India’s Latest Internet Shutdown Hits Haryana and Punjab

India internet shutdown map, January 2010 – March 2017. Created by the Centre for Communication Governance (CC BY)

Internet and mobile services were shut down for several days in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab over a court ruling in the criminal case against guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial leader of the hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect.

On August 25, the special Criminal Bureau of Investigation court reached a verdict that the guru would serve 20 years in prison for two counts of rape. The decision led to the eruption of violent protests, mainly among his followers, in the Haryana and Punjab provinces as well as some parts of Uttarakhand. At least thirty people died and hundreds were injured as a result.

Ahead of the chaotic dissent, authorities suspended internet and mobile phone services in the Haryana and Punjab provinces, home to over 25 million people.

According to the Haryana Additional Chief Secretary Ram Niwas, the order was intended to prevent any disturbance of peace and preserve public order.

But the reality was not so simple. The shutdown disrupted the lives of citizens across the provinces who were unable to communicate using SMS, 2G, 3G, 4G, CDMA, GPRS systems. India is the world's second largest mobile phone market after China and much of its burgeoning digital economy depends upon mobile phone networks across the provinces.

In combination with the physical riots, the shutdowns affected myriad aspects of civic life, from garbage collection to schools to commercial traders.

As of August 29, mobile internet and SMS services were restored in Haryana province.

In 2016, the UN passed a non-binding resolution to protect freedom of expression by condemning active disruption, shutdown, or suppression of the internet which is fundamental to information sharing and access. But this has not had much impact on the prevalence of internet shutdowns in India, despite criticism that they are ineffectual and stifling of individual and press freedoms.

Although different institutions use unique technical criteria to define a shutdown, none dispute that they have risen rapidly in India in recent years. According to the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre, India has seen 106 internet shutdowns since 2012.

In the Indian state of West Bengal, the internet was shut down on June 18 to control the recent unrest caused by the pro-Gorkhaland separatists. The ban has been extended by the local authorities a few times, thus leaving the region without connectivity for more than two months.

On August 7, the Indian Ministry of Communication released a memo intended to codify the process for imposing an internet shutdown through two channels: by the central government and by the state government, whose requests must be reviewed within 24 hours of their submission.

In their analysis of the order, local tech policy blog Medianama noted that it does not explain how shutdown agreements are reached. As shutdowns already infringe on the UN’s resolution for freedom of expression online and enact collective curfew on all internet users, the new rule has worrying implications not just for internet freedoms but for the economic and social order of an increasingly digital India.

Follow the Software Freedom Law Centre's Internet Shutdown Tracker for up-to-date records of shutdowns across India.

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