Six professors from India’s top science institutions have appealed to the government to lift the blockade of academic and research institutions in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The blockade has been a “devastating blow,” the six write in an open letter published yesterday.
Like the rest of India’s only majority-Muslim state, Kashmir’s academic community has been cut off almost entirely from the rest of the world since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abolished the state’s special status on 5 August. “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,” the researchers write.
Kashmir has been a source of tension for decades. India and Pakistan have fought four wars over the region and India accuses Pakistan of fomenting secessionism in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the part administered by India. After unilaterally ending the state’s special status, which included limited autonomy, the Indian government has split the region into three administrative territories, Jammu (which has a Hindu majority), Kashmir (predominantly Muslim), and Ladakh (where Buddhists and Shia Muslims are in the majority).
To prevent revolts, the entire Kashmir valley was put under strict curfew. Phone lines and the internet were disconnected. (Landline phone service was later restored, but most people in the state use mobile phones.) Schools, colleges, and the universities were closed. Most local politicians, including those who support the Indian government, have been jailed, along with thousands of civilians. India’s military now controls the state completely, and there have been many reports of human rights abuses, which the Indian government has vehemently denied.
“Everything has come to a grinding halt,” says one senior scientist living in Kashmir who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution. Kashmir’s five universities remain closed, this scientist says. “The situation is going to be extremely harmful for scientific research, especially for those involved in lab work,” he adds. “Whatever experiments researchers had set up would have disappeared in air.” The situation is “very somber, gloomy and grim,” the researcher says. “Those who are working in Kashmir feel completely helpless and desperate.”
“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,” the six scientists write in their statement. Now, “they have been cut off from the world for more than 6 weeks,” says computational biologist Rahul Siddharthan of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, India, a signatory to the appeal.
“In today’s world, the internet is an absolutely vital tool for conducting and communicating research,” the researchers also write. “You can say email is a luxury but there are deadlines for institutional applications, finance, support, reporting requirements and grants which the government has moved online,” adds computational biologist Mukund Thattai of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, India. It has been frustrating for him and other researchers outside of Kashmir to find Kashmiri colleagues completely unreachable, he says. “Values of science have always been values of openness, transparency and inclusiveness.”
The crackdown—and an anti-Kashmir frenzy whipped up by India’s media—has also had an impact on Kashmiri researchers outside of the state. They face discrimination and are looked as if they were aliens, says one young Kashmiri biologist working in South India. “It causes a lot of anxiety and makes you feel insecure,” she says. Many Kashmiris, herself included, have trouble focusing on their research, she adds. Kashmiri students elsewhere in India also face financial problems because their parents are no longer able to transfer money to them.
The six professors who signed the letter say universities could have played a positive role in the crisis. “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,” they write. “These institutions could have been symbols of the freedom offered by India.”