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Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Since the lockdown began two months ago, Tavleen Kour* has not been able to study online due to the slow speed internet. A matter of just minutes otherwise, it took her nearly an hour to download an e-book of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics.

As work and education across the world shifts online owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the struggle for many in Jammu and Kashmir is manifold. “But now, I can’t even download e-books,” said Ms. Kour who is expected to write her exams on 2 July.

As the examination nears, Ms. Kour, a student at the SGTB Khalsa College, University of Delhi (DU), said that she was “really, really worried” if she had to write her final-semester examinations online.

Since August last year, when the parliament unilaterally abrogated J-K’s special status and statehood, mobile internet in the Jammu region, too, continues to remain restricted to slow speed. Back then, she was disconnected from her family.

Last week, the Union Human Resource Development Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, announced the examination will be conducted for the final year students in July. Students who are not in their final years will be evaluated partly based on previous examinations and partly on the internal assessment of their current semesters.

Now, many universities across the country have taken up the online examinations in an open-book format wherein the students will be writing examination papers at home consulting texts, including Ms. Kour’s college. 

The 20-year-old had left New Delhi on 10 March for the mid-semester break, leaving behind most of her belongings including academic books. Fifteen days later Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly announced a nationwide lockdown.

It wasn’t long after the August 2019 woes had ended that a pogrom against Muslims played out in the capital New Delhi. The pandemic and the nationwide lockdown is just another in a series of disruptions. “It is a blow after blow,” said Ms. Kour. “It has been quite hard for me to focus on studies. I’m depressed.”

After many hues and cry the DU issued a notification on 31 May admitting that it is bound to protect the interest of students in J-K who “lack internet and hardware facility required for OBE”. The University engaged Common Service Centres (CSC), government-run internet centres in rural and remote locations, to facilitate students to download study material for free.

But there is a range of issues that students, especially from J-K, are facing despite these measures. Talking to The Kashmir Walla, G. N. Var, the president of the Private School Association who contended in the Supreme Court for the restoration of high-speed internet for education, said “[these steps] affects the idea of the right to education.”

Calling the current state of education in J-K “a big challenge”, Mr. Var added, “The high-speed internet is available to the rest of the country but not to students [in J-K]. The government is dividing society by discriminating with students in Jammu and Kashmir.”

More than a security issue, which the government has claimed time and again the reason to restrict internet speed in J-K, Mr. Var sees it as an issue of governance. “When the government can snap the internet district-wise, operate white and blacklists of websites, can’t they block social media and keep Google and websites [for education] on high-speed internet?” he questioned. “But the government has not prioritized education here. It’s a governance failure.”

On the latest, the apex court denied the restoration of high-speed internet in Mr. Var’s petition and asked to form a committee, comprising secretaries from centre and J-K administration to access the ground situation and find a remedy. “They have asked the criminals to do justice,” said Mr. Var. “It is a mockery of justice.”

Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, senior advocate Salman Khurshid, who represented Mr. Var’ petition in the court and is a former Minister of External Affairs, said that they tried to persuade the court pleading that high-speed internet “does not necessarily have to do with terrorism because the obsentible reason was the likely unrest caused by the decision of the government of India.”

Mr. Khurshid further said that “it is certainly not correct to confuse the internet with a security issue, it has a lot to do with the political unrest. It is a governance issue”; he concluded saying that the “court has been more than generous to the government but the government should also realise its responsibility.”

However, there is more to the students’ issues than just the internet. Aadil Nazir Khan, 21, who studies political science at Shyam Lal College, New Delhi, finds the open book format “very discriminatory” with students from not-so-well-off families.

“Not everyone has an android phone, leave a laptop to write the exams,” he said, adding, “going to CSC is a bad idea during a coronavirus pandemic. My parents are saying that I should prioritize my life over the degree.”

Meanwhile, the country has entered the fifth phase of lockdown to contain the spread of the COVID-19. 

For the privileged things are slightly easier with better access to the fixed-line high-speed internet at their homes but for the students who do not have such privilege, a significant part of public universities, there seems no respite. Still, three students have approached the court with a petition on similar lines.

At the same time, Mr. Khan said, the government is making two students–one with 2G internet and another with high-speed internet on the same table. “It is discrimination and violation of Article 14 [of the constitution that provides equality before the law to every Indian citizen]. This treatment is not the equality promised in the constitution,” he said. “The government is dividing students into many levels: the digital divide and economic divide.”

Students from J-K have seemingly been pushed against the wall, with an indifferent college administration and as an “anguished” Ms. Kour described it: her education and future in the “hands of a sick government”.

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