A year since Kashmir lost its autonomy, narratives of the region’s past, present and future are as contested as ever.
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Mubeen Masudi and Imbesat Ahmad, who run an academy that prepares students for highly competitive engineering colleges entrance exams, have struggled to impart education in the wake of prolonged internet shutdown by India last August after the Muslim-majority region was stripped of its special status.
Though the communication lockdown was lifted earlier this year, the region of 12 million continues to be deprived of high-speed internet affecting more than a million students.
The duo, who graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), created two apps to circumvent the excruciatingly slow-speed internet in the Himalayan region.
India’s Hindu nationalist government has continued the ban on high-speed 4G internet on all mobile networks “owing to security reasons”, which entered its 16th month this month.
As students in other parts of India took to Zoom and other internet-driven applications to continue their education, children in Kashmir have to manage with low bandwidth internet, which meant frequent audio and video buffering issues and consistent call drops on applications such as Zoom and Google Meet.
Ahmad, 28, originally from eastern state of Bihar, explains the conundrums he faced while teaching in Kashmir: “I remember during one of my classes I was drawing a figure in physics where I needed to show a video. I was drawing steps and explaining. While I was explaining step 3 from my side, the figure was at step 2 on students’ side.”
“Half of the students did not understand and the other half complained of buffering. The morale of students goes down drastically in such a situation,” says Ahmad, adding the struggle made them realise they need help to come up with a solution.
Ahmad created Filo App – an application students can use to ask questions to educators. And the app, which was downloaded 11,000 times, works on low-speed internet.
Frequent internet shutdowns
Masudi founded Wise App – a live classroom application that focuses on teachers. Unlike Zoom and Google Meets which are widely used in the world, Masudi says Wise App was “born out of problems in Kashmir with regard to internet”.
The 31-year-old says the app has been designed for conducting classes, sharing resources, holding discussions and registering attendance on a single platform without the hurdle of sharing IDs and links.
“The application sends a notification to students as soon as the teacher logs in the app,” said Masudi whose application has also been hailed by India’s Ministry of Education for wide use in the country and has currently 200,000 users.
“We designed the app so that it works on low-speed internet. Around 30,000 users are based in Kashmir,” he said.
The residents of Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan valley which is divided between and contested by India and Pakistan, face frequent internet shutdowns.
In an annual report by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), the local human rights group said “there were 55 instances of internet blockades recorded in the year 2019”.
GN War, who heads the association of private schools in Kashmir, told Al Jazeera: “Low-speed internet has put Kashmiri students at a disadvantageous situation.”
“We are unable to render effective online learning and teaching services. Most of the apps in the field of online education are 4G based. The teachers and students in such a situation often feel frustrated,” War said.
After the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the students in the region now have to compete with students from across India. Earlier, educational institutions in the region was only reserved for local students.
However, the students in Kashmir are at a disadvantage because of the frequent closure of schools, snapping and low-speed internet, War said.
“They have to compete with everyone but don’t get the facility everyone else has,” he added.
The internet shutdowns have affected all sections of life in Kashmir including education, business and healthcare and for Masudi “online classes were very chaotic”.
“Unlike other times, the problems were only in Kashmir, we were facing them in isolation. The coronavirus pandemic is one problem faced across the globe,” he said referring to the global lockdown.
“We also realised that we can’t reach each and every student in Kashmir so that’s when we decided to take a two-pronged approach: we needed to empower the teachers and students particularly in Kashmir where the internet bandwidth is very low,” he said.
“The idea of Wise app was to create an application where teachers can do everything at one place,” he said. “It makes online teaching straight forward. Because it’s a tech, it’s not defined by boundaries so it’s used all over the world, across India also but it was born out of our own problems.”
Ahmad says the Filo app made it easier for students to reach teachers as working days in schools were reduced to 20-30 days.
“This app basically makes students to connect with a specialised teacher online for any questions and queries. The camera of the students remains off so that their privacy is ensured,” he said.
Zahid Ul Haq, 19, who lives in Donipawa village in southern Anantnag district, is one of the recent beneficiaries of the Filo app.
“The internet shutdowns and curtailed speed are the biggest barriers between students in Kashmir and outside. It keeps us backward,” Haq, who is preparing for an engineering entrance exam, told Al Jazeera.
“I came to know about the app when I was at the last stage of my preparation. Earlier, I used to call teachers for queries, once, twice, thrice they would answer but there was a time they would get annoyed. This is where the app helped me,” he said.
Dr Umar Dar, an assistant professor of Botany from southern Kashmir’s Shopian district where internet shutdowns have been more frequent, told Al Jazeera it was through a notification by the education department that they were told to use the Wise App.
“I have been using the application for the last 26 days and it is better in our internet circumstances because there is a speed constraint,” he said.
“The best part is it tells you how long a student has been in the class. It clearly shows the attendance. In the Zoom app, it hardly supports 2g and the class would automatically get disconnected after 40 minutes but here you can extend the time limit.”