Responding to rising protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, the Internet in Delhi has been shut down in parts while busloads of students, academics, and politicians alike are being detained across the country.
Delhi’s Internet shutdown is only the latest in a long string of such actions across the country — in 2019 alone, InternetShutdowns, a shutdown tracked by SFLC.in, has listed 77 Internet shutdowns in India. Of this, 56 are listed as “preventive” shutdowns, to preserve law and order, while 21 are “reactive”.
The actual number could be even higher — SFLC tracks news reports to get its information, and short shutdowns particularly in remote areas could easily go unnoticed. The government does not have a public record of this data.
This year also saw the longest Internet shutdown in India — and the longest in any democracy in the world — with access in Kashmir being blocked for 136 days and counting now, ever since August 4, 2019.
As noted by the New York Times, 60 million people — a number that’s approximately the same as the population of France — are being prevented from accessing the Internet.
In Bengaluru, even with Internet access, coordinating and ensuring that information about the protests is available to people to allow peaceful protests in the face of police action is proving to be challenging. People being detained are able to share their stories and photos and videos, but as they get dragged into buses and their phones taken away, the rest are left uncertain of what’s happening of where they’ve been taken.
In Delhi, the government has taken not just the mobile Internet offline, but also voice and SMS services. Responding to a tweet, Airtel’s customer care said:
“Hi, Danish! Like we spoke, as per instructions from govt. authorities, Voice, internet and SMS services are currently suspended in your location. Once the suspension orders are lifted, our services will be fully up and running. We’re sorry about the inconvenience. Thanks for your support! Prabhjot”
Vodafone also responded with a similar message, stating: “We would like to inform you that there is a planned outage scheduled as per government directive. This will be rectified as soon as we receive the next directive from the authority.
Lawyer and activist Mishi Choudhary said, “It’s really concerning that the capital city of the largest democracy in the world has shut the internet down and cut off its citizens from communicating. This is unprecedented and could have an irreversible and detrimental impact on India’s aspiration to become a Digital Leader.”
The government cut off Internet access in Assam as protests against the CAB started up there weeks earlier. Last week, it cut off the Internet in Aligarh, as protests were planned for AMU.
The police violence that took place in Jamia on Sunday was documented and highly visible because Internet access was still available. The violence in Aligarh and in many parts of Assam has been largely invisible thanks to the Internet shutdowns.
The fact that the government has now cut the Internet in Delhi is extremely worrying — particularly as it has done so in the heart of the city, where a large number of newspapers are still headquartered, affecting the production of news; and where the centres of power in India lie.
These shutdowns have tarnished India’s reputation in the world — David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said the communication blackout is a ‘disproportionate’ interference with the rights of Kashmiris. They have caused economic hardship and silenced peaceful protest, and at the same time, police officials have said many times that cutting off the Internet does not help to maintain the peace — so what, exactly, is the point of these repeated Internet shutdowns that no one, except for China sees as a good thing?