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In case of emergency, shutdown the internet

Just 42 days into 2021, and India has already imposed eight internet shutdowns.

Credit : Shubham Patil

It's been just 42 days into 2021, and India has already imposed eight internet shutdowns this year, shows the Internet Shutdown Tracker by the Software Freedom Law Centre of India (SFLC.In). While the ongoing farmers' protests in Delhi have been receiving greater attention with each passing day, the internet shutdowns imposed in parts of the national capital due to the protests have received flak from the international community.

The imposition of internet shutdown has been a common occurrence in India in the past few years, especially used as a tool by the state to curb public agitation. Internet shutdown refers to disruption of internet services, mostly pertaining to mobile internet. These shutdowns were earlier imposed under section 144 of Criminal Procedure, before the government formed the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rule in 2017.

In 2016, the UN declared access to the internet as a human right. The Supreme Court of India, in January 2020, declared access to the internet a fundamental right, referring to the internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, based on Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution, guaranteeing the right to freedom of speech and expression.

When internet connectivity along with other modes of communication was suspended in Jammu and Kashmir for several months starting August 2019, the government as well as others tried to justify the same citing security reasons. What’s there to lose, was the question asked by many government supporters. However, meeting every bit of opposition with a suspension of communication channels has become a pattern in the entire country, not just Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the past three-four years. Recently, Congress chief Anand Sharma, while speaking in the Parliament, called India the ‘internet shutdown capital’ of the world.


Protests met with Shutdowns

Internet shutdowns imposed by the Central Government in parts of the national capital owing to the ongoing farmers’ protests have received worldwide attention. While human rights activists and celebrities have criticised it, this is not the first time that the government has suspended internet services as a way to counter agitations in India. During the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of India in 2019-2020, internet shutdowns were imposed in parts of several states where there were widespread agitations.

The abrogation of Article 370 in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir was enforced after suspending internet services in the state, in what went on to be the longest internet shutdown in India. In fact, Jammu and Kashmir, from the very beginning has seen several preventive as well as reactive shutdowns, whenever there has been a state of unrest or agitations amongst the Kashmiri people.

Previously, internet services were suspended in districts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh back in 2017, to counter farmers’ agitations in these states. Mobile internet was also banned in parts of Gujarat during the Patidar Protests of 2015 as well as Jat agitations in Haryana in 2016. Maharashtra Bandh that was observed in the state following the violence at Koregaon-Bhima was also met with internet shutdowns in parts of the state.



History of Internet Shutdowns in India

As per the data by the SFLC, since 2012, India has had a total of 469 shutdowns, around half of which were imposed in Jammu and Kashmir. While there were three internet shutdowns in the country in 2012, by the year 2018, the number had crossed 100. In 2020, there were 83 instances of internet shutdown across the country.

Interestingly, the maximum number of shutdowns, 134, was imposed in the year 2018, followed by 106 in 2019, the year the NDA Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came back to power for the second term. It will be important to note here that social media was one of the important modes of campaigning adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), both for 2014 as well as 2019 general elections. In fact, Digital India has been promoted as one of PM Modi’s flagship programmes, especially since the Demonetisation was enforced in the country towards the end of 2016. Considering this, isn’t it a bit odd that the number of internet suspensions also saw a sudden increase in the country since 2017, when it rose to 79 from 31 in 2016?

According to the available data, communal clashes and agitations have been the major reasons cited for internet shutdowns in India. Apart from Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal are some of the states that have seen the most number of shutdowns between 2012 and 2018 (as per the available data). In an amusing instance, in parts of Rajasthan, internet services were suspended to prevent cheating in examinations on over two occasions in 2018, by the then BJP government in the state.


The Jammu & Kashmir Story

The longest internet shutdown in India was imposed in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 in the state. While internet shutdowns are not new in Jammu and Kashmir, this time it was different. Not just mobile internet, but broadbands, landlines and cables were also shut down. People were left in the dark about their fate, as the special status given to their state was taken away, also disintegrating it into two union territories. The 213-days-long shutdown lasted between August 4th, 2019 and March 4th, 2020. Even after the shutdown was lifted, the state, now union territory, had access to 2G internet only for several months, the 4G services being resumed just a few days ago, after 552 days of suspension.

By August 2020, a year after the internet shutdown was initiated, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry had claimed an economic loss of Rs 40,000 crore in the Valley alone, with over five lakh job losses. A UK-based digital privacy firm Top10VPN which recently reported that India suffered losses of over Rs 20,000 crores in the year 2020 due to internet shutdowns, also added that in Jammu and Kashmir, businesses, schools and the distribution of medicine was adversely affected by the internet suspension. While the entire country was working from home, seeking online education during the Coronavirus lockdown, Kashmiris were deprived of this due to the 2G network connectivity in the region.


Internet Shutdowns trending across Globe

Just like the previous two years, India, the largest democracy in the world, continued to impose more internet shutdowns than any other country in 2020. In 2018, India imposed the maximum (134) of the 196 shutdowns in 25 countries across the world. The number of countries imposing shutdowns increased to 33 in 2019, India continuing on top of the list for the second consecutive year as well. As per the data by the #KeepItOn Campaign, Asia had the maximum internet shutdowns in the world in 2019.

As per the above-mentioned report ‘The Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns in 2020’ by Top10VPN, 93 major shutdowns took place in 21 countries in 2020, counting to 27,165 hours of internet suspension across the world. This was 49 percent higher than the previous years. Out of these, 10,693 hours were of total internet blackout, 10,920 hours of internet throttling, and 5,552 hours of social media shutdowns in the world. As per this data, around 268 million people were affected across the globe in different instances of internet suspensions, 42 percent of which were reportedly associated with additional abuses like restrictions on freedom of assembly, election interferences and infringements on freedom of the press.

Presently, Myanmar’s junta, after a military coup and an announcement of a year-long emergency in the country, suspended the internet services. In January, internet shutdown was imposed in Uganda, during the elections in the country.

Several organisations across the world are fighting for internet freedom. Recently, Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) along with the Free Software Movement of India and SFLC released a joint statement condemning the internet shutdowns imposed to suppress farmers' protests in India. These organisations have time and again brought to notice the impacts of internet service suspension, as a violation of the right of freedom of speech and expression, as well as peaceful protest. In fact, internet shutdowns have been reported to be futile where it comes to preventing violence, as they take away people's access to information, leaving them more vulnerable to turning towards or falling prey to violence. Shutdowns bury the real picture, and promote the narrative suitable to the people in power. For instance, when Article 370 was abrogated in Kashmir, visuals of Kashmiri people celebrating in acceptance, most popular one being that of the Union Home Minister eating biryani with locals, was used by political leaders as well as people to push the narrative of 'all is well' in Kashmir. It was only after the brave efforts of journalists and human rights activists that the actual situation of despair in Kashmir came to light.

In a country depending heavily on the internet and social media for its economic transactions, businesses, education, information and entertainment, the number of internet shutdowns is not just a matter of concern anymore. The continuously increasing suspensions are setting fearful precedents, which should not be taken casually by the country which prides itself in being the world's largest democracy.