatsApp message from his supervisor one morning asking him to send a chapter of his thesis by email. Arif says, “I tried to open Gmail on my laptop but it was responding with a temporary error. Finally, after 3 hours, I was able to mail him the entire document.”

While it is important to assess the internet shutdown in terms of the economic impact it has had on the region, a larger understanding requires an assessment of its socio-political effects, especially on already vulnerable populations. The young people in Kashmir are an example of a group that has lived through situations of extreme stress and uncertainty. Having missed out on a year of schooling, they find themselves trying to catch up now, but without access to an essential service. Even as the entire world rallies together to share ways to work through the pandemic, Kashmir finds itself sidelined from the world, its citizens conspicuous by their absence online.

The above report is an excerpt from Kashmir’s Internet Siege, a comprehensive report documenting the vastness of internet blackout in Kashmir published by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

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