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Between Internet Ban And Burning Schools, Normalcy Is Slipping Further From Kashmir's Reach

Around 26 schools have been torched in the last 4 months.

01/11/2016 2:45 PM IST | Updated 01/11/2016 9:39 PM IST
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Students inspect the damage of a partially burned government high school in Goripora, on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Around 26 schools in Kashmir have been burned down in the last 4 months — 115 days, to be precise — according to a report in The Times of India. The situation is so dire that a division bench of Jammu & Kashmir High Court took suo motu cognisance and ordered the police and civil administrations to take adequate measures to protect schools. It also asked the custodians of law and order to deal with the "mysterious enemies of education" with an "iron hand".

The news comes on the heels of a series of unfortunate events that have rocked the Valley since the killing of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen leader, on 8 July this year.

Following the massive public turnout at his funeral, the army took severe crowd-control measures. More than 90 people have died since then, scores were injured, hundreds have damaged or lost their sight to pellet wounds, and yet, the unrest in the valley continues unabated.

Internet usage in the valley remains disrupted or severely restricted, with no data services available on cellular phones. Kashmir Reader, one of the most popular English dailies in the region, published out of Srinagar, has been asked to cease operations in the interest of preserving "public tranquility", without explaining how it had violated the latter. However, it continues to exist online. The people of the state, which has 522 papers, including 195 approved and 105 unapproved ones in Jammu and 222 in Kashmir, are not strangers to media censorship.

What the rest of India thinks of as "normal life" has been completely suspended in Kashmir for close to three months now.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
SRINAGAR, INDIA - OCTOBER 31: Girls passing near the burnt building of government school at Gori Pora on October 31, 2016 in Srinagar, India. The school was torched on October 24. (Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

"This is nothing but a combination of madness and perversion... how can anybody think of setting fire to educational institutions which are importing education and knowledge to our own children," asked Union Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu with just rage, referring to arson in schools. Putting the blame on separatist leaders, he added, "Some of [their] children are studying outside, I am told. Some have to take security to write examinations. These so-called leaders should really ponder over what is it they are doing."

The targets of Naidu's ire, men like Yasin Malik, claim to be equally baffled by the developments and have accused the government of inaction. Ordinary people of Kashmir must be quite familiar with such stalemate by now, having suffered the consequences of scapegoating and passing of the buck between rival political factions for many decades. Wani's father, Muzzafar Wani, also condemned these cases of arson, saying, as a former school teacher, he believes education is the "only thing that will help us [become] good humans".

Naidu's contempt, though legitimate in this context, is also laced with irony and goes on to reveal just how blindfolded the government is in its attitude to Kashmir. While it bemoans the chaos unleashed on the lives of citizens by militants, who are depriving a generation of education and a chance to improve their lives, it also advocates Internet blockade in the valley. If mass internet penetration is touted by the Centre as a wonderful achievement in other parts of the country, it turns into a major headache for it in Jammu & Kashmir.

If mass internet penetration is touted by the Centre as a wonderful achievement in other parts of the country, it turns into a major headache for it in Jammu & Kashmir.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently pledged a staggering Rs 80,000 crore development package for Kashmir that would fund, among other institutions, an Indian Institute of Management in Jammu. Does the absurdity of building such a premier educational organisation in a region that is practically Internet-less strike the prime minister at all? Who would the target students for such an institution be?

It cannot be denied that lifting the Internet ban from the Valley opens it up to a real threat of terrorism, as experts have pointed out. But such an embargo cannot offer any insurance in a world where hacking is not as specialised a skill as it once used to be. From Wikileaks to the workings of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), technology is being appropriated for ethical and destructive purposes all over the globe.

Yet most countries affected by terrorism haven't imposed a blanket ban on Internet use for their citizens to keep them safe. In any case, the notion of safety in a cyber-connected world is increasingly becoming exactly that — notional and, therefore, fragile. Breaching it is no longer as difficult as it may have once been. And often the need to overcome such barriers is also necessary for the sake of the greater common good.

Already Kashmiri youth have developed apps to circumvent the limitations foisted on them, so that they too can access the Internet freely — not only for information from the rest of the world but also to let others know the state of their lives in a conflict zone.

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Kashmiri boys surf internet on their phones after hacking into a network during restrictions in civil lines area of Srinagar, on August 27, 2016 in Srinagar. (Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Their desperation becomes palpable when seen in context of the selective sense of empathy expressed by multinational social media giants like Facebook. Facebook recently introduced an option for its users to mark themselves safe or affected in the event of a large-scale fatality or accident. It was used most effectively during the Nepal earthquake in 2015. Yet, when it came to giving Kashmiris the benefit of the same option, Facebook denied it to them.

For Naidu and his ilk, separatism is the be-all and end-all of everything that ails Kashmir. They are only too happy to ignore the series of other afflictions in the state, caused by successive governments at the Centre. The continued detention of human rights activist Khurram Parvez, for instance, under the draconian People's Safety Act, has raised a huge outcry from civil society and activist groups, including experts from the United Nations, who demanded his release recently. But these pleas, presumably, have fallen on deaf years so far. Nothing qualifies as "injustice" in this country, until the powers-that-be decide to think of it as such.

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