As world fights coronavirus, Kashmir struggles for information and education

Image used for representational purposes only ( Image source: Anadolu agency)

By Sajid Bukhari

Government of a country whose constitution has promised ‘Right to Equality’ under Article 14 even to foreigners, has segregated 1.25 crore residents of Jammu and Kashmir away from rest of the world. No one could have thought in this era of technical advancement, Kashmir will be made to suffer without internet and phone networks for more than six months would be further pushed to those days where it took hours to download a file of only a few KB.

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The night of August 5, 2019, was horrible as in whole Jammu and Kashmir Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) was imposed and subsequently leaders were put under house arrest. Mobile services, internet and even landline were suspended for an indefinite period as amid chaos, the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories – Jammu Kashmir with legislative assembly and Ladakh without it. Even though the Indian government repeatedly claims that people of Kashmir have welcomed their decision, it was a sheer betrayal to its people. Had it been so, they wouldn’t have had to ban internet to suppress voices from the ground for so long.

In 2016, United Nation Human Rights Commission had upheld that “access to internet is a human right” and the longest internet shutdown in Kashmir post the scrapping of Article 370 was thus snatching a human right. Kerala High Court, in Faheema Shirin RK Vs State of Kerala and Ors, had ruled that right to access to internet is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the constitution and it also forms part of the right to education. Moreover, even Supreme Court of India while responding to a petition on internet blockade in January 2020 had declared access to internet as a fundamental right under Article 19(1)a. Nonetheless, people of Kashmir were deprived of it for the longest.

In these times people depend more on the internet than daily news to know happenings of the world and many have invested millions in businesses solely dependent of internet. More importantly, it plays a vital role in education and health sector. And that makes it very difficult to put out in figures what Jammu and Kashmir has lost because of the internet ban. After the longest internet clampdown, on January 25, 2G network was finally made accessible but only with a few limited websites. This turned out to be a mockery by the government as all social networking sites and most informative websites remained restricted. Now when the world is fighting against the deadly coronavirus pandemic, people of Jammu and Kashmir are left helpless with 2G internet, far away from precautionary information that the rest of the world has access to, in a matter of a few clicks. If it takes one whole day to download a single file of an MB then how are our doctors supposed to gather information to know how China, Iran or Italy has responded to this devastating virus? Not just doctors but common people have been suffering a lot due to lack of necessary information about the diseases, symptoms, and more. Time to time governmental and non-governmental organizations across the world are circulating advisories to take precautions against COVID19 but people of Jammu and Kashmir do not have any or much access to them. Thus increasing the danger of this contagious disease in the union territory.

With more than 400 positive cases reported so far in Jammu and Kashmir, and a complete lockdown in place, people are scared as they cannot connect with health workers and know how to react when symptoms of the virus infection appears. Lack of information has led to many misconceptions that people have gone to the extent of changing their dietary habits for fear that eating meat contributes to the spread of coronavirus, believing that bats and hens are responsible for ongoing pandemic.

Last week, Education Department of Jammu and Kashmir urged schools to start online classes and the same advisory was received from central government. Such initiatives are important but during a crisis like ours, it may only be fruitful outside Jammu and Kashmir. Conducting online classes is a mere illusion with 2G internet speed. A student of Aligarh Muslim University, who hails from district Poonch, tried to attend an online class on Zoom app only to find out that he couldn’t recognize even the face and voice of the teacher due to poor connectivity. On the one hand, schools are advised to take online initiatives to continue with academic activities, by depriving them of the very medium required for such activities. Many online educational portals and e-learning websites have made their courses freely accessible in this lockdown and numerous universities are also taking various initiatives to provide platforms for online studies but the students of Jammu and Kashmir do not have access to any of these facilities merely because they reside in Jammu and Kashmir.

On the face of it, people of Jammu and Kashmir are deprived only of high speed internet. But on the ground level, they are being deprived of their livelihood. As per a report released by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), till January 2020, businesses in the valley had suffered losses worth Rs 18,000 crore due to lack of internet connectivity and about 5 lakh people lost their jobs in different sectors. Students have been deprived of the Right to Education, firstly due to curfew imposed after the abrogation of Article 370 and now when the whole country is utilizing online platforms, students here are kept in the dark.

In a recent filed petition in the Supreme Court, Charu Ambani, on behalf of ‘Private School Association’ said around 2200 schools are not able to conduct online classes due to poor internet connectivity. This is the case of private institutions, so the condition of government schools can be imagined.  Nothing can be more oppressive than preventing a society from getting access to education. Many people have suffered due to communication blockade as they couldn’t get medical facilities on time and now amid COVID19 people have to suffer even worse without high speed internet.The government claims that these steps are taken for the development and peace in Jammu and Kashmir, but consequences of these steps has brought devastation only which has led to desolation, not peace.

Sajid Bukhari is a student of Law at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU)