Internet shutdowns turning India undemocratic?
India leads the world not in the economy or science or arts, but in the number of internet shutdowns. According to a report by Access Now, an international non-profit agency that advocates free and open internet, in 2018 India had a record of 67% of the worldwide internet bans. In 2019, there were 93 internet shutdowns, with 72 as preventive actions and 21 as reactive actions.
The Indian government has been shutting down internet services whenever they find it convenient to curb communication between the people of politically unstable places and the areas outside. The government claims that these shutdowns are necessary to prevent violence and secure the people against any harm, but it has had the opposite reaction.
Residents of the states who have found their internet down for days have taken to the streets to protest against the clampdown on their medium of gaining information and communicating with the world.
Sikkim has never faced an internet shutdown, but the alarming rate of frequency of stripping away mobile communication in states by the Indian government has kept everyone on their toes, with many young people finding out what applications to use in case of an emergency shutdown. It is odd that the government wants to digitize India in the best way possible, as quickly as possible, but shutting off the main means of doing that, seems like an ironic move.
Closer to home, in the neighbouring town of Darjeeling, West Bengal, there have been a total of two internet bans. The first lasted for 7 days, starting from 20 June 2017 and ending on 26 June 2017. The second lasted longer, 100 days to be exact – becoming the third-longest internet suspension to ever occur in India. The latter was due to the agitation for a separate state, Gorkhaland, which still remains a demand of Darjeeling.
Ariyaan Moktan, a first-year student of Foreign Languages at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a resident of Darjeeling recounts how normal the day was when the first instance of lathi-charge occurred in the town for protesting against the CM, Mamata Banerjee.
“We had almost memorised the drill by now. A strike was announced. The CRPF was deployed. Section 144 applied. Buildings burned. Protests rampant. But this time it felt different. Almost as if the people had had enough and were now going all in”, says Moktan, who was a high school student at that period.
“Soon the situation worsened. Food became harder to find. Commodities were being sold at black markets for exorbitant prices. And amidst all this, there was no TV and no internet. The world was aloof to the violence in our small town”.
He recalls the violence that burst forth – blowing up of bombs, charging the police who in turn fired teargas, lathi-charged and shout rounds, killing many in the encounter.
“But the saddest thing about all this is. We have nothing to show for all we did.”
Then there was the most recent one, in Assam, where access to the internet was blocked out for ten days following the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Kely, an illustrator working in Gangtok and from Assam, felt angst at finding himself helpless against the government’s decisions. He mentions that it was not easy knowing how easily the 10 years struggle was overthrown, the sacrifices of the martyrs and their families sacrifices going in vain and how his existence and voice as a single being matters nothing at all.
“In contrary to how agitated and on fire my people were back home, I was ashamed of not being able to do anything out here, whereas my parents were sitting on the streets protesting in the darn cold winter when the centre enforced the Act and Internet shutdown”.
But the worst shutdown has been in Kashmir. There has been no contact with citizens of Kashmir because it has been 163 days and counting, without any access to the Internet.
On 10 January 2020, the Supreme Court directed the government to review the restrictions imposed on Jammu and Kashmir. The court observed that repeated orders would amount to an abuse of power under Section 144 CRPC and that freedom of access was a fundamental right.
The three-judge bench declared that “the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the medium of internet enjoys constitutional protection under Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(1)(g). The restriction upon such fundamental rights should be in consonance with the mandate under Article 19 (2) and (6) of the Constitution, inclusive of the test of proportionality”.
The bench highlighted that suspension of the internet for an indefinite period is not permissible and that freedom of speech and expression, under Article 19(1)(a) is a fundamental right.
Businesses have lost money and no, it is not only the owner of the business who suffers when no trade takes place. The employees must bear the same weight and they are usually in a worse economic state than the one who has started any enterprise. E-commerce and telecoms have lost a fair amount of business due to the shutdowns and educational institutions that use the internet for cheaper and easier access to knowledge are at a loss.
The tools to combat the divisive and authoritative nature of power structures and institutions that keep citizens under their thumb have been taken away. Some cannot sit for exams, some cannot apply to colleges and some cannot log onto digital classrooms. Something as basic and necessary as healthcare is put at risk when there is no means to access the web. Still, the bans continue.
Deekshita Das, an Assistant Professor of Law at Indian Institute of Legal Science, believes that the recent move of the SC to include Right to Internet as a fundamental right is a wise step provided that it must be subjected to reasonable restrictions.
“The consecutive internet shut-down in the states has led to many consequences. The longest and prolonged shut down in Jammu & Kashmir has caused an up stir in the whole country and Assam has also not been an exception here”, says Das.
“Therefore we can definitely cut down the communication but we can never diminish the voices of the people.”
At this point, citizens have begun to believe that the government pushes for such blackouts because they are afraid of the people’s power and knowing that dependency on the internet has become a norm, swiftly taking it away is the best method to curb dissent.
Somehow, in this mad rush for forcing the mass to accept one party’s ideology, India has lost its status as a democratic nation. It is taught and understood that in a democracy, the supreme power is in the hands of people. Yet, when one cuts off these limbs, none can hold up the torch of justice, liberty and equality.