Argument

India’s Dangerous Digital Curfews

Authorities across India are shutting down mobile phone and Internet access to millions of people using antiquated riot laws — quelling free speech and even basic communication in a country that professes openness and digital access for all.

Vodafone india Ltd. logo sits on a a shop as a man takes nap in Mumbai, India, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Vodafone india Ltd. logo sits on a a shop as a man takes nap in Mumbai, India, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Hardik Patel could not believe that the cops actually had the gall to cut out his digital tongue. The 22-year-old political wunderkind from Gujarat, India, had just passed 1 million followers on the free text-messaging service WhatsApp in August, and he had celebrated by calling for a massive rally of his middle-class Patidar caste, whose members make up roughly 15 percent of the state’s population of 63 million. Patel, a former water-pump repairman and student activist, was tired of seeing lower-caste groups getting quotas for good government jobs in his overeducated and underemployed state, and his message of meritocracy struck a nerve.

Patidars from all over Gujarat heeded the electronic call, and more than 1 million people took to the streets in a series of rallies throughout August. Along the way, some of his more excitable fans torched several vacant police stations and public buses. The cops feared a firestorm. To head them off, on Aug. 25 Shivanand Jha, the police commissioner of the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, shut off mobile services for everyone in Gujarat for nine days — affecting all of Gujarat’s roughly 57 million mobile-phone users. This meant no texting, no Internet from one’s cellphone, and no mobile emergency calls.

Officially, Jha ordered the curfew to stop the Patidars from spreading rumors. But it also happened to take effect the day after videos were posted online showing local cops taking advantage of the protests to go Hank Aaron on vehicles a parking lot. For his efforts, Patel was thrown in jail on Oct. 19 under the various charges of dishonoring the Indian flag, sedition, and waging war; he has stewed in solitary while his captors take selfies with him. Undeterred, Patel has been trying to recruit his jailhouse comrades into the struggle and has taken a digital vow of silence in protest.

Patel’s misadventures underscore a peculiar trend in the world’s biggest democracy. Over the past few years, various arms of India’s government have started turning off and on Internet access around the country, like a toddler who just grew tall enough to reach the light switches. Typically done by ordering all local service providers to shut down their networks, the tactics were first rolled out as military tools in what Indians call the “disturbed areas” — places like the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir in the north or the several small states with active insurgencies in India’s northeast. Bans are now relatively common there — mobile communications in Jammu and Kashmir were cut ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Nov. 7 visit, for example. But as Gujaratis can attest, these battle-tested tactics have now crept from India’s conflict zones into its Hindu heartland.

All together, over 85 million people across India have found their mobile connections, including SMS, Wi-Fi, and smartphone data, suddenly shuttered for days or even weeks at a time. Imagine if the Ferguson police chief had unplugged Missouri for a week, and one begins to get the idea of what people here are dealing with.

And that punishment may be harsher in India than in Ferguson — because Indians may be even more attached to their phones than are Americans. Over 75 percent of Indians have mobiles, and roughly half of those who do have no TV or computer — meaning that some 300 million people rely on their phones for breaking news and access to the Internet. To compare, in the United States, less than 10 percent of mobile users rely on their phones in the same way. Be it to chat with friends, pay bills, or simply search for Bollywood gossip, phones are everything.

India’s government is just as enamored with wireless solutions, embracing them as the key to improving the country’s democracy and development indicators. One of Modi’s highest priorities is the Digital India initiative, an ambitious e-governance agenda for universal Internet and mobile access, supported by hundreds of millions of dollars from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and other U.S. tech giants. Modi even visited Silicon Valley in September and promised to bring digital literacy to India.

But those making the laws also see the Internet as a subversive weapon. Proposed laws include criminalizing the deletion of one’s own messages if one is suspected of a crime and forcing individuals to prove their own innocence if accused of committing a cybercrime. While the attempt of one lawyer at India’s Supreme Court to ban Internet porn in the summer of 2015 was greeted with chuckles in the West, the ease with which the ultimately overturned diktat was implemented typified the absurdity of modern Indian Internet lawmaking. Modi also plans to mandate unlimited government access of all electronic communications, just as previous administrations demanded of satellite-phone and BlackBerry users. This horrifies the country’s youthful, upwardly mobile citizens, reflecting the deep generational gap in Modi’s attempts to legislate India into the digital age. India’s famously lumbering bureaucratic machinery is then forced to rapidly approve new technologies while simultaneously trying to regulate all of their possible political and security consequences. It can’t possibly keep pace.

Unless their fingers are on the button, of course. In Jammu and Kashmir, local authorities often instruct local mobile companies to shut down their operations in advance of potentially tense events — such as when Kashmiri separatists wanted to stream a video address to the United Nations in March 2014 or when the government tried to ban beef in the Muslim-majority state this September. In the northeastern state of Nagaland, the state government ordered a 48-hour ban in March to stop people from sharing pictures of a lynching. And in next-door Manipur, the Internet has been cut several times in 2015 on the orders of the local police commissioner, the national Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and the national Home Ministry, among other agencies.

For his part, Gujarat’s Commissioner Jha shut down Patel’s network (and that of the rest of Gujarat) by employing Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. “There were a few people who were disrupting the city, and there was chaos across the state,” Jha explained in an October interview with Foreign Policy. “We thought it would be the best to shut the Internet; otherwise the state would have been sent into a riot,” he said. Jha knows that the ban cost local businesses millions of dollars, but believes that “the damage would have been higher, if communication was kept on.”

* * *

Of course, restrictive cyberpolicies are not hard to find, be they Iran’s banning of Facebook and Twitter (even as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has active accounts on both), China’s Great Firewall, or Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s attempts to ban any site that people bad-mouth him on. Government-ordered mobile bans are increasingly common globally and are usually standard policy in countries with awful human rights records, like Egypt, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.

But India’s restrictions are special not only because they are coupled with a deep desire by top politicians to make citizens more democratically connected, but also in that the curfews simply shut off everything for everyone. This means severing not just WhatsApp and Facebook, but also emergency phone services and credit card processing. Where Brussels police politely asked citizens to stay off social media during their desperate recent search for the Paris attackers, their Indian equivalents have had little problem with killing the grid entirely in much less dire security settings. And by bringing war-zone tactics to the suburbs, Indian officials have unwittingly laid bare the paradox inherent in the wishes to both increase and control connectivity at the same time.

While digital curfews may seem excessive, their appeal speaks to the reality that rumors and riots have gone hand in hand in India for decades, if not centuries. Rumors have recently triggered at least a dozen violent riots, from the September lynching of a Muslim man by Hindus for supposedly having beef in his fridge (it was goat) to the 2002 Gujarat riots under then-Chief Minister Modi’s watch that left thousands dead. Even though many of these riots, from 1947’s Partition through today, were later discovered to have been premeditated by political miscreants, the blanket bans are considered an ingenious method of preemptive crowd control. No rumors, no riots — or so the thinking goes.

What about the risk that banning electronic communications might just inflame the very rumors that the cuts are trying to squash? Nakul Nayak, a fellow at National Law University, Delhi, finds the vacuums of information that result from digital curfews deeply problematic, especially after the Gujarat High Court’s mid-September ruling that “peace could not have been restored with the other efforts made by the State for maintenance of the law and order” and that banning electronic communications was thus a “reasonable restriction” on free speech. The bans’ newfound legality “makes any restriction ‘reasonable’ and justifiable [under] a trigger-happy government ready to initiate shutdowns at the slightest public unrest,” Nayak said.

Meanwhile, authorities have ordered several more preemptive bans in Gujarat since August — for fears of riots over everything from beef bans to upcoming cricket matches. The bans come with tapping the phones of potential political enemies to dig up dirt, as the Ahmedabad police did to Patel to build their sedition case. While technically observing his self-imposed gag order, Patel communicated to Foreign Policy through his father that he feels totally blindsided and shocked that the authorities now officially consider his mobile-based grassroots movement to be a terrorist act.

With many legal obstacles out of the way, digital curfews might feature in India’s Internet culture for a long time to come. And even though the bans might be bad for business, problematic for freedom of speech, and corrosive for India’s reputation as an up-and-coming tech mecca, Jha won’t hesitate to put everyone in the dark again if he feels it necessary. “Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary feats,” he said. But for the millions of citizens caught in the crossfire, these circumstances are beginning to feel all too routine.

Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Jason Miklian is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Sangeeta Rane is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad, India.

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