Internet 'Not a Fundamental Right', J&K Tells SC as Students’ Careers Hang in Balance

Experts are rubbishing the authorities’ claim that curbs on the internet are in no way impacting students when it comes to accessing study material or the ongoing efforts to thwart the advances of the coronavirus pandemic.

Srinagar: “Right to internet is not a fundamental right,” the Jammu and Kashmir administration told the Supreme Court in its 32-page report on Wednesday, while filing its detailed reply on a plea seeking the restoration of 4G internet connectivity.

Experts rubbished the government’s reply, which justified the curbs on the pretext that the number of government school students was far less and they didn’t possess a smart mobile phone or computer to access the internet.

“What kind of a logic is this,” fumed Professor Mohammad Aslam. “Have they gone out of their mind?”

Aslam, who headed the Department of English at Kashmir University first and the Central University of Kashmir later, said it was unthinkable to separate technology from education in the contemporary world. The abundance of material available on the internet is simply inaccessible to students in Jammu and Kashmir.

“The administration’s premise that the internet is not a fundamental right of a citizen of India holds no water,” Aslam said. “The Supreme Court has, long ago, declared access to internet a fundamental right.”

Government reply to Supreme Court notice

In its 32-page response, of which The Wire has a copy, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has maintained that a “majority of students of class 1st to 12th are studying in 24,018 government schools as compared to 5,690 private schools. Further, majority of government school students do not have mobile/smart phones or computers to access the internet.”

“It is submitted that restoration of 4G mobile data services will substantially increase the use of social media and other online platforms in uploading/downloading of videos and other propaganda material and their fast circulation, with resultant deterioration in law and order situation in Kashmir Valley. For any upload/ download of a typically heavy data file, the present speed restrictions increase the time taken or lead to failure….”, the reply contends.

Also read: India Must Treat the Internet as a Public Utility During COVID 19, and After

The reply also avers that the contentions of “alleged deprivation of access to education, health care facilities/updates” are incorrect as the administration of J&K is “taking all possible steps to ensure minimum impact of COVID19 is felt”.

“Ministry of HRD Government of India has initiated some technology-based initiatives for e-learning and further proposal is being shared with it for delivering lessons on 16 DD Channels at national level,” the reply added.

The reply stated that the right to accessing the internet was not a “fundamental” right.

Students’ aspirations on hold

The day Mehran’s matriculation result was declared early this year, relatives and neighbours visited his house in droves, bringing bags full of sweets and almonds. In Kashmir, passing the matriculation examination is considered a major milestone in a student’s life.

At an impressive Cumulative Grade Points Average (CGPA) of 9.8, Mehran was poised to enter his professional career in style. He studied physics, chemistry and mathematics. From being a fan of shows like Sony BBC Earth’s Seven Worlds, One Planet, Masters Of Our Universe: Einstein and Hawking and Earth’s Natural Wonders, he also uses his telescope to immerse himself in the mysteries of the universe.

Mehran wants to be an astronaut with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as his first stopover in a career he has been dreaming about since his childhood.

But despite his talent, Mehran’s dreams face the first major roadblock: the internet. For example, it took him three hours to download the Class 11 syllabus which was uploaded on the Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education website.

A security forces officer patrols the Raj Bhawan area of Srinagar, after the bifurcation of the Jammu and Kashmir state came into effect on October 31. Photo: PTI

“I’ve had to grapple with a few kbps when my mind is thinking in terms of astronomical speeds,” a visibly frustrated Mehran said. “What can you do when a file of a few MBs takes an eternity to download?”

On August 5, 2019, coincidentally his birthday, the government of India unilaterally scrapped the special status of the Kashmir region guaranteed under Article 370 and Article 35-A of the Indian constitution, annexing it with the dominion as a Union Territory.

The clampdown

That day, the authorities severed the internet connection, casting Kashmir into an information black hole and leaving tens and thousands of students in a lurch. In a run up to the move, hundreds of paramilitary personnel were rushed to the erstwhile state to quell any possible unrest.

After a complete blackout for nearly six months since the revocation of the special status, authorities finally decided to restore the internet on January 25 – albeit with speeds downgraded to 2G. The restoration of the internet, however, came with a serious rider. Citing misuse by miscreants for propagating false information, the authorities decided to blacklist all social media platforms permitting access to some 301 “white-listed” websites. The number was increased to 1,485 by February 15.

Also read: J&K: Plea in SC for Restoration of 4G Mobile Internet Services Amid COVID-19 Crisis

To infiltrate the firewall, people started installing VPNs (virtual private networks) in order to access social media sites without being tracked from their original locations for fear of reprisal from police. The police also quizzed several people – mostly students – on the use of VPNs while registering open FIRs under various sections of the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Indian Penal Code and IT Act against “hundreds of social media abusers” in the Valley.

On many occasions, army personnel intercepted students, asked them to hand over their mobile phones and if any VPNs were found installed, they were allegedly thrashed.

Supreme Court chips in

In January, a three-member bench led by Justice N.V. Ramana, next in line to be chief justice, had asked the government to review the internet lockdown in Kashmir.

“The authorities must, before invoking any such power, consider whether the ends can be met by resorting to other, less restrictive measures. The rules specify that any suspension must be temporary,” the bench said on January 10.

The court also asked the government to correct the “gap” in the law — by stipulating a period for such curbs — to ensure that the rules are proportionate. The court shot down the government’s argument that it was technically impossible to “selectively” block the internet. The proportionality requirement makes an indefinite suspension “impermissible,” the court observed.

The intervention of the top court did not motivate the authorities to lift the curbs on the internet. The curbs continued.

Also read: Doctors Write Open Letter to PM Modi on 4G Access for Jammu and Kashmir

Amid the number of coronavirus cases witnessing a sharp rise in Kashmir, the Supreme Court on April 9 sought a response in a week from the Jammu and Kashmir administration on a petition demanding restoration of 4G connectivity. The plea was again heard by a three-member bench led by Justice N.V. Ramana. The deadline expired on April 16.

Explaining Article 19 of the Indian constitution, the Supreme Court had officially declared the internet access a fundamental right.

Expert opinion

While reacting to the unavailability of high speed internet, students and teachers described their experience as “no better than living in the Stone Age”.

Experts are rubbishing the authorities’ claim that curbs on the internet are in no way impacting students when it comes to accessing study material or the ongoing efforts to thwart the advances of the coronavirus pandemic.

Vice-chancellor Islamic University of Science and Technology, Mushtaq Ahmad Siddiqui, who previously headed the Immunology and Molecular Medicine Department at SKIMS, described the non-availability of 4G internet as “disastrous” for students.

“High-speed internet and the contemporary methodologies of teaching and learning are so intertwined that, come what may, they can’t be separated from one another,” he said. “I’d only say the students of Jammu and Kashmir are very unfortunate for not being able to exploit the true potential of e-learning that the rest of the country is enjoying amid the COVID-19 lockdown.”

Siddiqui, who is an alumnus of Chiba University, Tokyo, and who has taught in Germany as well, said the slashed internet speeds have hampered efforts in controlling the coronavirus epidemic. “Let me mince no words. Kashmir, with regard to the coronavirus pandemic, is sitting on an Everest of dynamite that requires just a tiny spark to explode,” he warned. “Only the right kind of knowledge about the virus can save us from an imminent disaster which can only be achieved by lifting the curbs on the internet.”

An article published in The Telegraph titled ‘Health experts fear Jammu and Kashmir could become a COVID-19 hotspot‘ supports his claim.

Meanwhile, those pursuing PhD’s in universities of Kashmir are frustrated with the trimmed speeds as it limits their access to literature available on the internet, downloading papers, or communicating with journals and researchers outside the state.

Also read: New Domicile Law Opens J&K State Jobs for Outsiders, Lowest Grade Jobs Reserved for Locals

“Without high-speed internet, the entire research work has become a laboriously time-consuming process rendering it a wasteful activity,” said Prof Iqbal Mattoo, who heads the School of Education and Behavioural Sciences, University of Kashmir.

Prof Wajahat Amin Shah of the Department of Chemistry, University of Kashmir, echoes similar apprehensions. “The process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of experts in the same field is possible only when an unimpeded high-speed internet is made available to the students and research guides,” Shah said. “Within the scientific community, peer review has become an integral component of the academic writing process.”

Mubeen Ahmad Masoodi, who runs a private coaching institute for IIT aspirants, has been struggling with the Zoom application. “High-speed internet would make classes flawless and increase our versatility,” Masoodi said. “It would also increase interaction as currently we disable sound and video from participants due to low bandwidth. We are limited to sharing white screen and can’t share more interactive content.”

People queue up to go online at a government set-up internet cafe in Budgam, Indian-administered Kashmir on December 24, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Athar Parvaiz

Fazal Ilhahi, who teaches Philosophy at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Education (IASE) Srinagar, sees a trust-deficit angle behind slashing internet speeds. “They do not want to understand that declining number of students in subsequent classes could be due to weak net connectivity,” he said.

“I found teaching my students on 2G like either filling water in a wicker basket or pouring in a can with an inverted funnel. The bosses are unmoved. They say, keep on pouring, it would fill ultimately,” Illahi wrote a Facebook post.

The bottom line

It remains to be seen when the government decides to lift the curbs fully until then future of tens of thousands of students would continue to hang in the balance. According to a report, only Jio subscribers have shelled Rs 403 crore since August 2019 without actually getting full services.

Meanwhile, a dispirited Mehran, whose patience has started wearing thin, seems to have given up on the hope of the high speed internet being made available to him. “Why is the prime minister so insensitive to the requirements of a student,” he asked to his father. “Are we children of a lesser god?”