In case you didn’t already know, India is a democracy (the world’s largest). The basic qualities a democracy must posses are equality, liberty, and freedom of expression (At least that’s what I’ve been brought up believing). Most notable of the basic rights is one that’s most important to a technologically developing population of more than 1.3 billion Indians – Access to Internet. But in the name of stability and national security, they’ve all been compromised. India is right now in the midst of a nationwide crisis where 23 out of the 37 states and union territories are experiencing a nightmare of the 21st century – Internet Shutdown.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted this on 12 December as a response amid violent protests in the north-eastern state of Assam last week. That was a welcome and reassuring tweet. The problem? There was no Internet in the state for the thousands of people protesting to read the tweet. That’s because the state has been under a massive shutdown of all Internet services amidst growing tensions and public protests.
Governments usually direct service providers to suspend Internet services temporarily as a cautionary measure in times of turmoil. But India has kicked it up a notch and been suspending Internet services left, right, and center. In fact, the country has seen over 350 cases of mandated Internet shutdown since 2015. That makes India the nation with the most Internet Shutdowns in the world in recent history.
A brief history of… recent history.
Before 2014, Internet shutdowns were few and far between. Since then, it has pretty much been linear rise.
In 2014, the Bhartiya Janata Party with Narendra Modi at its helm won a landslide victory in the Indian General Elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rallied the nation behind him with promises of a new India. A digital India. In fact, “Digital India” was a government initiative championed by the PM in an effort to bolster the economy and digital infrastructure of the nation. That gave us the revolutionary Unified Payments Interface (UPI) among many other things.
The initiative also partly aided the rise of digitization by private firms like Reliance’s JIO. JIO offered Data services to smartphone users at dirt cheap prices which forced every other carrier to match or better those prices thus driving down overall data costs in India. Combined with the rise of super-affordable smartphone brands, Indians broke all kinds of records. Studies show that India is the fastest digitizing country in the world, second only to Indonesia. In 2018, Indians smartphone users consumed an average of 8.3 GB data every month and downloaded a mammoth total of 12.3 billion apps. Second only to South Korea’s data consumption and China’s app fever respectively.
The moniker of “World’s fastest growing digital economy” (emphasis on digital) & all these accolades need one key element to work – Internet access. Here’s the other side of the coin.
- The 7 million strong Kashmir valley is closing in on 140 days without Internet access in response to unrest in the region following the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. People are resorting to a 100 kms train journey to a nearby city outside the Kashmir valley to access Internet services. They’ve given it a sad yet kinda cute name: Internet Express.
- Mobile Internet services in most parts of India’s capital Delhi were suspended following the onset of protests against the implementation of the NRC, CAA & CAB acts. This happened the very same day the Delhi government was scheduled to introduce Free WiFi access services at various points of the capital city.
- Soon after the NRC was implemented in the North Eastern state of Assam, protests broke out which led to violent clashes between demonstrators & the police. The government has since then clamped down hard on the state with all Internet services being shut down.
- Internet services have been suspended in various major parts of the state of Uttar Pradesh to stop unrest and curb the “spread of misinformation” as protests against the CAA/CAB & NRC continue to grow.
- As of writing, 2G, 3G & 4G services as well as access to social media platforms have been suspended in the state of Rajasthan in lieu of protest marches being carried out by the Chief Minister of the state himself.
National Registry of Citizens (NRC)
The NRC is a bill to create a database of citizens who can prove their citizenship in India via official paperwork documenting their ancestry in India.
Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) or the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)
CAA/CAB is a law to fast-track citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh – except Muslims, This does not cover people from other neighboring countries of India like Tibet and Sri Lanka.
These are just a few instances of authoritarianism of the Internet India has seen this year with emphasis on this year.
Just this year, India has seen 104 counts of Internet shutdowns across the country and counting. This is the most for any country on the planet. And this record isn’t isolated to just this year. In 2018, there were reportedly 134 cases of net shutdown in the world’s largest democracy. 2nd place on the list was neighboring Pakistan with 12 Internet shutdowns. That’s a damn good lead India had there.
To be fair, there have been cases of longer, harsher cases of Internet access suspensions by governments of Myanmar and China. But there’s a major difference between those countries and India – India is a democracy!
The government has used “growing unrest”, planned marches and protests against the NRC & CAB across major universities all over the country to implement knee-jerk reactionary measures in an attempt to control the situation. But as I’ve explained in a previous article on Urban Papyrus, trying to censor or hinder a population from figuring out what’s going on around them will only enable them to do it better.
Anytime a country, let alone a democracy, let alone the world’s largest democracy decides that the best course of action in times of disagreement between the government and its people is to clamp-down hard & use that as a reason to put a choke hold around the nation’s basic digital resources & more, that country is no longer a democracy.
As long as the current situation and this apparent trend continues, PM Narendra Modi’s famous words below from the India Digital Summit of 2014 will stay just that.. a dream.