Mapping the Rising Internet Shutdowns in India Since 2016

Four charts show the annual rising internet outages in India, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, from 2016 and 2022, and the justifications given by the government for such actions.

Listen to this article:

On June 17, 2020, the Index on Censorship magazine published an interview of a Kashmiri journalist’s experience of the internet shutdowns enforced by the government in the region.

Bilal Hussain, a business journalist, who lives in Srinagar, recounted that he had to access the internet on the government-run computers at a ‘media facilitation centre’ for several months due to internet restrictions. He added that he had to create a new email id to communicate with his editors, as there was no privacy, and he was forced to work under constant surveillance in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hussain is among the many people who suffered due to the constant internet shutdowns in the valley.

According to data from Access Now, a digital rights group, between 2016 and 2021, around 931 government-enforced internet shutdowns were recorded in 74 countries. Between January 2012 and June 2022, there were 647 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far.

Figure 1 shows that internet shutdowns skyrocketed from 30 in 2016 to 106 in 2021 – making India the biggest violator of internet outages worldwide under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime.

Broadly, there are two forms of internet shutdowns.

The first is an explicit use of shutdown, where the government enforces an absolute blackout of internet services in a place. Whereas another approach is speed throttling, when the government deliberately slows down the internet, reducing the 4G network to a 2G network, forcing a targeted population to rely on passive speed.

It is also significant to look at the rising internet shutdowns from the state-wise records. From 2016 to 2022, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana have been the states with the most internet outages across India. See figure 2.

Another report noted that India tops the world in internet shutdowns and J&K accounts for about two-thirds (63%) of the total shutdowns in the country, both in terms of frequency and duration.

Political scientist Kris Ruijgrok argues in his article that the BJP is directly responsible for the rising internet shutdowns across India. In addition, he said that it is also responsible for the indirect rise of internet shutdowns in the non-BJP states.

For instance, in Rajasthan, the killing of a Hindu tailor, Kanhaiya Lal, prompted the police to issue an immediate internet shutdown in the state, fearing further violence among different communities. During the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, internet services were suspended in many parts of Uttar Pradesh.

Additionally, the Internet Freedom Foundation had in January 2021 issued a statement condemning the use of internet shutdowns to suppress the farmers' protest. It added that internet shutdowns have become the government's "routine response to protests".

Ruijgrok argues that there is a lack of a regulatory framework in India, due to which there are fewer constraints on bureaucrats issuing internet shutdowns.

In 2017, new rules to order internet shutdowns were introduced under the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. Under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency and Public Safety), internet shutdowns could only be enforced by the home secretary of the Union or state governments.

However, the case differs on the ground as there have been instances like the anti-CAA protests in 2019, when an internet shutdown order was passed by the deputy commissioner of police in Delhi, breaching the standing law. In another similar instance in Kashmir, in 2017, the government enforced an internet shutdown in the Valley without any prior approval from any government body.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of internet outages in India is surmounting. According to a report published by Brookings, between July 2015 and June 2016, 1,692 hours of internet shutdowns in India cost the economy $968 million. The cost rose to $2.8 billion in 2020 for an estimated 8,927 hours of internet censorship, according to data curated by Top10VPN.

Another report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Research in April 2018 had said that frequent internet shutdowns are harming those sectors that are primarily dependent on digital technologies such as e-commerce, tourism and IT services. Healthcare and education too are also bearing the brunt of frequent digital outages.

Also read: Can the Right to Internet Access Flow From the Right to Life?

In West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, the state government had in 2018 imposed an internet ban for more than 100 days after the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha called for a strike over the government’s imposition of the Bengali language in all the schools.

The shutdown affected a courier service called Turant that was largely dependent on digital platforms. Many other e-commerce firms in Darjeeling too suffered heavy losses without the internet.

In Jammu and Kashmir, which has suffered the most number of internet shutdowns, districts such as Pulwama, Kulgam, Shopian, Anantnag have seen more internet restrictions than other regions in the erstwhile state, now a Union territory. As per the government, the reasons for frequent internet blackouts in the region are national security of the state or counter-terrorism, putting Kashmir on the permanent pedestal of the ‘state of exception’.

According to the scholar, Sheikh Moinuddin, the internet and communication blockade in J&K has been happening since 2005 on Independence Day and Republic Day. He also added that one such major internet blockade was observed in 2012 by the state government over an anti-Islamic film row.

After reading down Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the erstwhile state of J&K faced the longest shutdown on earth that went for almost 172 days of absolute digital blackout and 378 days of speed throttling.

There has been a strong sentiment of dissent among the Kashmiris against state action as the government has used curfews and draconian laws as instruments to stifle their voices. For more than a decade, they have been actively using the digital medium to demonstrate their defiance against the State. However, the government has started to extend the mechanism of curfew even to the digital space, using 'national security' as a reason.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism explains that any totalitarian state usually destroys the prerequisite of freedom, which means, first, the basic destruction of civil liberties, and second, making the entire concept of freedom redundant. Hence, digital blackout is a method depriving the Kashmiris of the hope of communication, until or unless, they subserviently acclimatise with the 'new normal'.

The rise in internet shutdowns in India also come against the backdrop of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) passing a resolution in 2016 calling access to the internet a basic human right. It also urged states to refrain from intentionally preventing the dissemination of information to the common people in online mode.

Also read: India No Haven for Net Freedom but It Did Not Oppose UN Move on Internet Rights

Additionally, on January 10, 2020, the Supreme Court in the Anuradha Bhasin V. The Union of India had also ruled that the freedom of free speech and expression on the internet is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Figure 4 shows that in the initial years, between October 2015 and 2017, the government used 'public safety' as the reason to shut down the internet. In 2019 and 2020, it added 'fake news' and 'precautionary measures' to the list of the reasons to block the internet. In 2021, the government used 'national security' as the reason to shut down the internet. 'Cheating' was also used as a reason to block the internet.

The actual reason, however, mainly remained dominated by political instability and protests.

The data indicates how the government's language to put curbs on the access to the internet has become brute with every passing year.

There are multiple ways to conduct free and fair examinations, but resorting to an internet ban to prevent cheating affects the daily life of other people in the region too. Two problems must be noted behind the government order to suspend the internet: firstly, terms like 'national security' do not suffice for such harsh measures of deploying internet bans. Second, the threat against the sovereignty of India cannot be used to suspend the internet – a human right – because such orders put the life of people at jeopardy, especially those who are primarily dependent on the internet these days.

The internet bans appear to be extrajudicial actions that violate the unwritten terms between the state and the citizens. The state is obligated to take actions that do not trouble the civic life of people, and it should give space to dissent in the digital medium.

Jayant Pankaj is pursuing a post-graduation diploma in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. He writes on data politics, surveillance, political financing, and so on. He tweets @Pankajwaa