Ifshana Maqbool, 29, would daily open her laptop – neatly placed in a corner of her room in Natipora, Srinagar – and scroll through her months-old research work in the field of Electronics and Communication (E-C) Department [under Information Technology], and shut it.

Spending the rest of the day, without any concrete idea, Ms. Maqbool, a research scholar at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), has been by-passing her days in idleness since the clampdown.

On 5 August, the central government stripped the constitutional special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) and reorganized the erstwhile state into two Union Territories (UTs) – J-K and Ladakh. Dodging any possible backlash, the government imposed a communication blackout – which continues to be in place partially in Kashmir Valley, wherein the SMS, pre-paid cellular service, and the Internet remain out of reach.

The unavailability of the Internet has hampered and halted the research work for Valley-based scholars. “[After communication blackout] I was completely knocked out,” said Ms. Maqbool. “[Since 5 August] I haven’t made any further progress, or advancement, in my research.”

Barring Means of Knowledge?

As a mark of protest, a few students at NIT have decided to give-up classes for the last week – asking the university authorities to restore the Internet. “We approached the authorities for the restoration of the Internet, but we haven’t gotten a concrete response,” said Ms. Maqbool.

Though, the absence of the Internet is not only hampering the research work but supplementary activities as conferences as well. On 2 November, Ms. Maqbool had to attend a conference in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, related to her subject. To attend the conference, she had to submit all the formalities via an email.

Back then, only landline connections were working – that too, in selected areas. To contact the conference management team, Ms. Maqbool traveled 25 kilometers from her home to Ganderbal, central Kashmir, to make a call.

Checking her email was a pressing issue. But, she thought of an alternative. “I literally begged them to change the email address,” she said. “I had to convince them to send the formalities on my brother’s email.”

Her elder brother, who is an employee in J-K Bank’s Ganderbal branch, had his mail synced with the banking system. “If I had not been lucky enough to have a brother in a bank – missing this mail would have cost me a year,” she said. “[Due to the clampdown] the scholars are already delayed by more than three months.”

Aadil Bakhsi, who is a Ph.D. scholar at Media Education Research Centre (MERC), studying Media and Conflict Transformation for the last one year, was used to reading international publications round the clock for better understanding of his subject.

“Since 5 August, I have no idea about any development happening around,” he said. Turning the pages of his notebook, stored for his research, he explained that they also need the internet to attend conferences outside the region.

“These conferences are very important for our research,” he said. “If we cannot attend these conferences, it affects the pace of our research – ultimately, result in the degradation of its quality.”

The current time, which he considers an important stage for a research scholar, he added, “If the situation doesn’t improve, there won’t be any new research proposals.”

“Imagine the struggle”

Perhaps, not every research scholar has a brother in bank as Ms. Maqbool; Junaid Parvaiz, 31, who is a research scholar studying Physics at the KU, has traveled to Ladakh, now a different UT without a legislature, twice since the clampdown – why? “I had to check my email,” he said.

For his area of research – carbon nanotubes – Mr. Parvaiz totally relies on the Internet, and could only proceed a little in absence of that. The software that he used to use – simulation and modeling – expired during the clampdown and is asking for a key to activate again.

“The key is on my email,” he sighed. “Now, I cannot even check my previous work.”

A few days before the clampdown, Mr. Parvaiz had submitted two research papers to his professor for the review. He got the edits but had no way of communication to work on them. To submit his paper on time, Mr. Parvaiz, alongside his other scholar friend, Ahmad Hafi, decided to travel to Ladakh in the first week of September.

“We stayed there for six days, and completed the changes in our papers and submitted them back in that week only,” Mr. Parvaiz said. When they fell short of money, in the absence of any means of communication, they borrowed a small sum of money from a mutual friend. “Imagine the struggle,” he said. “We would wait for hours to meet each other; there was no means of communication.” In Ladakh, he found many other scholar friends, who had visited for the same purpose.

A trip, “just to check the Internet”, cost the duo about 24 thousand rupees. “A researcher without the Internet is like a fish without water,” Mr. Parvaiz said.

It is not just the Internet issue that Mr. Parvaiz is worried about, “but the discouragement from months-long idleness.” “The work that we did [prior to the clampdown] has been wasted,” he said.

The reliability of the scholars on the Internet is just one parameter, but its repercussions and impact on the final research work as well as the anxiety in scholars are another.

Gull Mohammad Wani, 49, who is head of the political science department at the University of Kashmir (KU), said that for apt research work, a scholar not only needs a congenial atmosphere inside a lab or library but in general as well.

Owing to more than a hundred days of shutdown and about nil academic progress, Dr. Wani believes that the snapped Internet is not the only issue. “The peace and tranquility of the mind are lost,” he noted. “Many of my research scholars have delayed their project schedules, and it has put them under tremendous pressure and the anxiety is evident too.”

“When a researcher cannot go out of his home for months, access the data and cannot execute it on the field, definitely it has a cost,” Dr. Wani added.

Tawseef Mushtaq, 28, who is a Ph.d. scholar in the Department of History at KU, believes that his dream to complete doctorate “has been dashed to ground by the government.” Coming from a middle-class economic stratum, he is the first individual from his family to get into a research program.

He had enrolled in June 2015 academic session, and was met with 2016 uprising – sparked after the killing of a militant commander, Burhan Wani. “Now, I think I’m delayed by one more year,” he said. Though, the clampdown has not only taken a toll on his education, “but economic as well as mental health.” As a scholar, in general circumstances, he would submit regular updates related to his topic, which in turn might land him some stipend. “For the last three months, we haven’t gotten that as well.”

“Internet gag is the worst tool that the authorities use to crush a student’s future,” he said. “We cannot even express the sufferings that we have come across [in the past months of the clampdown].”

This story originally appeared in the 18 – 24 November 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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