Updated: December 18, 2019 7:03:19 pm
On Monday, the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), the global tracker for Internet shutdowns, was inundated with messages of shutdowns across the country — a frequently recurring phenomenon in India over the past several years.
The world’s fastest growing Internet market is also the global leader by far in cutting off access to small and large sections of its population. It is now commonplace during moments of tension for law enforcement and government officials to cut off the Internet as both an early and a preventive response — as much to stymie communication between restive groups to prevent them organising, as to block the spread of rumours and fake news.
The Department of Telecommunications does not maintain data on shutdowns ordered by states — this has been the government’s stock response to questions in Parliament on the number of Internet shutdowns. SFLC, which gets most of its data from national and regional newspapers, cautions that “our data is as reliable as the sources it comes from”; however these data are virtually the only ones available on Internet shutdowns, and are referred to widely.
The economic cost to shutdowns is immense: Over the past five years, some 16,000 hours of Internet shutdowns cost the economy a little over $3 billion, according to estimates in a report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).
SFLC also found frequent shutdowns in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Egypt, Congo, Syria, Sudan, Burundi, Iraq, and Venezuela.
Major events in 2019
Citizenship Act: On Sunday, as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act raged in West Bengal, Internet services were stopped in the state’s North Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Howrah, North 24-Parganas and parts of South 24-Parganas districts. In previous days, shutdowns had been enforced in several districts of Uttar Pradesh and in the Northeastern states.
While there were shutdowns in the Northeast at the beginning of the year as well (when the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill by the previous Lok Sabha triggered unrest), the first shutdown in the current phase was reported to the SLFC on December 10 — in Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura — the day after Lok Sabha passed the Bill.
In Assam, services were suspended on December 11, when Rajya Sabha too, cleared the Bill, and continued on December 12.
The same day, Meghalaya suspended services for 48 hours because, according to an official memo, “messaging systems like SMS and Whatsapp and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are likely to be used for the transmission of information through pictures, videos and text that have the potential to cause civil unrest and exacerbate the law and order situation”.
On December 13, protests in Aligarh prompted a shutdown, and on Sunday in Meerut for “law and order maintenance”. Access to the Internet was cut off in Saharanpur on both Sunday and Monday, officials said.
Ahead of a planned protest by students in Aligarh Muslim University on Sunday, the administration acted again to prevent the “spreading of rumours and misinformation using social media platforms… which can hinder peace and law and order”.
Ayodhya verdict: The current sweeping shutdowns come after access to the Internet was cut off as a preventive measure in several states last month ahead of the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict, when there were apprehensions of tension and violence. Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh saw the largest numbers of suspensions of Internet services.
Jammu and Kashmir: Monday marked the 134th day of the continuing shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, which began on August 5, the day the erstwhile state was stripped of its special status under Article 370 of the Constitution. This is the longest ever continuous Internet shutdown in the country. Jammu and Kashmir had earlier experienced a 133-day shutdown between July 8 and November 19, 2016; Darjeeling went 100 days without access to the Internet between June 8 and September 25, 2017.
States with most shutdowns
The most active ‘shutdown states’, by frequency of shutdowns, have been as follows:
Jammu and Kashmir: The erstwhile state has seen 180 Internet shutdowns since 2012, according to SFLC. The most commonly offered reasons for cutting access have been “encounter between security forces and militants”, “massive search operations”, “gunfights”, and “attack on CRPF men”. A case to have the Internet restored in the region is currently ongoing in the Supreme Court.
The Internet was suspended around the death anniversary of the slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, and on Independence Day 2017, Republic Day 2016, and Eid 2015. The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February also triggered a shutdown.
Rajasthan: The state has had 67 shutdowns since 2015, from hyper-local ones to those extending to districts or specific areas. Several have been “preventative measures after communal tensions broke out” or “to prevent the spread of rumours”. On August 13, “mobile Internet services were snapped… in 10 police station areas in Jaipur… to prevent rumours as tense situation prevailed after a minor scuffle broke out between two communities”.
Rajasthan has also seen shutdowns in order to prevent cheating in examinations — it happened for two days in most districts from July 14, 2018 during examinations to recruit constables; and in Bikaner, Sikar, and Karauli districts during the REET exam on February 11, 2018.
Some districts have enforced shutdowns on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti, during protests by Dalit groups, and during celebrations by Hindu organisations.
Uttar Pradesh: UP has seen 19 shutdowns since 2015. “Internet services were suspended to defuse the tension prevailing due to protests by Muslims against lynching of a man. According to some sources the protests turned violent after police lathicharged the protesters,” the tracker said on July 5, 2019.
Other reasons for shutdowns include: “following brutal murder of a toddler”, “following an altercation between some students and a TV channel over reports of a visit by AIMIM lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi at AMU”, “following the killing of Bhim Army leader’s brother”, and “following the violent clashes between supporters of the Bharat bandh and a pro-reservation group comprising OBCs and Dalits”.
Relevant ‘shutdown laws’
Home Departments in the states are mostly the authorities that enforce shutdowns, drawing powers from The Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. The decisions are reviewed by a state government review committee. The central government also has powers under this law, but has not used it.
Other relevant laws are Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.
Section 144 has enabled many of the shutdowns in the recent past, especially until the time the telecom suspension Rules came into force in 2017. Section 144 CrPC gives the District Magistrate, Sub-Divisional Magistrate or any other executive magistrate empowered by the state government the power to issue orders to “maintain public tranquility”.
Less frequently used is The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, whose Section 5(2) allows central and state governments to prevent the transmission of messaging during a “public emergency or in the interest of public safety”, or “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state”, etc.
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