Remembering Aug 5, 2019

05 Aug,2020

File image of the housboats on Dal Lake in Srinagar

 

 

By Ishfaq-ul-Hassan

 

On January 25 this year, when 2G mobile internet was restored, it reminded me of a dialogue by legendary Sanjeev Kumar in 1975 film Aandhi’: `Waise bhi amawas pandhra din ki hoti hai, lekin iss baar bahut laambi thi;.

 

I tried to correlate my digital Amawas with this dialogue which was craftily inserted in a famous Kishore Kumar-Lata Mangeshkar romantic number `Teri Bina Zindagi se’…, evoking a childlike response from Aparna Sen… `Nau baras lambi thi na’.

 

For a journalist working in conflict zone for the last 23 years, I have seen ups and downs. I have worked in the pre- and post-Google era. I have seen how people coped when telephone services were suspended during Operation Parakaram. I have experienced the internet ban during 2010 and 2016 agitations. I have come across small internet breaks during encounters and law and order situation.

 

But the suspension of the internet in 2019 was the most painful given that the people have become addicted to WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. My last WhatsApp message was on August 4 evening to my friend which reads: Has curfew been imposed.

 

From that evening till January 25, I was living in pre-Google era with no access to internet. I was back to having steaming cup of tea with hard copy of newspaper every morning. I had literally forgotten the hard copy of the newspaper because I was more comfortable with e-papers. But then August 5 changed everything.

 

On January 25, when I saw my internet signal, I could not resist the temptation of sending WhatsApp message to my friend. To my bad luck, my connection was too slow to send the message. And then came the announcement that social media is banned and only whitelisted websites can be accessed. It came as bolt from the blue. My digital sanyas, it seemed very prolonged like Sanjeev Kumar’s separation in Aandhi.

 

Next morning when I left for office, I met a tech savvy friend who congratulated me for the internet restoration albeit with low 2G speed. I was not impressed and told him about my predicaments. He quickly suggested downloading VPN. Being a tech-handicapped journalist, I sought his help. And the rest, as they say, is history. Not one but multiple VPNs were downloaded on my phone. If one was blocked another was ready to be used. So my tryst with the digital world was complete.

 

It was not so in last six months when journalists had to queue up at sarkari media centre, like students waiting to enter exam halls. Journalists had no access to phones or internet for first few weeks post August 5. Such was the communication ban that no local journalist could send stories. The phone suspension made it impossible to dictate stories to the newsdesk. Only television journalists, who had OB vans, were able to send their feeds and communicate with their offices.

 

Few journalists, who were paradropped in Kashmir, were among the luckiest guys as they were provided all communication facilities for obvious reasons. But a large chunk of local journalists working for national and regional dailies were not able to send their copies. Later a media centre was setup in a local hotel which doubled up as conference room for sarkari spin doctors to project a rosy picture of the situation. Few computer terminals  with internet lease line connection were installed. But such was the rush that one had to wait for hours to access the mail.

 

When I first accessed my mail, the inbox was full and it seemed it was waiting to explode. Had I not accessed the mail, my mailbox would have been blocked. When I sat on the terminal and started deleting mails, it took me few minutes.  A journalist colleague waiting in a queue gently tapped my shoulder asked, “Are you done?”. I was ashamed of myself for taking more than five minutes. I said sorry and logged out. It was not one off incident, it was routine for journalists to come to media centre, wait in a queue and then access the email. My journalist colleagues used to write copies on their laptops and bring it in their pen drives just to mail it to their offices.

 

For senior journalists, it was nothing short of an embarrassment to literally beg junior colleagues to spare few minutes on the terminal so that they could access the mail.

 

What has added insult to injury is that the journalists did not figure in any of the priority list of government. The internet was restored to hospitals, government departments, hotels and other offices, but newspaper offices and journalists were barred. Every day, a journalist has to go to media centre and wait for hours to access internet for few minutes.

 

Back to my digital sanyas days, I learnt a lot. I read some books and watched downloaded international drama series including crime thrillers and famous web series. Most importantly, I competed with my son in playing games on the cellphone. I also learnt playing games and gave my son and daughter a tough competition. But again these games could not last long as every time a notice used to pop up to update them online

 

Even after a year, only the low speed 2G internet has been restored. People are still craving for 4G speeds. But then asking such a question could well invite the wrath of the powers that be.

 

Ishfaq-ul-Hassan is a senior journalist based in Srinagar. His views here are personal

 

 

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