Saturday, January 30, 2021

Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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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.

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March 7, 2021 10:10 AM

Bengal Elections: Will there be a transfer of power or TMC’s will rule continue?

As the assembly elections in West Bengal are getting closer, the competition between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress (TMC) is getting more intense. This election and its result will  be historic. Whole nation is looking forward to the Bengal Elections keenly.

Recently, there was a lot of hue and cry by the BJP when some people allegedly tried to attack the BJP party president JP Nadda's convoy near Diamond harbour in West Bengal. While the BJP labelled the attack as a “sponsored violence”, CM Mamata Banerjee called it a “drama” staged by the BJP to gain media attention. But apart from all this, there are other things which make this election important.

Other than the BJP and the ruling TMC, there are other players as well – Left Front, led by CPI(M), Congress Party, AIMIM.

The situation of the Left Front and the Congress

Rally of Congress and Left Alliance | Source: IBTimes

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Left Front did not win a single parliamentary seat. Also, except the Jadavpur constituency, it lost all its deposits in all the seats. The Indian National Congress, which is its alliance partner, did not fare well as well and managed to get two seats only. In the upcoming 2021 assembly elections, the two parties have again joined hands, and this time, it’s not just about the electoral victory, but also about maintaining their relevance in the state.

The Left Front, which used to be a major party in the state and ruled for decades, is now seeing an existential crisis. Their first aim is to retain themselves as the main opposition party of West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee’s thumping victory in the 2011 elections marked the end of the Left rule in West Bengal. In the 2016 Assembly Elections, Trinamool Congress had a landslide victory, whereas the BJP got only two seats. But now, the BJP is emerging as the main opposition to TMC, which should be a matter of concern for the Left Front which is losing ground. In an article by The Quint, CPI(M) leader Shatarup Ghosh said, “Of course the BJP is our main opposition—not just in West Bengal but also nationally. They are ideologically and politically completely opposed to us. But that being said, we are not ready to give an inch to Mamata Banerjee either. The TMC needs to go, but they can’t be replaced by the BJP. That is our position”. The Left also alleges that TMC violence against them increased especially after 2016. “At this point, because we couldn’t function in full strength, there was a void in the space of the opposition. The BJP came in at that point and said that they’re running the centre, have CBI, ED and other machinery and can help fight the TMC in a way that the Left can’t. Those who wanted to vote against TMC, therefore, naturally went to them”, he adds.

The Indian National Congress has ruled West Bengal first from 1947–62, and then again from 1972–77. After that, Congress has not performed well in the elections here.

Rise of AIMIM in West Bengal

Asaduddin Owaisi, the face of AIMIM | Source: Wikimedia

All India Majlis-e-Ittehad Ul Muslimeen– better known as AIMIM, has seen a rise recently outside their home state, after winning 5 seats in the Bihar elections. Party President Asaduddin Owaisi held a meeting with AIMIM West Bengal party functionaries for taking their views with regards to the upcoming elections and political situation in the state, calling it a “fruitful” meeting.

On AIMIM focusing on Bengal Elections, TMC MP Saugata Roy took a jibe at the party’s chief and called him “an assistant of the BJP, who is being used by the latter to split non-BJP votes”.

A Muslim voter in Bengal | Source: Wikimedia

Muslim votes are crucial for the TMC. AIMIM senior leader Syed Asim Waqar tweeted, telling Mamata Banerjee’s party that their enemy is the same, the BJP. Aurangabad MP and AIMIM Maharashtra President Imtiaz Jaleel tweeted: "Bihar tou jhaaki hai...WB, UP baaki hai" (Bihar is just the beginning, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are remaining). Other than this, party chief Owaisi recently said that it has been the consistent stand of the party that it would not contest elections in Assam and Kerala, as AIUDF and the Indian Union Muslim League are present in the two states. These points clearly show which states the party is aiming for.

AIMIM rallies had also gathered large crowds in Bihar. It won 5 seats in the Seemanchal region of Bihar, which borders West Bengal. It is also trying to emerge as the voice of the Muslims in states like West Bengal and UP. AIMIM was part of the Grand Secular Democratic Front, that had two UP based parties—Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) and the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP)—besides Samajwadi Janta Dal and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP). Owaisi's party was the best performer among all of them, other than that only BSP managed to get one seat.

Muslims in West Bengal

Muslims form about 27% of the West Bengal state population, but still remain underrepresented. They account for only 6% of government jobs. Although their representation has been better under the TMC, they still need improvement in the representation for the betterment of their community.


CM Mamata Banerjee (L) and PM Narendra Modi (R) meeting | Source: Wikimedia

Recently, TMC MLA Suvendu Adhikari—along with 23 others—joined BJP, at Home Minister Amit Shah's Midnapore rally, as a major blow to Mamata Banerjee and the TMC. Shah alleged that Mamata Banerjee has changed her party’s slogan from “Maa, Maati, Manush” (Mother, Earth, Humanity) to “extortion, corruption and pandering to the nephew”, targeting Banerjee’s nephew and MP Abhishek Banerjee.

The BJP increased its seats from 2 to 18 in West Bengal in the 2019, which came as a surprise. Almost 57% of Hindu votes went to the BJP, and 32% to TMC. The party is trying to woo Hindus and also the Hindi-speaking population of West Bengal. Recently, BJP-supported Hindutva organisations such as the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the RSS, which had only a little presence in the state, have become more assertive, as was seen through their armed processions for Ram Navami.

Suvendu Adhikari, TMC leader who recently joined BJP | Source: মঞ্জুর আলম খান via Wikimedia

To keep a check on the saffron party’s rise, the Mamata government made sure to announce new schemes and that the previously implemented policies remain fresh in the minds of the people. Recently, the TMC released its 'report card' on the work they have done and the promises kept. They have mentioned the 'Sabujsathi' scheme in it, which, according to the Mamata government, has been fulfilled. In this scheme, bicycles were to be distributed among approximately 40 lakh students from classes 9th to 12th studying in govt run and govt aided schools in West Bengal. The scheme was launched in September 2015. A scheme called “Swasth Saathi” was launched recently by the West Bengal government, as the BJP attacked the government by saying it did not implement the Ayushman Bharat scheme of the central government.

Even after opposition from newly emerging parties in the state, like the BJP and AIMIM, other than that from the already existing parties, the Left Front and the Congress, the TMC is trying to remain optimistic about their third term. Who’s winning? Only time—and the people of West Bengal—will tell.

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