Postgraduate studies in the comforts of a metro city and animated with the exchange of ideas, was a privilege that was easy to acknowledge but obscure to understand.
Today, as someone who teaches postgraduate students in Kashmir over 2G network speed, I am faced with the task of introducing texts and complex ideas to my students, who for over one year have not had access to regular university facilities.
Mere days ago, the Jammu and Kashmir administration decreed, yet again, that high speed internet will not be restored in the Union Territory, barring Ganderbal and Udhampur districts, because of reasons related to national security.
In the communications blackout since the Article 370 was scrapped, Kashmir was cut off from the world and students lost a semester worth of classes.
Then, the COVID-19 lockdown came, necessitating use of technology for the flow of ideas and information. The technospaces of Kashmir are characterised by absolute control of communications – electronic and mechanical. Much has already been written about the complete communications blockade since August 5, 2019. The blockade has transported Kashmir to the Stone Ages. However, the impact of this blockade on the education sector has been much worse than any comparison to our primate ancestors.
Since I started teaching, it has always been my belief that students in the social sciences are unusually perceptive. This, in spite of the fact that many choose to study social sciences as a backup option, after not being able to qualify for professional courses.
Given the conflict, I find that students in Kashmir are able to locate power and engage with the capillaries of the Foucauldian Panopticon with such relative ease that it would leave faculty in bigger universities envious.
Yet, it is one thing that a young mind can intuitively decipher the operations of power and another thing to train that mind to channel this intuition as an analytical tool.
A classroom is meant to be a safe space, a space where students and teachers can exchange ideas, where teachers are supposed to push the cognitive boundaries of young minds so that they can engage with their social, cultural, political and economic context better.
However, given that one does not know the extent to which online spaces are compromised by profit-oriented companies or by authorities, this task has been difficult to achieve and has led many to self-censor.
I teach my students over an erratic 2G connection where calls keep getting disconnected. Thus teachers often switch their video feed off and so do students. Students also turn their microphones off so that background sounds does not interrupt the lecture.
Usually, it takes me at least a few minutes to be able to share my screen with my students, and then too I need to enlarge the shared screen for the benefit of those who access classes on phones. There have been times when I discuss important points in a key text, and realise only later that connection (either mine or the students’) was weak and so, at least some of them could neither hear me nor see my screen for a while.
Imagine teaching social science classes for a over a semester now, without being able to see your students, gauge their expressions or ensure that they are mentally or physically present in the lecture or discussion.
Teachers have found the key skills of articulation and framing questions difficult to encourage among students, as they are unable to meet or see them.
Further, on 2G speed it is nearly impossible to attach bigger files – like books or power points. Last month, I needed to share a student’s presentation with the audience of an international seminar where they were scheduled to present. It took me nearly a day to attach that presentation to an email. As students cannot download or share relevant texts at this speed (especially students in their dissertation phase) questions related to access have become important.
This speed also makes it difficult to share readings for classwork or give assignments, usually over private Google Classroom accounts. During last semester’s final exams, I had to grant extended time to students in certain parts of South Kashmir where gunfights had led to a complete internet shutdown.
Naturally, the quality of education has suffered colossally. And students have been at the receiving end of this.
Not only is the 2G connection erratic, if you have students who are not from urban centres, you can be assured that most of them will have a localised internet shutdown once or twice a month for few days because of ‘encounters’ or gunfights between militants and security forces.
All of this is compounded by the fact that many students in Kashmir do not own personal laptops or have access to private broadband connections (which were only restored in March this year). Teachers have had to remember that not all students have access to the same technology.
This point is of significant importance in the current context, where due to a continued lockdown of 13 months, students have found it hard even to meet university fee requirements. It is therefore imperative to understand that students from rural areas or economically weaker sections find it even harder to access the same education as compared their more privileged classmates.
Situated as the students are in a conflict area, many have lost loved ones to the conflict and some have even lost their homes (or homes of their friends and relatives), which have been gutted during gunfights. They have grown up in highly controlled environments where freedom of expression and movement is restricted – if not penalised – and where parents live under constant fear of their children’s security.
As if being young is not difficult enough, youth here need to reconcile their reality with what has been projected to them as normal by popular culture.
Many of my students, across disciplines, have contacted me telling me that they find it pointless to attend classes online in the current scenario. They speak of a sense of detachment from their surroundings and the difficulty of opening up about these confusing feelings to their families.
They are anxious and isolated, and the lack of adequate mental health infrastructure only aggravates this problem.
A student of mine had stopped attending classes after he was unable to access therapy and medication in his village. His situation did not allow him to travel to one of the cities for regular therapy. It took a great measure of support from his peers and personal strength, for him to rejoin regular classes against all these odds.
Lastly, students who completed their degrees in the last year could not apply for fellowships, scholarships and admissions abroad and in India. I had students who would request relatives, friends or acquaintances outside Kashmir to download forms and books for them and then arrange for these to be sent to them.
Social media and broadband was only restored in March 2020 at 2G speed, granting Kashmiris access to all websites – between January and March only limited ‘whitelisted’ websites were accessible in Kashmir. But by the end of March, the admission process is past application deadlines for most universities. Similarly, many research scholars could not apply for or renew their fellowships and scholarships.
The university where I teach has worked with the student council to address many of the issues raised here. And these issues reflect only some of the challenges that students and faculty in the higher education sector in Kashmir face.
However, the solutions to the woes afflicting the education sector, specifically the higher education sector, can only come through systemic policy level changes, which should include the immediate restoration of regular speed internet and clear directives on digital surveillance.
There is much that needs to be done to study the impact of the internet restrictions on the education sector in Kashmir.
Khatija Khader completed her Ph.D. at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has worked as a campaigner with Amnesty International India and with Centre for Equity Studies. At present, she is teaching International Relations at the Centre for International Relations, Islamic University for Science and Technology (IUST), which is located in Awantipora, Kashmir.