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25/09/2019 7:23 AM IST | Updated 25/09/2019 7:23 AM IST

Why The Kashmir Blackout Could Backfire On Modi Govt, Expert Explains

Jan Rydzak, a researcher who has extensively studied the effect of internet shutdowns, says they could actually lead to an increase in violence.

Shared by Jan Rydzak
According to Jan Rydzak’s findings, the government’s strategy of a sustained blackout will compel protesters in India to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones that are less reliant on effective communication and coordination.

On 5 August this year, the Indian government took away Jammu & Kashmir’s special status by revoking Article 370 after deploying thousands of additional troops in the state. It also cut off all forms of communication including mobile, internet and landline connections, effectively putting the Valley under an information blackout.

India is the global leader when it comes to internet shutdowns. According to the Internet Shutdown Tracker, between 2012 and 2019, India witnessed 349 internet shutdowns. While the government has restored some landline connections in Kashmir, internet and mobile services are still unavailable in many parts. 

Jan Rydzak, until recently a researcher at the Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator, has extensively studied internet shutdowns and their effect on protest patterns and collective action. Earlier this year, Rydzak published a paper—Of Blackouts and Bandhs: The Strategy and Structure of Disconnected Protest in India—analysing the effects of an information vacuum on people’s ability to protest and its long-term effects.

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According to Rydzak’s findings, the government’s strategy of a sustained blackout, which he calls “highly inconsistent”, will compel protesters in India to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones that are less reliant on effective communication and coordination.

In an interview to HuffPost India, he spoke about the possible blowback from a sustained communication blackout in Kashmir, the threats internet shutdowns will pose to democracy in India and whether information control is the right approach to deter acts of terror. 

“An undue restriction on communication is a unique circumstance of the abrogation of Article 370. But it has effects that I’m sure we will not know until several months from now to the very least,” said Rydzak.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kashmir has been under a communication blackout for more than seven weeks now. For someone who has long researched the effects of blackouts on people’s ability for collective action, how do you see this situation?

This is not the first time that a [communication] blackout has been imposed in Kashmir. India is by far the [global] leader in the total number of shutdowns that it executes every year: we have seen close to 350 internet shutdowns in India between 2012 and 2019. But what is unprecedented this time is the scale, and to some extent, the duration of the shutdown in Kashmir, but really the fact that it’s such a comprehensive initiative that encompasses multiple forms of communications is something that we didn’t see in the aftermath of [Hizbul Mujahideen commander] Burhan Wani’s killing. And at the same time, it’s predictable that if [this were] to happen at this scale anywhere [in the world] it would be in Kashmir. 

In the past, you have described this development as a ‘digital siege’.

From an external standpoint, [the situation in Kashmir] has all the hallmarks of a siege that has multiple iterations—it is both a physical siege in terms of extensive troop mobilisation and at the same time, it has very important digital elements. And among the general population it creates uncertainty [when], say, you are not being able to contact your family [during] severe restrictions for several weeks.

Could the lack of communication between people at a time of fear and uncertainty lead to frustration and anger?

Potentially. I think that there is a lot of agreement that anger finds an outlet. So, there is always going to be a conduit for frustration [and anger]. There is a lot of research that suggests that people engage in protests of all kinds, whether violent or non-violent, on an individual level. So it’s not going to necessarily be a group on Facebook that is going to help organise the protest but rather your individual family connections, your friends and people you know on a face-to-face basis. So certainly an undue restriction on communication is a unique circumstance of the abrogation of Article 370. But it has effects that I’m sure we will not know until several months from now to the very least.

You write in your research paper that according to your findings, there is no evidence that information blackouts quell protests and reduce violence in the long term.

Yes, exactly. What really prompted me to write this paper was the fact that there have been practically no assessments of the impact of shutdowns besides the relatively obvious economic impacts and the human rights effects, which is very important to highlight. But I think a lot of people assumed that shutdowns are universally effective, or did not want to touch on the subject, because what would happen when you found out that indeed shutdowns are actually an ineffective way of stopping or curbing violence? I think this gave multiple governments a space to continue executing shutdowns because there were [not many people] who were inquiring as to whether this is even working for their own purposes.

If you look at the Indian context [you find] that despite hundreds of internet shutdowns at this point in Kashmir and other states, there have been no impact assessments or evaluations of its effectiveness by either the state or central governments [that have been made public]. So that begs the question of whether they are not publishing these impact assessments because they don’t know the effects, or because they know that internet shutdowns don’t work. Because if these restrictions did work, then the government would probably have some incentive to publish something to that effect, and say that ‘Look, here’s the data that’s proved that this was actually a sensible approach to curtailing violence’.

So what I looked in my paper was essentially the question that if a shutdown is executed in a given region, what kind of effects does it produce for a protest? Do the dynamics of protest change as a result of communication blackouts? And the most striking thing that came out of it was that we see an escalation of violence in the aftermath of shutdowns. Although it would be a little bit difficult to say with total certainty to what extent the escalation happens, but you could say that it amounts to approximately quadrupling of violence than normal situations when networks are not disconnected.

Your findings also indicate that during sustained blackouts, protesters could substitute non-violent tactics with violent ones.

I think the dynamic here is driven by an escalation of frustrations, as I have mentioned that people do have a tendency to find an outlet to offer their frustrations and it also has to do a lot with gruelling uncertainty. Communication blackouts make situations that are already volatile even more volatile and uncertain. It is impossible for the government to predict what would happen, and I think this is one of the reasons why this particular siege is so complete, so comprehensive because the government does not want to take any risks and wants to make sure that any assembly or congregation of people is restricted.

The Indian government has said that this strategy is in place to achieve long-term peace in the valley. Do you agree?

The context of Kashmir is obviously difficult and it comes with a very long and complicated history on multiple sides. But I’d say that communication blackouts are certainly not the right instruments to achieve long-lasting peace because it goes beyond the idea of censoring content that is undesirable for a given party. Although the Indian government is entitled to that statement but there is no evidence that it will lead to lasting peace in Kashmir. I think we need to consider some normative aspects of it that just excluding people from communication—which is now considered a basic human right by the United Nations—would cause a lot of collateral damage such as partial breakdown of the economy of the region. This cannot be a strong contribution to lasting peace.

Protests and riots continued to erupt at roughly the same pace as before Article 370 was revoked and grew steadily for four days after the blackout was imposed—exactly in line with the theory of disconnective action

On the other hand, such a strategy could actually hurt any prospect of peace in the future.

Yes, of course. It foments distrust. If the people don’t have communication at all then on the one hand the government is more distrustful of its own population and at the same time, people have severe doubts about the accuracy of whatever information they have received. Of course, the problem of disinformation online is important, but disinformation travels in all kinds of circumstances including in vacuums. So if you shut down communication completely, you have no guarantee that people would not rely on false information or false leads.

You have written extensively about what you call ‘the theory of disconnective action’. Could you briefly talk about it?

The theory of disconnective action states that the dynamics of protests and the dynamics of collective action will change in conditions of a blackout, and that can include the strategy that people resort to in such a disrupted information space and the structure of the protest: who takes part in protests? And what drives it is that blackouts are a massive disruptions to certain status quo that people get used to, which is connectivity. And if blackouts are conducted on such a large scale that it ends up affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

So we can look at different aspects to it such as whether people tend to protest differently right after a blackout is implemented or in the longer term, or whether there happens to be more violence in these increasingly uncertain conditions, or whether protests turn out be less structured or more structured when communication is disrupted.

For instance, the comprehensive communication shutdown in Egypt in 2011 during the Tahrir Square protests led to not just an explosion of anger but also a dissemination of anger in more places than the government could control. This is just one example of the many cases where protests followed by shutdowns led to even more protests. The dynamics of anger and the ways in which it will be communicated by people are very difficult to predict.

There have been reports of protests in the valley, which the government have either downplayed or denied. But thousands of protesters mobilised and violently clashed with security forces in Soura in Srinagar under a complete communication blackout just days after India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy. Does this tally with your findings? 

Researchers have shown time and time again that shutdowns can be directly connected to flare-ups of protest, spilling out into more and more neighborhoods and cities as people struggle to communicate with their family and friends. Soura is a great example. On a single day, [thousands of] protesters gathered under the most extreme communication blackout that Kashmir had ever seen. They organized both because of and in spite of the shutdown. Something very similar happened nearly 5,000 km away in Sudan at the end of June—a massive protest organized entirely through traditional methods after digital communication was severed. On a broader level, the data show that public outrage among Kashmiris did not die down once the shutdown was imposed. Protests and riots continued to erupt at roughly the same pace as before Article 370 was revoked and grew steadily for four days after the blackout was imposed—exactly in line with the theory of disconnective action. 

Shared by Jan Rydzak

The situation in Kashmir at the moment goes beyond this. News reports say thousands of people have been put under detention, and reports allege instances of beatings and torture by the armed forces. Most political leaders are under house arrest, thereby creating a vacuum. What are the deeper ramifications of these parallel developments on the people at a time of communication blackout? 

This is a combination of strategies that the government is using. Previously these massive arrests were not really consistent strategies, but [now] the government is both putting under arrest the political luminaries that many people follow and it is at the same time blocking communication. It is really difficult to predict what it would lead to, but I think what it does is increase the potential sources of anger.

While I understand that the government is trying to keep as many areas as possible under its control, but it is also potentially shooting itself in the foot because [although] we are not seeing enormous waves of protests right now, this can have completely unpredictable long-term effects, and that is something I think the government is not really considering.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has justified this strategy by citing the threat of terrorism. He said, rather bluntly, “How do I cut off communications between the terrorists and their masters on the one hand, but keep the internet open for other people?” Do we have any evidence that a communication blackout is an appropriate response to terrorism?

Thanks for asking this question. I think this is something that is always assumed, and it’s a very convenient justification and excuse for blackouts. Preventive shutdowns are something that we see around the world, including in India and Pakistan. At the same time, it is impossible to say that this is an effective way to target terrorist activities because terrorists engage in violence against the general population and the state structures, and they rely on multiple forms of communication. Specially in small groups, we see that they use mesh networks or walkie-talkies, which rely on radio waves instead of the standard channels of communication. 

Even when a blackout is completely comprehensive, terrorists can use multiple communication channels. If we are looking at similar circumstances, look at the developments in the wake of the Easter day bombings in Sri Lanka [in April this year] when the government immediately imposed a communication blackout fearing more attacks. Of course, it was an unprecedented situation and the government very strongly justified the blackout. But, again, what we saw there was that regardless of the effect on subsequent terrorist attacks—which is absolutely not proven and there’s no way to determine whether in fact there would have been more attacks had the government not shutdown communications—what the shutdown did was make the problem of disinformation worse in the aftermath of the attack.

After the Nigerian government shutdown communications in the wake of threats from [militant Islamic group] Boko Haram, research suggested that as a result of it, Boko Haram shifted to different forms of communication and strategies in the long term that are not reliant on digital networks as such.

What we must remember is that irrespective of the fact that there is a threat of terrorism or not, there are a lot of stories that get lost in the fray. In Sri Lanka, it was the stories of the police’s inaction or inability to control crowds, which was reported [later in the media]. Governments often want to keep these stories hidden: these invisibility cloaks are for both their failures and abuses.

The sustained communication blackout in Kashmir is not just leading to an economic impact, but it is also having a huge psychological toll on the people. In a restive region like Kashmir, could this digital siege lead to radicalization among certain sections of the population?

The short answer is yes. And specially in situations where Kashmir has very deeply rooted issues with radicalization, and implementing sustained restriction is not the way to go in terms of diffusing those [radical tendencies]. What happens when the shutdown is over and the region is somewhat demilitarized? It is very difficult to change people’s hearts and minds from one day to the next. So I think what we could see is a growth of a more clandestine or secret [radical] movements that again will rely less on digital communications.

But apart from the economic impacts, [sustained] shutdowns have multiple and unpredictable human rights effects on the people, and that’s really I think is the key issue that we will never know the full extent of the impact of shutdowns. You can write reports, you can [talk] to a coupe of people [who suffered from it]....but shutdowns have such a pernicious and pervasive effect that it’s impossible to estimate the full extent of it on people [in the long term]. If you are dealing with a situation where shutdowns occur every few days [or weeks], like we are seeing in Kashmir, it has a [collective] chilling effect on people where you learn to expect that communication will be disrupted. And this in itself, changes people’s behaviour [in a way that] you don’t perceive communication as an everyday reality, but you [begin] to see the lack of communication as the norm.

And all of this is going to have a severe and intense effect on people that is going to be hard to measure.

India is a democracy with more than half a billion people having access to the internet. The government wants to transition to a digital economy, yet India is a global leader in the number of internet shutdowns.

I think India is sending a wrong message to both the democracies and the non-democracies of the world. This is an argument that I have heard from multiple people who live in totalitarian and authoritarian countries that if the No. 1 country that engages in internet and network shutdowns is also the most populous democracy in the world, [then] what kind of signal does that send to our governments? I think that there are multiple signals that India is sending that are not helpful, and one of them is the way in which it has formulated and codified the rules about shutdowns.

Like permissive legal provisions making it easier for the government to impose shutdowns?

Yes, like the clarification that the government made in 2017 about the processes of shutting down the access to the internet [Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017], this entire process of formulating these rules was rife with secrecy, without any formal consultation. There is little to no oversight, especially among the public, about the process of implementing these rules.

It’s a very interesting dynamic because most of the countries in the world, if you look at their laws and regulations [on blackouts], they almost exclusively rely on national security and public safety provisions in their laws and if you compare all of these laws you find that they are formulated so vaguely that practically in any circumstances the government can argue that a shutdown is justified. This kind of model has a greater degree of precision and focus on the circumstances when a shutdown can be executed, but it doesn’t come with [any] accountability. This is potentially dangerous.

In India, unlike most countries where shutdowns are executed by central governments, state actors are responsible for most instances of shutdowns. The fact that the authority is provided by lower level officials without any clear evidence that it has to be approved by the central government, that is certainly what is driving the number of shutdowns. 

From the evidence we have, digital repression as a state strategy to quell protests and maintain order does not necessarily work. So is it just a modern day knee-jerk reaction by governments when faced with the centuries-old human capacity for collective action and dissent?

Shutdowns began as knee-jerk reactions by panicked authoritarian regimes who were facing existential threats to their survival. Since then, they’ve become much more deliberate and sophisticated as part of an arsenal of strategies. What has survived is the legal and popular idea of shutdowns as the modern-day equivalent of curfews. Just like shutdowns, throughout history, curfews have often been imposed rapidly and impulsively, with no second thoughts given to due process, collateral damage, or long-term effects. The goal was always to extinguish the fire burning at the present moment. And just like in the past, governments don’t know much about whether resorting to this kind of restriction actually does what it’s intended to do. What we see today is that authorities use censorship, filtering, surveillance, beatings, arrests and all new kinds of repression jointly.

These tactics have different rates of success, depending on the goals that the government is trying to accomplish. The problem is that those success rates are a black box—often even to the people who impose them. If the goal is to stop a protest, research suggests that they do not work, but there’s no guarantee that those in power are aware of that. As a result, many governments use every tool in the toolbox to discourage, silence, or corral protesters into compliance in the hopes that something will sweep them off the streets. In that sense, shutdowns are very appealing to governments—they have an enormous impact radius, they can be ordered at a moment’s notice with minimal oversight, and they can target specific services or locations.

Worse yet, it is actually very easy to shut down communications. All it takes is an order by an executive authority that does not even have to be made public—and in most cases in India, it is not, despite efforts in the courts by India’s digital rights community. Internet companies have to comply with the order because it is anchored in law—in fact, sometimes they themselves are muzzled. What results is a perfect storm of repression where citizens and companies alike are kept literally in the dark. In the end, shutdowns are a classic case of governments confusing the channels through which tensions in society flow with their cause. People have protested for thousands of years before digital communication made it faster and easier to assemble a crowd, and they will continue to do so even in an information vacuum.