January 17, 2021

Education Behind the Bars: Kashmir

Mayukh Biswas

"Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner's face is always well hidden."

WHEN the COVID pandemic took lives and the reality of the health care system of the country plagued by continued neglect was barely open, the Modi government true to form forced students to take final year exams. But it has done nothing to now reopen educational institutions except bring out guidelines which are an eyewash. The pressure of big business has forced the government into opening malls, cinemas even bars but students cannot have their classroom. The government has deliberately let heads of central institutions to take a call on reopening while in effect giving no funding for infrastructure development to cater to a post COVID scenario.

The intent behind keeping universities and schools closed is clear. Recently an online tutorial app won the sponsorship rights to the shirts of the Indian cricket team. These applications which require a paid subscription and high-speed internet can only be afforded by the socioeconomically affluent sections. The government in the new, 'National Education Policy' is anyway planning to close down schools and colleges in remote rural places- thus the pandemic has given further impetus for the government to hand over teaching to corporate sharks who cannot derive profits from other sectors in an era of declining growth and economic downturn.

In the context of above-mentioned situation, the worst-hit categories of the students are the students of Jammu and Kashmir.

The internet is often in the news in Jammu and Kashmir after drastic decisions were taken to abrogate Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the central administration suspended internet services in Jammu and Kashmir, fearing for the law-and-order situation. Months later, in the first week of March 2020, the authorities have imposed a draconian internet shutdown with only 2G services allowed in Kashmir. There was also a digital blackout in place. All sorts of communication services, including the internet, mobile phone, and landline, had been inactivated. Expecting Kashmiri students to be able to give exams is a cruel joke designed to again rub salt in the wounds of the people of that state via discriminatory treatment. Most of the students would never be able to attend online classes (requiring high-speed unlimited data for video conferencing software) and neither able to download videos. As students have no access to college and university libraries, so they depend solely on the "2G internet in the valley" and physical copies of books. But the broadband works occasionally and with the 2G internet speed, takes tediously long to download something or upload it. Broadband services also have interruptions here. It takes around Rs 6,500-7,000 to even establish broadband fibre which is obviously not affordable for everyone. And it also takes at least a month to even establish the connection considering the Covid situation. According to the recent news, 4G ban in Jammu and Kashmir keeps getting extended till January 22, 2021.

The unavailability of high-speed internet connectivity has hampered and halted the process of online classes of students. Due to continuous ban of high-speed internet connectivity (4G services), Kashmiri students would not be able to attend exams. Recently the diplomat magazine tested the speed of the internet on Airtel and Jio, two internet providers in India. It reports, “We saw a Kashmiri user receive 100-110 kb/s internet speed if his phone displays five network bars (indicating a strong signal) and 40-60kb/s on two to three network bars.  At the same time, we saw YouTube is able to stream only 144p – 240p. But when a user connects to the internet, the speed continually decreases; the user will have to switch the phone to flight mode to refresh the network to receive better speed. A normal webpage takes two minutes to load in mobile mode; if the user uses desktop mode on the phone, the webpage takes four minutes to load." Also, heavy snowfall in Kashmir leads to power cuts of seven-eight hours due to which students won’t have any alternative of Wi-Fi services as well.

Imtiaz, a college-going Kashmiri student, was compelled to travel all the way to Delhi from Kulgam, to avail internet facilities as the same was suspended and even downloading the study materials from the internet was not possible in his state of domicile. The strive to study and eagerness to survive in these difficult times creates an example in the hearts and minds of every living individual in our country.

We are well aware of the fact that the unending saga of Covid-19 has led to the economic collapse world over. The unemployment in J&K is at a staggering average of 17.9 per cent in July 2020. Therefore, many students already belonging to the downtrodden section cannot afford to buy new electronic gadgets at this movement of crisis. Due to continuous ban of high-speed internet connectivity (4G services), Kashmiri students would not be able to attend exams. Most of the students are hailing from marginalised sections and have no source of income. The students who are in their final years of graduation also need to acquire materials and books to prepare for their entrances to continue their post-graduation education. Maintenance charges should have been disbursed for coping with online education but taking physical classes as an excuse, the department has chosen to freeze them. Many scholars were forced to drop out due to the unavailability of digital tools to access online education and started working on farms to augment the income of the family. Because research scholars are perhaps even more dependent on internet access. They need to download papers and many other contents from various websites to continue their research, but pages often crash with the error message. Coursework wasn’t the only thing that was impacted, the entire process leading up to exams also became complicated. Students already had limited means to complete their syllabus and had to face lots of difficulties regarding complex application processes. Even the exam schedules, which were previously published online, had to be passed around verbally to concerned students. In particular, the education of the girl child has suffered the most, as a decline in their family’s income during the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in lack of access to digital education. Therefore, this whole move will lead to psychological trauma among students.

Students at this time of the pandemic are also facing multiple issues- many of them in homes with hardly any space, many caring for sick relatives, many grappling with mental health issues and some even quarantined after returning back to their homes from their universities.

SFI and J&K Students' Association also wrote to the union education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, Jamia Millia Islamia vice chancellor urging them to scrap online proctored mode of examination. It is very evident that these guidelines reinforce the spirit of elitism into our education systems because the students from marginalised communities cannot afford the laptops and PCs. Such an exclusionary and unfair mode of exam will ruin their career. Students from all walks of life should be put on an equal standing and the general will should be kept in consideration. The decision was taken in a completely undemocratic manner without any consideration with students. In this period of time, SFI also condemned the JKPMSS (Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Special Scholarship) department of AICTE (All India Council of Technical Education) for not releasing full scholarship of the odd semesters to the students hailing from Jammu and Kashmir. While the college fees have been processed by the JKPMSS department, the maintenance fee remains pending. The non-disbursal of full scholarship will also lead to drop-outs from the colleges. The scholarship is given on the basis of need and merit to the students having a family income of less than eight lakh rupees. Every year, students from lower economic background depend entirely on the scholarship for their higher studies and if denied the full scholarship, they will be forced to drop-out from the colleges.

Pain engulfs Kashmiri students as schools are being gutted and children in the valley are deprived of basic educational facilities. We have seen difficult times, turbulent years when violence was intensified and reached a higher level. We have also experienced how illegal, unconstitutional and the majoritarian decisions of Modi raj have affected the livelihood of Kashmiris severely. This is a human tragedy what to say. Unitedly we have to resist this. We have to protect the dignity, rights of every Kashmiri, irrespective of which creed they belong to, what kind of life she/he leads or which group she/he is associated with. We have to take the lessons of history. SFI stands in rock-solid solidarity with the Kashmiri students and states in clear terms that it will be always with them through thick and thin.