Shutting Down Internets

India is the largest demo-cracy of the world. So they claim. But the Modi administration is continually defining and redefining democracy to suit their vested interests. It is at worst an elected autocracy gagging the voice of dissent at every level. Freedom House has downgraded India from “ free” to “partly free”, while V-Dem classifies India as “ electoral autocracy” down from “electoral democracy”. One way to cripple the opposition campaign is to shutdown internet and digital platforms. Internet shutdowns in India have escalated dramatically under the Modi-led BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) government. Modi’s India is said to have recorded the highest number of internet cut-offs in the last five years. It’s a kind of collective punishment to people for raising their voices against social and economic injustice. In truth, the blanket digital ban is an alarming trend to make Modi’s India a notorious police state.

A surge since 2020 in India’s utilisation of internet shutdowns has surpassed even openly authoritarian regimes such as Russia, Sudan, Iran, Myanmar, and Ethiopia. This period has marked a tendency toward digital authoritarianism, notably triggered by responses to various protests.

Much of this trend can be traced back to August 2017 when the Modi government issued a rule under the Telegraph Act, granting legal authority for such shutdowns. Before this, there was legal ambiguity surrounding the permissibility of such a move in India.

The alteration in the Act was seen as beneficial to the BJP government, particularly when it unilaterally revoked the semi-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, abolishing Article 370 and imposed an 18-month internet blackout. Also, last year, the north eastern state of Manipur experienced an indefinite internet shutdown, causing widespread devastation among its people. The horror of Manipur ethnic violence and subsequent police action or inaction remained largely unreported. What came out in the mainstream media was far from the reality.

The idea of collective punishment, where the entire population suffers due to perceived threats, has virtually become normalised, particularly in Kashmir and Manipur.

The government of India has not only imposed an internet ban amid the ongoing farmers’ protest but has also issued two sets of blocking orders for social media accounts and links related to the protests, with 177 links and accounts blocked, including 42 X accounts. Most accounts withheld or suspended were critical of the BJP government and its various measures to bash the minority community. This intolerance is deep-rooted and it has already paved the way for the rise of fascism.

Meanwhile X, via its Global Government Affairs account, announced it would withhold some accounts and posts in India following government orders despite disagreeing with the action and citing freedom of expression.

Digital experts contend that the substantial increase in web censorship and internet shutdowns just weeks before India’s general election is deeply concerning.

There had been a noticeable increase in content takedown and blocking of social media handles related to the on-going farmer’s protests. As the protest movement turned chaotic with police using tear gas, rubber bullets, iron pellets and water cannon the government wants to erase the real scenario in the name of ‘fighting’ fake news.

How citizens could exercise their right to peaceful assembly if all protests were deemed as a public emergency or matter of public safety is a big question.

For one thing X served as a reliable medium for farmers during their protests in 2020-21. The platform was instrumental in issuing official press releases, documenting police excesses, fostering community, and garnering sympathy for their cause through hashtags. It emerged as a crucial informational conduit for farmers to articulate their demands and counter disinformation.

“The situation today is different. Blocking orders for Twitter [now X] accounts of farm leaders have been issued in advance. This form of pre-censorship is without any transparency or natural justice”.

Globally, bills are being tabled advocating for the right to the internet as a basic human right. However, in this part of the world, internet shutdowns are being enforced upon citizens regularly. Right to freedom of expression is now a luxury, available only to the advocates of ruling party ideology.

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Vol 56, No. 38, Mar 17 - 23, 2024