How young Kashmiris are beating the SHAREit ban5 min read . Updated: 25 Jul 2020, 07:40 AM IST
The Chinese app SHAREit—which enables media transfer without the internet—had been invaluable for Kashmiris who frequently endure digital shutdowns. Now, there's a homegrown alternative to the Chinese app
SHAREit was like a backbone for Kashmiris," says Mir Moien, 18. Till last month, the medical student from Kupwara, Jammu and Kashmir, was a frequent user of the app, which enabled the transfer of video and audio files and documents between phones at high speeds without internet access. It was particularly useful during the communication blockade that followed the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status on 5 August last year.
With schools closed, Moien travelled to Delhi, where his brother was pursuing a PhD at Jamia Hamdard university. He downloaded lectures from the YouTube channel Physics Wallah. Once he returned to Kashmir, Moien started sharing these lectures through SHAREit. And so, a chain formed. “I know someone who had transferred 2,000 GB of data within the first two months since the 5 August lockdown. And after the coronavirus lockdown, we had also been using SHAREit to transfer shows, movies and anything to keep ourselves occupied; we can’t access entertainment like the rest of the world," says Moien.
In June, after a stand-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, the Union government banned 59 Chinese apps, including SHAREit , TikTok and WeChat.
It came as a shock. Fortunately for Kashmiris, locally developed apps have begun to emerge.
Just a week after the ban was announced, Tipu Sultan Wani from Chadoora in Budgam district, who has done a master’s in business administration and works as a web developer, launched File Share Tool. It had been in the works but his brother and he speeded up the process when SHAREit was banned. Their newly launched app has already seen over 10,000 downloads on the Google Play Store and has got an average review rating of 4.8 stars out of five.
THE GO-TO APP
It isn’t enough, though, since it’s still difficult to download apps in the valley. Between 2012-20, Kashmir has seen 180 government-imposed internet shutdowns, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre. Even today, the region is in the midst of what is perhaps the longest internet “clampdown" in any democracy—it has been over 11 months since high speed data was snapped.
In such circumstances, apps like SHAREit, which did not need internet access, were a lifeline. “Not only since 5 August, as journalists we had been using SHAREit before that too. We would use the app to transfer documents or work related content which we would not want to share through internet based apps or social media," says journalist Anees Zargar.
Last November, Zargar was working on a story about minors who had been detained after Article 370 of the Constitution was effectively revoked. Though he could speak to the family of a detained minor in Shopian, south Kashmir, it was impossible for the family to transfer the documents—school and medical certificates—that would prove the boy was under 18. “Since the unprecedented shutdown last August, I used it to take documents for stories of people who fell ill inside jails, juveniles. SHAREit was the only way to get access to them," says Zargar.
Srinagar-based Quratulain Rehbar, 26, a freelance journalist, used it to gain access to the whitelist of 301 websites that were allowed in Kashmir by late January. “We work in times when internet and phones are the basic tools of journalism, and they don’t work—we need it for research, background and more especially when we are filing stories for publications outside Kashmir who don’t have context of the conflict zone we live in," she says.
BORN IN BUDGAM
Wani pitches his new tool as an alternative. The app uses Wi-Fi technology called SoftAP, which helps create a personal network using the Wi-Fi radio built into every mobile device—other devices can attach to this and send or receive files. A QR code in the app helps establish the connection between the two devices.
“People don’t have the time to wait for Bluetooth transfers, that’s old technology; File Share Tool works faster than even SHAREit," claims Wani, maintaining that being a website developer is no easy feat in Kashmir. “In August, we left for Delhi, otherwise we would not have been able to work—how do we write code without internet? Or on 2G speeds? We came back because of coronavirus and fortunately we can work on Wi-Fi now (since we have a connection) but that is not the case for everyone."
SHAREit was, in effect, the go-to app for just about everything, be it games like PUBG or VPNs to enable seamless access. As Vijdan Saleem, a radio jockey and Instagram influencer from the region, puts it, it was the gateway to original content platforms for young Kashmiris during lockdown—at a time when it was impossible to buffer, considering data speeds were stuck at close to 44.5 kbps.
“A lot of content was shared. The Turkish show Diriliş: Ertuğrul was very popular. People would watch it on their phones and they would use SHAREit to transfer it to others while the lockdown was implemented." A former teacher from Kupwara, Mir Asrar , once travelled close to 135km to get five seasons of the show over the app.
File Share Tool hopes to plug the gap. In Wani’s town, Fida Hussain runs the Unique Coaching Academy for students in classes VIII-XII. The centre opened up for a while in March after a nearly seven-month shutdown but had to close again owing to the pandemic. “We would call students in batches of one or two, teachers would use the File Share Tool app and transfer the notes to students, who would then share it with their peers when they met each other," he says. So far, 22 students have accessed notes over the app.
Still, downloading new apps continues to be a challenge. Moien, for instance, has been unable to access File Share Tool. “How are we supposed to get it on our phones in the first place? File sharing has completely stopped in Kashmir for now," he says.
Wani remains undeterred. He is also working on alternatives to apps such as TikTok and has already launched the Document Scanner Tool to replace the recently banned Cam Scanner app. “No one knows how to adapt and survive like us. I really wish the world recognized the talent we have here," he says. “With better access and more opportunities, our local apps could be world class."