Without Internet, Kashmir's Doctoral Scholars Are Stumped for a Way Forward

Scholars who should be focusing on their studies are also grappling with the psychological trauma inflicted by the region's threatening, volatile political atmosphere.

On August 5, the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and bifurcated it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Anticipating a popular backlash, the government imposed a communication blockade that included internet services.

After these events, Shunaid Parvaiz, a doctoral scholar in the physics department at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar, has had to travel to Ladakh, 400 km away, just to check his email. “A fish without water and a researcher without internet are the same thing,” he said.

Parvaiz studies carbon nanotubes, and there is little he can do without the internet. The license for a simulation and modelling tool he’d been using had expired – and the key to renewing it was locked away in his inbox. He complains that he can’t refer to his older work when he needs to either.

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That wasn’t all. Parvaiz had submitted two research manuscripts for review. After the internet shutdown, he decided to travel to Ladakh along with a friend in the first week of September to check their progress. “We stayed there for around six days in a hotel,” he told The Wire. When he was notified that he had to modify a paper, he laboured for the next six days and resubmitted it. The total bill for this trip amounted to Rs 24,000.

In Ladakh, Parvaiz met other scholar friends who’d come there for the same purpose. All of them were frustrated without internet access.

A message in a media centre set up in a private hotel in Srinagar with limited internet access, only for journalists. Photo: Majid Maqbool

Beenish, 28, is a research scholar at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, but she has little to do. Her PhD is about cloud-computing. “I just sit and play games to avoid stress,” she said. Her studies haven’t budged since August 5.

She had registered to attend a conference in Mathura on November 2. Thanks to the blackout, she had to make the 25-km trip from her home to Ganderbal, where her brother worked at a bank and had access to a working telephone. On the call, she discovered that the conference’s organisers had emailed her the details of additional requirements and that she only had two days to respond.

“I literally had to beg for the change of email address and had to convince them to send mail to my brother’s ID,” Beenish said. Her brother’s inbox was already synchronised with the banking system, which meant she could load it in a bank. “If I hadn’t been lucky enough to have a brother at a bank, this email could have cost me a year.”

Aadil Bakshi, who has been pursuing his PhD at Srinagar’s Media Education Research Centre, on media and conflict transformation, for a year now, agreed. “There are formalities for submissions. There are research problems where content analysis is done only via the internet,” he said.

Without email and telephone, it’s nearly impossible to access stipends to cover their travel costs.

Gull Mohammad Wani, head of the department of political science at the University of Kashmir, said the internet blockade is just one part of the picture. Scholars who should be focusing on their studies are also grappling with the psychological trauma inflicted by the region’s threatening, volatile political atmosphere.

“The universities have been shut for more than three months and there is no academic activity” is underway, he said. “So it’s not only about the internet. Many research scholars pursuing their PhDs under my guidance [are] under tremendous pressure and their anxiety is now evident,” Wani said.

“When a researcher can’t get out of her home for months together, access the data and can’t undertake field work, it definitely has a cost.”

Ruheela Hassan, the head of the department of journalism and mass communication at the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), echoed these words, saying students in her supervision were labouring under the burden of “psychological pressures”.

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“The tense atmosphere affects the choice of research topics. The diversity of the topics shrink,” she added.

Tawseef Mushtaq is a scholar at the university’s department of history, and the first member of his family to pursue a PhD. He began his programme in 2015 but the events of August 5 erected roadblocks to his graduation so close to the finish line. Now he has to wait for another year.

Even if not for using the internet, Mushtaq explained that he couldn’t use the archives either, conduct field surveys and look for books in libraries. “It ultimately degrades the quality of research,” he said. “There won’t be any new research proposals if the situation does not improve.”