Curtailing people’s access to internet services is unjustified, undemocratic and oppressive.
It is shameful that India, which takes pride in being the largest democracy in the world, has surpassed all global record of shutting down internet in the name of maintaining law and order, primarily to quell protests and voices of dissent. The internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir has entered 136 days, with Kashmir Valley facing a complete lockdown and rest of the erstwhile state reeling under a complete or partial internet shut down since August 5 when the Centre read down Article 370 and bifurcated the state into two union territories. The internet ban in the Valley was accompanied by shutdown of all communication lines including landlines and mobile services.
Though landlines were restored a month later and post-paid mobiles restored in mid-October, the pre-paid mobiles continue to be stalled, making this ban one of the most brazen and prolonged internet shutdown which has impacted 14 million people. This week as protests raged across India against the combination of Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, a slew of internet bans and slowdown hit various parts of the country including North-East, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, impacting almost 50 million people in addition to the population already impacted in Kashmir, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre, which has been continuously tracking internet shutdowns in India since 2012. Among its many findings, between January 2012 and April 2018, 172 shutdowns across 19 Indian states were recorded, and the number of shutdowns al-most doubled every successive year during this period. It also states in its report that there is heavy bias towards targeting mobile networks for shutdowns over fixed-line as 95.13% (424 million out of total 446 million internet users) of Indian Internet users access the Internet over mobile networks and only 4.87% of Internet users access the Internet using fixed-line services.
India, now tops the list. What makes this glaring is that fact that its close competitors in the race for banning internet freedom of public are countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Syria. None of them are known for their democratic spirit. Though both the central and state governments in the past have sought to curtail internet access of the public in the name of law and order but only to tighten their grip on their constituencies, the haste with which the present Modi led BJP government is trying to crush dissent by locking down communication channels including internet is shocking and deeply worrying. These frequent shutdowns are in contravention to the recent Kerala High Court ruling that declared internet connectivity as a fundamental and inviolable right of the citizens. In the present age of technology, internet is a crucial need which provides not only information and communication but is also a major source of livelihood, education and research.
In Kashmir, prolonged internet disruption has deprived people of healthcare schemes. Such frequent bans also mock at the Digital India flagship initiative of the Modi government. While it is trying to link digitalization and technology to the next phase of development on the one hand, on the other, it is trying to put limits on the access to digital space. Though law and order concerns are important, there is as yet no empirical evidence to support that internet curbs have managed to prevent major violent provocations. Besides, freedoms of citizens cannot be contained in a liberal democratic country on the pretext of protecting lives and public property. The government needs to look at other alternatives. These bans are oppressive and unacceptable.