Scholars call upon government to lift ‘J&K academic blackout’

Professors from six reputed scientific institutions stress the need for preservation of campus integrity in blockaded Jammu and Kashmir.

It has been six weeks and counting since the Indian government declared significant changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir, namely the removal of special status, the removal of Statehood, and the bifurcation of the State into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, with a Legislative Assembly; and Ladakh, without an Assembly. Simultaneously the government created a communications blackout that included mobile phones, landlines and all forms of internet. While landlines have been restored in phases in many parts of the erstwhile state, mobile telephony and internet access remains blocked in most of the Kashmir valley.

While all residents of Kashmir deserve to be heard, we wish to express our concern about the situation at academic institutions. The University of Kashmir is home to many fine scholars, including young scientists who have returned to India from reputable institutions abroad to set up their own laboratories in Kashmir and train the next generation of scientists, supported by funding from Indian government bodies like DST and DBT and prestigious fellowships like the Early Career Fellowships from India Alliance. Such researchers, and their students, remain cut off from the internet and the world. In today’s world, the internet is an absolutely vital tool for conducting and communicating research. Not only are the scientists unreachable, even the University of Kashmir’s domain (uok.edu.in) has disappeared from Google’s search results for the university. Some other institutions (Central University of Kashmir, National Institute of Technology Srinagar, and others) appear to have functioning websites, but these have not been updated since July.

As reported in The Hindu on September 17, particularly badly affected are Kashmiri students who were due to join other institutions for higher studies, who have been unable to confirm their offers within the deadline or correspond at all with institutions elsewhere in this context. Individuals have been trying to fill the communication gap where they can and request extensions for the joining date where possible.

Regardless of security concerns that the government may have, universities and educational institutions could have been seen as safe places via which researchers and students could remain connected to the world, but, also, the general public could perhaps have been permitted to use those facilities, subject to safeguards, to send messages to their relatives and friends outside the state. These institutions could have been symbols of the freedom offered by India. Instead, teaching and activities there have been dealt a devastating blow.

In a recent discussion of academic freedom, Spannagel calls attention to a precondition of academic freedom called “campus integrity”. By this is meant the “absence of a climate of intimidation through securitisation, targeted physical threats or oppressive surveillance on campus”. She points out that such practices are “widespread in many countries” and that they “can have stark effects on academic activities”.

We stress that the preservation of academic freedom, or indeed of “campus integrity”, is just one of the freedoms that the more fortunate among us take for granted. The freedom to work in an academic setting would appear, to be sure, a relatively minor freedom in a larger context, but it is a vital one. The Government of India has, time and again, emphasised its support for science and technology in the country. This support is merely symbolic without academic freedom and open communication on campuses, which are fundamental for our development as a democratic society. To continue to maintain links with other institutions, to renew interactions with others outside the state who are concerned about the state of Kashmiri educational and research institutions and to provide a means of access to those Kashmiri students in other parts of India who have been cut off from family and friends is one way in which the present situation might move towards normalcy.

We call upon the government to lift the blackout at these institutions right away, and take all steps possible to help members of the Kashmiri academic community to make up for these lost weeks. We should be making efforts to win hearts and minds — not alienating the best minds of the State who have chosen to live and work in India.

Signatories

B. Ananthanarayan, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Gautam Menon, Ashoka University, Sonepat (NCR)

Jayant Murthy, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore

Rahul Siddharthan, The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai

Reeteka Sud, NIMHANS, Bangalore

Mukund Thattai, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore

Source: The Hindu

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