In recent years in India the government has blocked internet access with a very high frequency, like no other country in the world: in 2022, for example, of 187 internet outages worldwide, 84 had occurred in India, according to a report released this week by the US group Access Now.
According to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a nationalist and conservative, the blockades were decided to maintain order and security, especially in areas of the country with greater ethnic and social tensions. However, for some time in India, the most populous democratic state in the world, there have been numerous limitations on many rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, imposed by the government to guarantee control of the country and ensure a privileged position of the Hindus, a religious group to which Prime Minister Modi also belongs.
Internet blocks have intensified especially in the last six years, starting from 2017, when Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), introduced various rules that allowed him to expand his powers, including deciding to apply blocks with a certain ease. Since then, internet outages have become almost routine in India.
In theory, however, the law provides rules: access to the internet cannot be interrupted for more than 15 consecutive days and any interruption must be communicated publicly. Prateek Waghre, director of the non-governmental organization Internet Freedom Foundation, said that in reality this does not always happen, that the internet blocks go on for months and that in general there is little transparency in the work of the institutions, both local and national level.
One of the parts of India where internet access has been blocked most frequently is Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Indian state claimed by Pakistan and the subject of a long-standing territorial dispute. In recent years the Indian government has greatly reduced the autonomy of this state and the rights of those who live there: among other things, in 2019 the special status was abolished, which had been guaranteed by the Indian Constitution since the 1950s and which made it a region autonomous with its own rules on residence and ownership.
Between August 2019 and February 2021, in conjunction with some clashes on the border between Indian and Pakistani forces, the government established an 18-month internet blockade, the longest ever imposed in a state where an democratic political system. At the time, the Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, claimed that it served to “avoid bloodshed” and “save children”.
Another state in which the government has often imposed internet blocks is Manipur: the last time last May, with a block that lasted over three months and was imposed during some ethnic clashes between the Meitei majority and the Kuki community. The clashes had caused serious violence that Modi’s government had been accused of ignoring. Among other things, the blocking of the internet had slowed down the circulation of information on what was happening, and had allowed some episodes of violence against the Kuki minority to remain almost unknown for months: this is the case of two women forced to parade naked from hundreds of men, which occurred at the beginning of May but which was only known at the end of July.
Frequent government internet disruptions have had immediate consequences on the economy and many sectors, such as healthcare or education. Many banking or public administration services are digitalised: without access to the internet it becomes impossible to make bank transfers or receive subsidies, if applicable. Then there are many people whose work is totally dependent on the internet, such as those who work with e-commerce platforms, who obviously cannot carry out their business.
Access Now, a non-profit organization that wrote the report and which deals with digital rights, told the Guardian that in India internet blocks “are used as a weapon and instrument of political control: at the first sign of a protest, of a revolt, of any form of dissent, the first thing they do is interrupt the internet without having to practically be held accountable.”