On Sunday, India restored 4G internet services in two districts of Kashmir, Reuters reported, in a region which has been the site of the longest internet shutdown ever in any democracy. Authorities shut down the internet in Jammu and Kashmir beginning in August 2019 when the Narendra Modi administration stripped the region of its previous autonomy and then began a long and harsh crackdown on residents. Chinese state propaganda outlets have even been quick to jump on these events as an absurd justification for cyber sovereignty measures — aka using them as a bad excuse for internet repression within China.
India is the world’s most populous democracy, which is why it might surprise some that the country led the world in volume of internet shutdowns in 2018 and again in 2019. It may likewise surprise that a democracy continues to limit internet access in a large part of the country even though its Supreme Court ruled in January 2020 that indefinitely suspending the internet was illegal. “We are of the opinion that an order suspending the aforesaid services indefinitely is impermissible,” the court said. So why is the internet still not fully restored?
The Modi administration revoked the region’s special status in August 2019, effectively abrogating Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had given special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. What followed was a swift and brutal government crackdown: internet and cellular services were cut; tens of thousands of Indian troops were deployed; Indian authorities used a controversial detention law to place regional political officials under house arrest.
Millions of people were left without digital connectivity, both with others in their region and with those in the outside world. Government officials had shut down the Jammu and Kashmir internet before, but this was visibly on another level.
“Every service that exists is done digitally. Your entitlements are digital and then they shut down the Internet,” human rights activist Usha Ramanathan told The Quint. Several experts from the United Nations called the shutdown “without justification” and “a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offence.” It was apparent to many in the area that connectivity wasn’t going to be restored anytime soon.
Justifications for the shutdown have centered on security and the prevention of violence. Authorities claim it’s the only way to maintain order, a cry of “state security” to advance digital repression that undoubtedly rings familiar to many readers around the world. And this is why, even though some restrictions were recently lifted, many still remain: users still need a specific Internet Protocol address to connect online, for example, which could enable authorities to track devices. Many parts of the region still have slow connections. The Supreme Court may have months ago ruled an indefinite internet shutdown illegal, but it did nothing more than compel a Review Committee to look into the Kashmir situation — not instructing the Modi government to end it immediately. It could have taken aggressive action against the shutdown, but it chose to uphold a principle over any push for procedural implementation.
As Sundar Krishnan, executive director of internet advocacy group SFLC.in, told The Guardian back in January, “According to law, an internet shutdown can only be imposed is if there’s a public safety precaution or a public emergency, but unfortunately these two words are not defined in any legislation of India.” Hence why still in August 2020, free and open internet connectivity is not fully restored for many in the region, and restrictions on the web linger.
This is far more than a technological problem because internet shutdowns are repressive. Zooming out further, to have broader context on the problem of rampant internet shutdowns in the country, highlights this fact.
There have been cases in India where viral misinformation, spread through applications like WhatsApp, which Indian authorities — despite requests to the company — could not control, has led to mob violence. Hence government authorities have proposed and then ordered regional internet shutdowns as a supposed solution to the misinformation-violence problem. The idea is, bluntly, that pulling the plug on the web fixes the issue.
Yet internet shutdowns in India have also featured outright oppressive motivations, not just in the case of Kashmir but also from the end of 2019 into early 2020, pre-pandemic, when authorities turned off the internet in many places around the country after citizens took to the streets protesting an anti-Muslim citizenship bill.
All of these cases — there are many — have repressive effects. For even if allegedly intended for positive ends (and that itself is a frequently dubious claim), shutting down internet services cut citizens off from access to vital communication services, as well as to government services and corporate services like banking. It also hinders the ability of domestic media and the international community to report on and gain visibility into events in those areas, and possibly even contributes to, rather than diminishes, violence where it may be occurring.
When the shutdown first began, citizens in Kashmir couldn’t pay their television bills, for instance, and students complained of disruptions to exams. Shutdowns also hurt the economy because they stop internet users from conducting online business; the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that six months of internet communication shutdowns in the region has cost more than $2 billion and nearly half a million jobs.
India is the world’s most populous democracy, and just like the United States, it has the potential to be a global leader in promoting democratic technology norms. India’s emerging market economy status, quickly growing technology sector, focus on artificial intelligence development, large domestic market, and government-promoted notion of advancing a Global South model of data governance all underpin this opportunity. But it’s important to not become overly techno-centric when understanding this phenomenon and sideline political factors in the process.
Much like the United States, democratic backsliding within the country under its current political leadership has entailed attacks on free speech, civil liberties, and the independence of judiciary. Nationalism, as with Donald Trump in the United States, has been a key theme of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to expand executive power and reshape the country: demonizing immigrants and minorities as the “other” while promoting a vision of ethnic purity. Throughout the pandemic, journalists across the country have been harassed, threatened, and detained as they attempt to report the facts on the government’s terrible public health responses, for example. It is in this context which highly troubling and repressive internet policies, like internet shutdowns, reside.
To the extent that promoting a democratic internet vision also means promoting democratic internet policies domestically, promoting democracy abroad comes back in many ways to upholding and advancing democracy domestically. To promote truly democratic technology leadership on the global stage, it is imperative for the Indian government to end these internet shutdowns at home — but the fact remains that it’s unlikely those now in power will suddenly change their tune on this digital problem.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.