Saturday, January 30, 2021

Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana

This article is by

Share this article

Article Contributor(s)

Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

Article Title

Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana


Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 30, 2021


Representative Image no Internet

Representative Image no Internet

India has one of the world’s largest internet user base and also has the maximum number of internet shutdowns. In 2018, India recorded 134 shutdowns which is the highest the country has seen yet. The article delineates the implications of Internet shut-down—while looking at specific cases of Kashmir, CAA-NRC, and Farm Bill Protests—and the legal procedures associated with the same.

The internet shutdown imposed in Kashmir on 4th August 2019, when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated by the Parliament of India recorded the longest shutdown in India.  In the initial days, landline and mobile services were restricted as well. While the ban on landline and mobiles was lifted soon, 2G services were restored for “verified users” on 25th January 2020. Only whitelisted websites could be accessed and social media remained prohibited. A new order was passed on 4th of March 2020, by the administration of J&K, according to which the whitelist was removed but internet could only be accessed using 2G on verified SIM's. As Kashmir is still languishing without high-speed internet, at least 7 million have been affected due to the shutdown.

Anti CAA-NRC Protests in Lucknow | Source: Youtube

In December, 2019, during the notable protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the authorities in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura severed internet connection as they supposedly cited a threat of violence and false rumors. Parts of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh were also under a digital lockdown. Internet shutdowns come with a great cost. Every time the central or state government decides to cut the internet, a large number of students, businesses, travelers, online journalists and influencers are affected resulting in a huge monetary loss. According to a report by TopVPN, India has lost nearly $2.7 billion due to all the 83 internet shutdowns in 2020 alone. This loss is greater than the combined loss of the next 10 countries in the list. The report also revealed that India also stayed offline for longer than any other country, at 8,927 hours last year. The largest contributor to this figure is the 213-day shutdown in Kashmir.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce reported that the cumulative loss due to the internet shutdown and restriction in the region was $5.3 billion. The authorities say that these shutdowns are simply to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation which they believe moves faster in social media like Facebook and messaging apps like WhatsApp. However, the internet shutdowns are usually enforced after a piece of misinformation has been spread widely. In 2018, 33 of the shutdowns were justified by the government claiming that they wanted to curb dis/misinformation. The problem is that, when you cut people off from being able to access information, the only access they have is to previous misinformation. In fact, cutting off the internet can turn a previously predictable situation into a highly volatile one. A study conducted by Stanford suggested that mass mobilization in India can occur even in the absence of social media and digital platforms. Another report published by Stanford stated, “Rumours and disinformation continue to spread with or without access to digital communication networks, whose primary role is that of accelerators of information diffusion.” In addition to this, the study found that internet shutdowns force protesters to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones which are less reliant on effective communication and coordination. In April 2019, Sri Lankan government shutdown all social media platforms as a result of the Easter Suicide Bombings. The IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) reported that fake news was rampant despite the shutdown. IFCN also noticed an increase in false reports on Facebook from that area. However, the above mentioned facts did not have the potential to stop India from once again disregarding the negative implications of Internet shut-down. India continues to be indifferent.

Protesting farmers at Singhu Border | Source: Harvinder Chandigarh via Wikimedia

The ongoing farmers’ protest in India against the three farm bills (now acts) passed in the parliament turned violent on 26th of January. A group of the protesting farmers who were on a tractor rally, deviated from their route and entered the Red Fort. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs temporarily suspended internet in Singhu border, Ghazipur border, Tikri border, Mukarba Chowk and Nangloi for 24 hours. On 29th of January, the State government of Haryana ordered telecom operators to shut down all mobile internet services, all SMS services, and all dongle services in 17 of the 22 districts of the state until 5 pm on January 30, 2020.

The shutdown was based on the grounds of preventing protestors from mobilising through social media and to constrain the plague of disinformation, which was spread due to the tensions at farmer camps between unidentified miscreants, farmers and later the police. But there was a lack of media coverage of the police violence while they highlighted the protestors’ response to it, essentially disseminating biased disinformation which they ‘intended’ to curb with an internet shutdown.

The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 permits the government to block internet access in case of a public emergency. After 2017, Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules was deployed in cases of internet shutdowns. The Rule 2(1) describes the protocol and powers for the ‘competent authority’ to issue a direction for the suspension of Internet.  The ‘competent authority’ here refers to the Home Secretary of the Union government or the State government. If obtaining prior directions from either of these authorities is not feasible, the order may be issued by an officer, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India. This officer should be duly authorized by the competent authority to issue suspension order and must receive confirmation from the competent authority within 24 hours of issuing such order. In January 2020, the Supreme Court directed that in addition to the Telecom suspension rules, all internet shutdowns must be made public and the orders must be a committee must review all internet shutdown orders once every seven working days to ensure if it is in accordance with the Telecom suspension rules. In November 2020, a new rule was introduced stating that a single order cannot authorize a shutdown for a period exceeding 15 days. Despite several regulations, the Internet Freedom foundation found out that there is low compliance by state governments. Even in 2019, in multiple cities, including the national capital, the suspension orders were issued by the State Police. The New York times reported there were instances where local authorities of India ordered the shutdown with just a few phone calls to the local service providers.

In addition to repression of dissent, telecom shutdowns also have an impact on healthcare services, doctors and ambulances especially in the cases of violence when they certainly have a harder time communicating with people on the ground hence creating a vacuum of information.

Arbitrarily shutting down the internet is a fundamental right violation. The frequencies of internet shutdowns in India are highly alarming. Besides, it is ironic that in 2020, the government announced its plan to bring high-speed fibre-optic based broadband to all Indian villages in the next three years. While it is most certainly beneficial to those living in these villages and to those wanting to spread propaganda, all the effort would be insignificant if the nation continues to shut down the internet at this rate of recurrence.

Support us to bring the world closer

To keep our content accessible we don't charge anything from our readers and rely on donations to continue working. Your support is critical in keeping Global Views 360 independent and helps us to present a well-rounded world view on different international issues for you. Every contribution, however big or small, is valuable for us to keep on delivering in future as well.

Support Us

Share this article

Read More

July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

Read More