How does India use Internet access as a political tool?

Internet services have been momentarily shut down in some areas in India due to important farmers’ protests, which sparked international outrage. However, the authorities have been using this political weapon for long and with more intensity than any other countries in the world. Often justified by public order under the scope national sovereignty and fears of secession.

“Securing peace and public order”

On February 7th, 2021, mobile phone connections slowly went back to normal in Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur, some cities surroundings New Delhi, the capital of India.

The most relived may be the farmers who drove or walked down from the neighboring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh or Punjab to these cities late last year. They came to protest against three agricultural laws voted by the government in September. They installed their camps since November and have been staying with their tractors, blocking major roads around New Delhi since then.

Protestation is concentrated in New Delhi but is also spread out in the agricultural areas. Punjab had its railway services highly disturbed in the end of 2020 for instance.

But on January 26th, violent incidents took place in New Delhi during a demonstration, which led to some controversial reactions from the authorities.

Farmer unions organized a tractor rally in Delhi during India’s Republic Day. The police allowed 5,000 tractors to participate in the demonstration whilst The Delhi Republic Day military parade was also scheduled in the city on the same day. Yet, more than 200,000 tractors gathered in the capital. People breached into the Red Fort, a monument listed at the UNESCO World Heritage. Moreover, one protestor died and 300 police officers were injured.

In reaction to the “unrest and insecurity“, India mobilized more paramilitary troops but also shut down Internet mobile services. Mobile phone is the main portal for accessing the Internet in India. The ban included the cities close to New Delhi were farmers set up camps and the other states where protests also occurred.

For example, about 15 in 22 districts of the Haryana state, home of many farmers’ families, couldn’t have access to wireless broadband services until February 1st. The statement justified the suspension in order “to prevent any disturbance of peace and public order“. Only voice calls and individual text messages were allowed. Mobile Internet services, bulk SMS and dongle services were prohibited.

At the requests of the authorities, Twitter momentarily suspended 250 accounts.

But it is far from the first time the Indian regional or central authorities block communications tools and the Internet.

The country that blocks the Internet the most

In fact, the world’s largest democracy is by far the country blocking Internet communications the most.

According to Access Now, an organization supporting digital rights, at least 121 shutdowns out of 213 came from India in 2019. It is more than any other countries combined. The second country on the list is Venezuela with 12 interruptions. India also topped the ranks in 2018.

Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014 and formed a nationalist government, over 350 disruptions affected Indians.

And a region was particularly hit: more than 2 in 3 shutdowns in 2019 happened in the politically sensitive region of Jammu-and-Kashmir, a northern region near the Pakistan and Chinese borders.

The population even experienced the longest Internet shutdown recorded. It affected 60M people. They lived with Internet restrictions for 551 continuous days.

Some regions particularly hit by the communications lockdowns

The ban came into effect on August 4th, 2019 the day before the revocation of Article 370. It removed the autonomous status of Jammu-and-Kashmir which became part of the Union territory of India, administered as any other regional states part of the Union. Ladakh was also split as a Revenue and Administrative Division.

For that reason, the government took preventive actions by restricting any attempt of contestation. The administration stipulated “that anti-national elements might misuse” Internet for “activities inimical to the public order”.

Jammu-and-Kashmir is indeed a very unstable area of India. Over the years, there have been several violent separatist insurrections. India had arguments over the control of the lands with Pakistan since they both became independent from the British Empire in 1947. It led to several wars between the countries, the creation of a Line of Control (LoC) guarded by military troops and regular fire exchanged.

It was the only state where the Muslims make the majority of the population in a country composed of 80% Hindus. Hizbul Mujahideens fight in Kashmir for integrating the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and leaving the Union. The jihadists claimed responsibility for terror attacks. India also argues with China, which doesn’t recognize the Kashmir territory as part of India either.

North India Map
Northern India and Pakistan, Google Maps, 2021

While communication was restrained, almost 4,000 Kashmiris were put under arrest less than a month after the end of the special status.

The detentions were vaguely justified by targeting people who threw stones at Indian forces and “other miscreants”, according to Reuters. On the other side, the government claimed that the arrests led to far less violence than in 2016 during a previous eventful unrest. Yet, communication was then again blacked out for 133 days during that period of agitation, triggered by the death of a Hizbul Mujahideen activist.

It is not the only region subject to communication constraints against order and dissidence concerns. A shutdown lasted 100 days in 2017 because because of violent protests in the autonomous district of Gorkhaland that resurfaced claims of a separate state from Darjeeling.

In January 2020, the Supreme Court, seized on the Jammu-and-Kashmir situation, concluded that “suspension of free movement, Internet and basic freedoms cannot be an arbitrary exercise of power” and that freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right”.

As a consequence, some restrictions were slowly removed.

Shutdowns are no more indefinite

Only a hand of 300 whitelisted websites such as for banks, educational institutions or some news portals were available again through fixed lines or 2G speed. First for verified users, then for verified SIM cards. High-speed mobile connections were still unavailable. Social media access was restored later in March 2020, with 2G.

The blocks, more regularly used by the States than the Central Government, have often been conveniently applied easily.

But since the Supreme Court injunctions to update the orders, such long and indefinite blackouts have become illegal.

In November 2020, the Central government amended the Indian Telegraph Act in which suspensions can only be valid for 15 days. The amendments brings some structure to a legislation that have also been lacking clarity.

In 2008, the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 was passed to promote the IT industry. For preventing cyber-crime, the Act eventually confiscated some digital rights.

In “the interests of the sovereignty or integrity of India […] the Central Government or any of its officers” had the power to block for public accessany information through any computer resource” and “to monitor and collect traffic data or information through any computer resource for cyber security“.

Then, in 2017, almost 10 years later, the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules provided more details.

The bans have to come from the Secretary of Home Affairs of the Government of India or the State Government. A specific motive needs to be given and a Committee must review the order.

These political maneuvers for controlling the population have also social and economic consequences. But they appear both important and minimal.

Economic and societal consequences

In the era of video conferences due to the pandemic, about 30,000 students based in Kashmir followed classes using mobile apps developed to function with low-speed Internet.

Gurugram, a city of 1.15M people in the region of Haryana close to New Delhi, had to postpone exams due to the Internet ban related to the farmers protests. They were supposed to take place remotely because of the pandemic.

In December 2019, during suspensions contingent with protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, telecom operators estimated losing about 24.5M rupees, or $350,000, every hour. (The Act excluded Muslims from being granted the Indian citizenship with a refugee status.)

According to The NetBlocks Cost of Shutdown Tool (COST), an Internet shutdown in the whole country would cost India $42 million every hour, or $1 billion a day.

In fact, Indians are heavy consumers of mobile data: 9.8 gygabytes a month according to the Swedish mobile manufacturer Ericsson.

About 500 million Indians owned a smartphone in 2019, and 77% of the population, or 700 million persons, can access the Internet on their phones. This makes India the largest consumer of mobile data in the world. With its 400 million users, India is the first market for WhatsApp.

In March 2020, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as reported by Al Jazeera, said that no less than 150,000 jobs were lost because of the blackout in their area.

Five months later, in August 2020, the Jammu-and-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) released a report claiming that $5.3 billion and 500,000 jobs were lost during a year of forced Internet silence, directly affecting 4% of the people in the region. As a matter of fact, the Kashmir Valley near the Himalayas is also one of the most touristic regions of India.

But as impressive as these figures can be, JKCCS estimates account for 0.06% of the Indian workforce and 0.2% of its annual GDP.

Nonetheless, such political restrictions may appear in conflict with some of the federal government’s objectives.

Contradictions with digital expansion objectives

The program Digital India launched by the Prime Minister in 2015 aims to “transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. For example, one of the components is the “availability of high speed Internet as a core utility for delivery of services to citizens”. The goal is also to have a “universal digital literacy“, which mean being educated in digital usage. In fact, this initiative about digital is more for making government services accessible than serving digital freedom.

However, digital investments are also meant to serve citizen rights and boost the economy.

Earlier this year, the Union Budget highlighted new measures including the creation of an e-voter card, enabling video conferences of court hearings, the creation of a digital fintech hub or a scheme of 15 billion rupees ($206 million) for increasing use of digital payments.

But the long or impetuous digital lock downs could threaten equal and fair access to such services.

Ironically, the next Census of the Indian population is supposed to take place in 2021 with a digital app.

Yet, because the restrictions are politically motivated, only political reasons appear to radically soften India’s decisions. The recent course of actions goes in that sense.

Digital India logo
Logo “Digital India – Power To Empower”

More than farmers’ digital messages at stake

Farmers in India make 41% of the workforce and represent a massive source of voters for politicians.

During the legislative elections in 2019, Mr Modi promised to double farmer’s revenues by 2020. As such, he wanted to modernize the agriculture by liberalizing it. The laws would let farmers sell directly to private firms instead of dealing with national Committees that regulate rates, limiting farmer’s profits but securing a minimal income.

Protestors claim that large corporations would take advantage of their vulnerability by pressuring on prices and want a plain withdrawal of the laws.

But the large-scale echo of the Internet disconnections following farmers’ protests put pressure on the Indian authorities instead. It increased sympathy over the farmers’ claims, spurred a broader international scrutiny and grew concerns among Western leaders.Rihanna or Greta Thunberg are celebrities who participated in shedding light on the situation.

Rihanna is the 4th most influential personality on Twitter with 102 million followers. It is more than Narendra Modi, yet the 12th most influential personality with 65 million followers. Rihanna’s post about the farmers’ protests nearly collected 1 million likes.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs responded that “the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, are neither accurate nor responsible“. Some Indian celebrities clashed back the international comments. Sachin Tendulkar, a former cricket star-player, tweeted that “external forces can be spectators but not participants“. The Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a Modi supporter, called the protesting farmers “terrorists.

Kangana Ranaut referred to Sikhs who would be part of a separatist movement in order to create the Khalistan. The Sikhs are part of a religious community of 21 million Indians, or 1.7% of the population.

Sikhs mostly live in the agricultural state of Punjab, the “grain bowl” of India. They were among the first ones to protest against the farm laws.

In December, a photo showing a paramilitary police officer ready to hit an elderly Sikh farmer with his baton quickly became viral and an early symbol of the protests.

During the breach of the Red Fort, flags were erected and one was confused between a Sikh religious flag and the Khalistan political flag. Flags at the Red Fort are a strong symbol. Every year, the Prime Minister hoists the Indian flag and delivers a speech celebrating India’s Independence Day in this monument.

Sikhs have also a substantial diaspora spread in the US, Canada or the UK. For instance, the California’s Valley Sikh community funded a commercial ad aired in some parts of California before the Super Bowl in support of the protests. Since December, several demonstrations underwent in support of the farmers, attracting international curiosity in the US, a country home to 4.4 million people of Indian origin, in the UK, in Canada or Australia. Among the supporters, many originally came from Punjab or were part of the Sikh community.

The role of international politics in Indian digital rights?

In December, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, already reacted to the protests in India. After the Red Fort incidents, he said that “Canada will always stand up for the right of peaceful protest and human rights“.

The US State Department spokesperson recognized that “access to information, including the Internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression”. The US embassy spokesperson in New Delhi reiterated that the United States “welcome(d) steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment” but also that “peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same“.

The US already expressed concerns with the Internet shutdown in Jammu-and-Kashmir in 2019.

Few days after international reactions, the controversial Internet restrictions eventually disappeared over the course of a weekend.

On January 22, the government of Jammu-and-Kashmir extended 4G ban until February 6th, 2021 because of “well-founded apprehensions about seditious propaganda from across the border on public order“.

Nevertheless, on February 5th, few days after the Red Fort violence and the international comments, the restrictions in Jammu-and-Kashmir were finally removed and 4G restored.

Two days later, on Sunday, bans hitting the farmers’ protests were gone.

On Monday morning, Mr Modi was in a call with Asian leaders discussing security issues with China. It was his first meeting that included the new US President.

On February 25th, India and Pakistan issued a joint statement agreeing to a ceasefire in the Line of Control. Indian armies are currently more focused on the tensions at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh with China than with Pakistan borders.

In the meantime, Internet is back and farmers’ protests are still ongoing.

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