2020 has witnessed an unprecedented national lockdown. India has come at a standstill while a pandemic rages around it. The reality we inhabit seems akin to a strange dream, and everyone is struggling to cope with the novelty of it all. A novelty, that is unfortunately an everyday struggle for some sections of the same country – Kashmir.
Lockdowns in Kashmir aren’t rare and the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019 initiated an even more lengthy, fraught period of clampdowns on free speech and journalism, safe and equitable education, and an enjoyable livelihood. With no internet, repeated curfews and arrests of political leaders, journalists and civilians, Kashmiris have been struggling through state-imposed restrictions. Restricted mobility and hushed voices have become the norm. Unpredictable orders are never new. Therefore, the lockdown that Kashmir faces is different from the one we crib about. It is a socio-political one, that has been worsened due to the medial crisis.
Mental and physical stress that have become an important part of the discussion during Covid-19 has been plaguing the state for a very long time. According to a data collected by Doctors Without Borders, 1.8 million Kashmiris or nearly half the adults suffer from one or the other mental disorder, while 9 out of 10 experience conflict-related traumas. These civilians have become tragic collateral damages in the war between militants and armed forces and Covid-19 exacerbates this risk.
As limited medical facilities get overwhelmed with Covid cases, there is a deep risk of mental health patients losing their names in the priority list. This risk falls at a time where the medical facilities already face deep structural and institutional barriers. Primary one being, lack of medical facilities. For a population of 12.5 million, there are merely 180 ventilators, most of which are already occupied by people suffering from other ailments. Another major barrier lies in the languishing internet connectivity that is allowed in Kashmir. Kashmir’s internet clampdown was recently opened up to include 2G internet. Ironically, Kashmiris have to pay for 4G to get this slow, outdated service; a service that is far removed from the ideal from treatment of Covid-19, to work and study from home.
On the medical front, 2G internet has made it extremely difficult for doctors to keep up with regular updates and treatment methods that the world outside can easily access. They have to regularly look for PDFs and reports published by organisations like World Health Organisation and Indian Council for Medical Research, but 2G internet takes hours to download heavy material. As Dr. Iqbal Saleem of Government Medical College, Srinagar posted on his Twitter account, crying for help, “This is so frustrating.. Trying to download the guidelines for intensive care management as proposed by docs in England.. 24 Mbs and one hour.. Still not able to do so,” doctors have to fight the government for basic services in a paradoxical turn of events in Kashmir.
Dr. Iqbals’ cry for help was heard by other Twitter members, who downloaded and zipped the file for him, but there are various clinics and hospitals where help continues to evade. The situations also show possibility of deterioration as Jammu and Kashmir administration opposed restoration of 4G internet in the Supreme Court. In an affidavit submitted by the same, it said,
“It is submitted that the right to access the internet is not a fundamental right and thus the type and breadth of access for exercising the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and/or to carry on any trade or business under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India through the medium of the internet can be curtailed.“
Similarly, on an academic front, students are finding it extremely hard to download material and attend online lectures. While MHRD is working, (or claims to be working) tirelessly for providing online material to students nationally, online libraries are being set up and teachers are taking additional steps to familiarise themselves with online learning platforms, Kashmir’s academic future is engulfed and hidden in a bleak shroud. Tragically, this seems to be invisible in the decisions being made for examinations and entrances for the current academic year.
The recent UGC suggestions released for Indian universities assume 15 May as the date for completion of syllabus, which is in itself a fallacious assumption. When students are not able to avail online classes, syllabus completion remains a distant mirage. Though, it has suggested to postpone exams, the guidelines also give alternatives including online projects and home assignments, whose implementation can threaten the academic year for many Kashmiri students – students who have nothing except social media to air their woes and reach across to people in power. Needless to say, work from home also seems to be a distant reality.
All these difficulties lie at the heart of Kashmir’s political instability. Its political leaders have been under house arrest for months under Public Safety Act (PSA), post the abrogation, leaving it in a chaotic limbo. In recent development, Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) head was shifted to her residence. However, she still remains under detention.
Journalists from the state have also been booked under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a draconian anti-terrorism law under which a person can be designated a terrorist and jailed for up to seven years. These include photojournalist, Masrat Zahra whose work has been published in Washington Post and Al Jazeera, Peerzada Ashiq from The Hindu and Gowhar Geelani.
Such restrictions create an atmosphere of surveillance and mistrust. It disallows democratic rights and privileges and strips its people of its elected representation. This discord can be a source of deep worry in times like ours, where collaboration and security are the need of the hour. When people cannot trust their government and people in power, fear for welfare and life increases, adding in concerns that take away from their quality of day to day life.
Within this insecurity, Kashmir survives the pandemic. As the world moves on together, it remains still.
Featured Image Source: DW