Exam to entertainment: How net ban hit Assam
Across Assam’s 33 districts, people welcomed the restoration of mobile internet services on Friday on the back of an order by the Gauhati high court.Updated: Dec 21, 2019 00:25 IST
Dilip Saha had barely woken up from a morning snooze at around 9.30am on Friday when his phone sprang to life. Over the past 10 days, his mobile phone had fallen into gradual disuse – save a couple of calls each day – and so the familiar twang of WhatsApp jolted him awake.
“I jumped off the bed and shouted to my mother, the net is back!” said the 23-year-old college student, a resident of Guwahati.
At the other end of the city, Mohammad Toizul Hoque was readying for his first pay day since December 11, when a ban on mobile internet was clamped across 10 districts of Assam and subsequently expanded to the entire state after a series of protests against the new citizenship law.
The 35-year-old Uber driver was sitting idle since then, and even went back home to Mangaldoi in central Assam’s Darrang district because staying in the city was too expensive. “They could have banned WhatsApp if they want. Why did they have to ban the internet? The government doesn’t understand the problems of the poor.”
By Friday evening, his mood dramatically lifted; he had already completed six trips – and was confident of making the equated monthly instalment of ~7,200 on his Alto car. “It feels good to be earning again,” he said.
Across Assam’s 33 districts, people welcomed the restoration of mobile internet services on Friday on the back of an order by the Gauhati high court. Some people said the suspension was justified as a way of maintaining law-and-order. Many others said the government should have thought of the hardships faced by ordinary folk in the absence of internet services.
In many places, people spoke of how the absence of Internet services changed their lives. “I started to watch TV, and in our neighbourhood, an evening hang-out developed around the local tea stall where people would discuss films, sports and even politics,” said Saha.
Local shops would shut by sundown, and for four days, no restaurant was open across the capital city.
Others turned to technologies such as Bluetooth to share exam notes, songs, and clips of speeches from the political rallies over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Activists in far-flung areas eschewed WhatsApp and other mobilisation techniques in favour of door-to-door messaging.
“We found that many young people who were hooked on to TikTok or PubG were far more amenable to receiving our message about the protests because they had more time on their hands and no internet,” said Shuvankar Ghosh, an activist from Chirang district.
For Kaustav Guha, the proprietor of the 103-year-old Assam Book Depot in Guwahati, the ban meant a loss in the peak business season. “The new academic session starts in January. Now even the exams have been postponed. One doesn’t know when the session will start now,” he said.
Guha explained that the publishing business also suffered. “The manuscripts come on email. We forward them to printers on email. All that has taken a hit,” said the 65-year-old.
Violence rocked Assam on December 10 when large crowds swamped the streets across all major cities in the state, and clashes with the police the following day left four protesters dead.
The administration clamped a curfew in Guwahati, Dibrugarh and some other places, bringing back memories of the restive 1980s when the Assam agitation against illegal immigrants rocked the state.
“There was a fire right outside our house, stones being pelted on the streets. We were scared, it felt like we had gone back 30 years,” said a member of a prominent Bengali family, who asked to not be named because of security concerns.
But Guha pointed out the protests were more violent during the Assam agitation, which ended with the signing of an accord in 1985.
“Now people are protesting with songs, dance and drama,” he said.
Unlike Kashmir, curfew and movement restrictions were eased in Assam after the first four days, and this helped restore normalcy in the local economy. Still, prices of essential commodities soared, especially in the districts of Upper Assam, amid panic buying.
“People who need 1kg, started buying 5kg of essential commodities,” said Rajan Lohia, the owner of three tea gardens in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh and Sivasagar district.
But he insisted that respecting local sentiment against CAA, which seeks to ease the grant of citizenship to members of minority religions from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, was more important to him than his business. “Assam cannot be a dumping ground,” he said.
Some of the worst-affected people belonged to marginalised communities such as transgenders. “Many from our community are dependent on begging, or earning from festivals or marriages. Because of the curfew, no one could go out,” said Swati Bidhan Baruah, a lawyer and activist.
On Friday morning, many students at the Gauhati Medical College frantically tried to log on to its website to check if their exam schedule, shared in text messages, was correct.
Gaurav Kalita, 22, an MSc student at B Barooah College in Guwahati, said his exam preparations had suffered because of the ban on the Internet.
“Not everything one can find in books. We need the internet to prepare,” he said. Saha was happy. “At least I don’t have to write this exam. I hadn’t studied at all.”