India has again resorted to the modern authoritarian nationalist tool of choice, shutting down the internet in Assam, Meghalaya, and Muslim-majority towns in the north of the country as part of ongoing battles over the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
The 35 million people living in these north-eastern states joined about 7 million in the Kashmir Valley in the north west where the internet has been blocked since August. As a sign of how integrated the internet is in modern economies, the long-term closure in Kashmir has deepened the economic crisis in the region, costing jobs and disrupting education.
In his video story series for The Caravan, Sumit Dayal has reported on the “existential rage” and resistance the shutdown has generated, while The Wire has reported the daily frustrations of, for example, students who need internet access in order to apply for university.
Denying the right to information and interpersonal communication that the internet provides has become a key restraint on human rights, particularly in India.
The UN Human Rights Council in 2016 condemned “unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online”, and called on member states to cease shutdowns
Yet India under its current Hindu nationalist government has accelerated their use, particularly when linked to protests. According to the blog Internet Shutdowns, there have been 93 shutdowns in India this year. In 2018, India had 134 cases, well ahead of second-placed Pakistan with 12.
In some cases (as last week in Tripura), the shutdowns target the mobile internet used by most Indians. In others, it’s extended to more traditional phone services. For example, both in the Kashmir Valley and in the current Meghalaya closure, the orders extend to text messages, which prevents the dual-factor authorisation which is increasingly required to access online government and financial services.
The latest orders in Assam, Meghalaya and in Muslim-majority towns are directly linked to the government’s nationalist agenda. They aim to restrict demonstrations against controversial amendments to the Citizenship Act which, for the first time, prioritised rights for Hindus and other religious minorities over Muslims by providing a path to citizenship for otherwise illegal immigrants (mainly from neighbouring Bangladesh) provided they are not Muslims.
The government’s shutdown order for Assam said it was done “to prevent the misuse of the electronic media to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the State”.
The order particularly targeted “social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube, etc., [which] are likely to be used for spreading of rumours and also for transmission of information like pictures, videos and text that have a potential to inflame passion and thus exacerbate the law-and-order situation”.
Similarly, in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the shutdown was prompted by protests against the government’s decision to revoke the region’s special constitutional status which provided limited autonomy.
In one of the few major reports on press freedom in Kashmir, India’s Free Speech Collective concluded: “there is a deafening silence and invisibilisation of voices from Kashmir expressing alienation, anger and disillusionment at perceived breach of trust.
“The government’s control of communication processes is intrinsically undemocratic and harmful, as it privileges the voices of authority and weakens those who speak truth to power.”
An internet shutdown was also central to the Iranian government’s recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, both to restrict news inside and outside the country, and to prevent encrypted communications between protesters.
In Hong Kong, pro-democracy groups fear that the October emergency decree has given authorities the power to bring the city within China’s restrictive “great firewall”.
The India shutdowns are contested by civil society, opposition parties and by business.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in southern Kerala has followed up its 2018 declaration recognising the right of internet access with a decision to roll out fibre optic cable providing free access to more than 2 million families — proving, perhaps, that internet access really is a Marxist plot.