Kashmiris are living in a lockdown within a lockdown. They were put under curfew and a total communications blackout as the Indian government the region’s autonomy last August. Schools, colleges and universities were closed for months. They had barely for the new session earlier this year when the coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut down again.
After removing Kashmir’s autonomy, the Indian government promised to provide Rs 2,600 crore to improve the quality of education and related infrastructure in the valley, only to put the plan on . Not surprisingly then, the region’s education system is crumbling. The coronavirus lockdown has only made matters worse.
The communications blackout imposed last August is yet to be fully lifted. The vast majority of the valley’s internet users only have access to slow-speed 2G mobile internet, and even that is frequently snapped, usually to preempt public protests in the wake of a gunfight between militants and the security forces. So, at a time when online classes are keeping the education system going elsewhere, the valley’s students and teachers are having making use of them.
The Supreme Court a petition demanding the restoration of the 4G mobile internet in Kashmir saying the “peculiar circumstances” of the region required “delicate balancing” of “national security concerns and human rights”. Contesting the plea, the central government on April 21 that it “cannot overlook militancy” while deciding on the restoration of 4G internet.
The consequence is that Kashmir’s students in particular are greatly suffering.
Mohsin, who lives in Srinagar, studies law at Kashmir University. For several days after an encounter in which two militants were killed by security forces and at least a dozen houses damaged, mobile internet was cut off in the city. So, he wasn’t able to attend online lectures or do research work for his assignments.
“Students have been most affected by the crackdown last August and now the lockdown. The entire year practically went to waste. Whenever there is any disturbance in Kashmir, our education suffers. Some years, we just had 60-80 working days,” he complained. “The future of our students, especially those in school, is in jeopardy. Students were mass promoted in 2016 and 2018. Now owing to the pandemic, it may have to be done again.”
He added, “All of this is severely impacting the mental health of students. I want to learn, attend online courses, webinars, but it all remains a distant dream.”
Mohsin’s sister studies in Bhopal but has been home since the lockdown started. Her university has announced online exams and she fears missing them given the patchy internet. “She has been crying,” said Mohsin. “She feels that she won't be able to appear for online exams.”
Their studies, though, aren’t the only worry for Kashmir’s students. The valley’s economy had been battered by the recurrent seasons of curfews and violence beginning 2008 as also the 2014 floods, and last year’s lockdown crippled it further. The pandemic has only added to the devastation.
“These constant disturbances have pushed us farther back and we won’t be as ‘employable’ as graduates from elsewhere,” said Mohsin. “Also, with the region’s economy dying down, how will we find jobs?”
“It takes time to rebuild a broken education system,” he added. “The children of Kashmir are suffering.”
Rouf Nazir is a master’s student at the Central University of Kashmir. He lives in the Kulgam district of Kashmir. When the coronavirus lockdown was announced in late March, he had to rush home, leaving his books in his hostel. Soon after, his department started taking online classes. “There is always a connectivity issue. Most of the time, we are unable to hear the teacher,” he complained. “There are 40 students in my class and only 15-20 attend the lecture. I took admission here in July, but since then we haven’t completed even one unit. One year has gone to waste.”
Hanzal Rashid is a B Tech student at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir. He lives in Kulgam district. “Firstly, I am unable to attend online classes due to poor connectivity. I also have a technical course and it’s difficult to do it online,” he said. “The university is proposing to conduct the exams for the two lost semesters in July. But when we haven’t had classes, how will we appear for the exams?”
Iqbal Sahanullah, from Baramulla district in North Kashmir, is doing his PhD at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. He had gone home on March 12 and could not return after the lockdown was imposed. He had to submit research papers but couldn’t. He had left his books in Delhi and poor internet connectivity meant he couldn’t access study material online. “Whenever there’s any disturbance, violence or any political activity, the education system is the first to suffer,” he said. “It also works the other way around. When your life and dignity are at stake, education and economy take a backseat. This is what has defined Kashmir’s education system over the past years.”
Iqbal also serves as an academic counsellor for students in Kashmir, but he hasn’t been able to connect with them. “I have pretty much missed all my deadlines. Whenever there is a gunfight or political disturbance in any district, they shut down the internet,” he explained. “I missed an important interview due to the sudden suspension.”
Javed Ali has two children. The older one is in kindergarten. Javed is worried about their future. “Even when schools reopened, I was really scared to send him to school. The turbulent atmosphere outside makes one fear for his life. I would constantly call the bus driver to keep a track of their whereabouts. What options are we left with? My kid has a keen interest in astronomy but with schools closed and the internet dead, we are unable to engage his interest,” he said.
“My son and my brother’s children ask me, ‘Why do students elsewhere have all the resources and we don’t?’ I don’t have an answer.”
Mohsin is a pseudonym used on the student’s request to protect his identity.