SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― The fog is dense and the temperature is creeping its way up from zero degree Celsius when Fatima Rafiq leaves home for the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar, where she spends the day waiting to use a computer.
The deadline to fill out the online application form for a competitive medical entrance examination is fast approaching, but more than four months after the Narendra Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status on 5 August, there is still no internet in the Kashmir Valley.
While Home Minister Amit Shah claims that everything is “normal” in Kashmir, 20-year-old Rafiq says the Modi government is making it excruciatingly hard for her to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
It took 30 minutes for Rafiq to find a cab and reach the TRC on 9 December, where hundreds of students had queued up to use one of the 23 computers with internet, set up by the J&K administration. Rafiq scribbled her name on a white piece of paper. Her serial number was 80. It would be five hours of waiting before she got to use a computer.
While waiting in the courtyard of the TRC, Rafiq said the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) aspirants everywhere else in India were applying for the entrance exam from the comfort of their own homes, and she asked why students in Kashmir end up being treated differently.
Rafiq, who decided to become a doctor in 2017, has been studying for the medical entrance exam for the past two years. Sitting alongside her father Mohammad Rafiq, who runs a provisional store in Srinagar, she spoke of how much cracking the competitive exam meant to her.
“I have not been able to submit my form despite visiting this centre thrice in the past four days. But I won’t give up,” she said. “I have to wait for my turn. There is no other alternative.”
The internet shutdown in Kashmir since 5 August is the longest for any democratic country.
Unlike Kashmir where internet services remained barred except for select companies and government offices, broadband internet and SMS services are functioning in Jammu division. However, the internet services on mobile phones continues to remain suspended in both the divisions.
Every year, on an average 24,000 aspirants apply for the undergraduate NEET in Kashmir. According to Greater Kashmir, 24,103 aspirants had applied for the test in 2018 and 23,038 appeared in the examination.
Following J&K’s official notification as a Union Territory on 31 October, the erstwhile state is governed by Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu.
The J&K government has restored internet services at the offices of Deputy Commissioners in all 10 districts of Kashmir Valley and people in need of internet services have been asked to approach these offices.
The Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir Baseer Ahmad Khan had said in a statement that 3,750 NEET aspirants have registered for NEET through 348 internet enabled computers in Kashmir till 10 December.
Khan said 352 more internet enabled computers were installed in all districts of the valley, thus dedicating 700 computers for NEET registration.
Rafiq says she had visited the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, Shahid Chowdhary, to submit her NEET application on 6 December, but she came home in despair.
Officials at the DC office, Rafiq said, told her to use the internet enabled computers at the TRC.
“I have not been able to submit my form despite visiting this centre thrice in the past four days.”
‘A single mistake’
Wrapping her arms around herself to shield herself from the cold wind, Rafiq gazed fixedly at the tourist policeman, waiting for him to call her name.
By one in the afternoon, there were 221 applicants who were waiting in line.
Each application submission takes over 30 minutes, officials at the TRC said.
The students that HuffPost India spoke with said they were worried about whether they would be able to submit their applications before the 31 December deadline for NEET.
Rafiq noted there is a long set of instructions an applicant needs to read before filling the application online, but this is impossible given how nervous and stressed the students are by the time they get a chance at the computer, and then they need to get it done quickly.
“Submitting an application online is a hard task. It is risky. A single mistake could lead to rejection of the application,” she said.
“A single mistake could lead to rejection of the application.”
Sobia Jan, another NEET aspirant said she found it “impossible” to wait at the TRC and planned to return to her home in Kupwara, where she will try to submit her application at the Deputy Commissioner’s office.
“It is sheer wastage of time if I wait for my turn here,” said Jan.
The 18-year-old rented a house in Srinagar over the summer and has been preparing for the NEET examination. “I am working hard to make my dream come true. But, I’m having trouble passing the first stage (filling in the online application),” she said.
“It is sheer wastage of time if I wait for my turn here.”
One Time Password
Since the SMS services are suspended on mobile phones in Kashmir, many aspirants or their parents had to dispatch their mobile phones outside Kashmir so that they could get an OTP when they apply online.
Some aspirants entered the phone numbers of their relatives or friends—living outside Kashmir—and the applicants would call them at the time of application submission.
“I had to send my phone to Chandigarh recently just to receive an OTP to file application of my ward,” says a parent, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Many NEET applicants have come from other districts like Budgam in central and Handwara in north Kashmir.
Nissar Ahmad, an applicant who came from Budgam, was at a loss when he could not arrange a phone enabled with SMS service on his first visit.
“A task that was so easy has become so difficult. An applicant has to rely on someone living outside Kashmir just for a phone number to get an OTP. It took me two days to find a person and convince him to arrange his phone number,” he said.
“An applicant has to rely on someone living outside Kashmir just for a phone number to get an OTP.”
Amarjeet Singh, a tourism department official, says that over 200 NEET applicants visit the TRC every day, and 130 applications are submitted.
Admitting the process was time consuming and the internet shutdown was problem, Singh said, “We attended to around 30% aspirants who had no functional email or a mobile number they could use in the application form.”
While this report was being filed, the J&K administration allowed service providers to resume machine-based messages for over 40 lakh postpaid subscribers in Kashmir. However, the subscribers will not be allowed to send any messages from their mobiles, as per reports.
Education expert and former secretary Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education, Bashir Ahmad Dar, criticised the government for “marginalising” the Kashmiri students by denying them right to internet access and information.
“It is not only about filing a form. The students need to access the curriculum and additional resource material to update themselves. When no internet facility is available here, how can Kashmiri aspirants be able to compete with students in India?,” said Dar. “Denying information and internet is tantamount to marginalising Kashmiri students. This is discrimination.”
“Denying information and internet is tantamount to marginalising Kashmiri students. This is discrimination.”
As the sun set and the temperature dropped below zero degree Celsius on 9 December, over hundred aspirants were still waiting for their chance at a computer.
The officials had to turn around 90 of them away.
Anisa Jan, 18, who had travelled eight kilometres to reach the TRC, was turned away. “I am going to come again tomorrow at seven in the morning. What other option do I have? she said. “I will have to come walking as I won’t get a bus that early”.