Internet gag hits Indian Kashmir students

Govt claims the measure has prevented havoc by stemming the spread of violent protests
Internet gag hits Indian Kashmir students

Security was beefed up in parts of Jammu and Kashmir after the army shot dead militants in Baramulla town on Oct. 19. The administration also shut down the internet across the state in an attempt to check the spread of violent protests. (Photo by IANS)

Sheikh Taha, a 10th-grader in India's northern Jammu and Kashmir state, is one of many worried students.

Their exam preparations have been hampered by an abrupt shutdown of the internet in India's only Muslim-majority state.

Thousands of students, who like Taha stored study notes on the internet for easy access, were unable to retrieve them in time for exams scheduled for mid-October.

"Thankfully, the exams have now been postponed until the first week of November," Taha said.

The administration postponed exams because of the volatile situation in the state, where Islamic insurgents continue to fight against Indian rule.

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The government cut the internet on Oct. 17 after two Islamic militants were killed in a gun battle with the army.

Local Muslim activists began protests across the state soon after the funeral of the slain rebels.

As on past occasions, cutting access to the internet has been seen as a bid to block the instigation of demonstrations through the sharing of related videos and news.

Taha, 16, was supposed to sit his exam on Oct. 19. However, with no internet access, he was unable to even download the special ticket required for entry to the exam hall.

Mubeena Akhtar, a 12th-grader, said she had notes in emails and planned to share study material with friends using internet platforms.

"I have nothing to do with the protests that are going on," she said. "Why is the government punishing students for no fault of ours?"

This year alone, the government has shut down the net more than 18 times for security reasons, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a non-profit organization based in capital New Delhi.

The SFLC's latest report stated that in the past five years the internet has been been blocked 89 times in Kashmir, the highest total among India's 29 states.

Internet and phone services remained suspended in Kashmir for more than six months after violent protests erupted when militant leader Burhan Wani was shot dead in July, 2016, with at least 90 people killed and some 10,000 injured.

Nasir Hussain, a civil society activist in Kashmir, told that by cutting the internet the government was limiting opportunities for students attempting to prosper despite the regional strife.

"The government should evolve a system to insulate students from its anti-insurgency activities," Hussain said.

He called for reconciliation and dialogue and questioned how long internet bans could contain protests.

Such shutdowns, besides affecting students academically, also had a negative psychological impact, said Kashmir-based psychologist Yasir Ahmad.

Lack of access to the World Wide Web virtually put teenagers in a "cage" within the modern world. "If such a trend continues, it will have a disastrous impact on the minds of members of the younger generation," Ahmad said.

However, a police official, who asked not to be named, told that the internet shutdown has had the desired effect. "If the internet functions, even a small protest can instigate larger protests," he said.

Protesters usually took video clips and photos of protests that went viral on the internet, luring young people in other places to join demonstrations, he said. The security measure had prevented havoc and the loss of many more lives, he added.

A local media report said there was a significant financial cost to business and other internet users, including tens of thousands of dollars lost each day in relation to weekly or monthly data download packages.

Jammu and Kashmir state has suffered violence for the past 30 years. An estimated 100,000 people have died, including civilians, militants and army personnel, since various groups took up arms against Indian rule.

The conflict in Kashmir dates to 1947 when India and Pakistan become separate states after British rule ended. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and have fought at least three wars and numerous skirmishes over it. Each nation currently administers part of the Kashmir region.

India claims the Kashmir insurgency is supported by Pakistan, but the largely Muslim nation brands this as Indian political hyperbole.

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