Internet Shutdowns Leave Indians Struggling With Everyday Life
Cutting cables has become the Modi government’s favorite tool.
In 2019, Nida Rehman bought a parrot named Noor. Her family got annoyed with her spending all day talking to her pet. They asked her to release the bird, but she wasn’t convinced. “I loved Noor. I, too, felt caged like her,” she said.
Rehman lives in Indian-administered Kashmir, where the Indian government imposed an indefinite curfew in August 2019 and cut all communication channels, including telephone and internet services. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government scrapped a constitutional article that provided a certain autonomy to the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir—and then put local leaders under house arrest, imposed a brutal crackdown on protests, and split the Muslim-majority state into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, to be governed by the central government.
Cut off from the world long before the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, Rehman was left contemplating her future along with 13 million others in the state. “Everybody around me was speculating on the length of the curfew,” she said. “Some said two months. Some said six. Some of my neighbors said that the government won’t lift the lockdown at all. I hated them all for saying so. We Kashmiris are used to lockdowns and curfews, but that one felt like a storm.”
As it turned out, Rehman’s neighbors weren’t entirely wrong. Not only would the lockdown linger in Kashmir, but the Modi government adopted similar tools as a weapon against political opponents in the country. From attacks on press freedom to targeted breaks in communication, severing Indians from the internet has become a favorite weapon for an increasingly autocratic regime.
For several months, the people of Jammu and Kashmir kept trying new and unusual methods to contact their families and friends. Saima Sajad, a Kashmiri native living in Delhi, said her mother would go to a local police station to use their telephone and call her. “Once she waited for two days for her turn.” Some would board a train every day in the freezing Himalayan mornings to visit a town outside the cut-off region to do routine tasks like filing taxes or submitting exam forms.
The government restored mobile internet services in March 2020 but initially banned several websites and capped the speed, initially allowing only 2G networks. The government announced that it would restore 4G on Feb. 5, 2021, and it was available the next day. Previously the government had asserted that high-speed internet would be misused by militants and separatists in the disputed region.
At the same time, COVID-19 hit, and Kashmir went under another lockdown. While people in the rest of the world were hooked to their phones trying to move their work online and gather information about the new mysterious virus, residents of Jammu and Kashmir were staring at partially loaded websites and buffering videos.
Doctors and health care workers initially urged the government to restore 4G internet, but the government said it wasn’t necessary for delivering medical services.
Riyaz Arshad, a doctor in the region whose name has been changed for anonymity, said, “As a pulmonologist, I had been reading about the virus since November and had sensed the upcoming danger. I wanted to read more literature on it and get in touch with my colleagues in other parts of the world, but there was no internet. The professional medical apps require a high-speed internet connection.”
Arshad recalled an incident from early 2020 when he visited Saudi Arabia for a professional event. “I was so deprived that as soon as I checked into the hotel, I first used their WiFi service. My colleagues asked me to join them for a city tour, but I stayed in my room browsing the internet for hours.”
India leads the world in internet shutdowns. There were 385 shutdown incidents between January 2012 and March 2020, imposed either in anticipation of or in reaction to a situation leading to public disorder. The Indian government uses a colonial law, the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, to impose the ban, which allows the state to shut down all communication channels in case of a public emergency. However, it doesn’t clearly define what a public emergency is and how long a shutdown can last.
Most recently, on Jan. 29, the government shut down internet and SMS services in the northern state of Haryana, where thousands of farmers, including women, children, and the elderly, have been sitting on roads and living out of tractors and trucks to protest the farm bills that the government says are necessary for development but the farmers say will kill their livelihood and hand over their land to Modi’s corporate allies. The government also disrupted power, water, and food supplies at some places where the farmers had gathered.
On Feb. 1, hundreds of Twitter accounts, including that of a national magazine and numerous activists, were “withheld” for several hours without any public explanation. All of them were posting about the protests.
Then a few days later, two Punjabi songs about the protests were taken down from YouTube. Lyricist Vari Rai said the songs were about farmers’ rights and had gained more than 600,000 views since October 2020. “A popular line in one of the songs was ‘Faslaan de faisley kisaan karuga’ (‘Only the farmer will make decisions about farming’). Many people were playing it at the protests, which must have made the authorities wary of us,” he said. “YouTube did not inform us of the removal. When our team contacted them, they said that the government of India had demanded the removal.”
In some cities of Haryana, like Sonipat and Jhajjar, mobile internet services remained suspended for more than 10 days. It particularly hit poorer families who relied solely on mobile internet—but not those alone. Vansh Dixit, a 15-year-old student from a middle-class family, said, “Unlike my classmates, I don’t have a WiFi connection at home. So I missed all my online classes. Our class tests were also going on at that time. I could not access online resources, which are particularly needed for certain subjects like science and social studies.”
For Jammu and Kashmir students, the shutdown has meant the loss of a whole year. Muneer Alam, an engineer and mathematics teacher in Srinagar, Kashmir, said the ban was not only hampering his students’ studies but was also causing depression. “Most of my students are university aspirants and need classes to prepare for entrance exams. But a lot of them don’t have high-speed internet to attend online lessons. I tried to teach them at my home, but it was getting difficult to maintain social distancing norms.”
So in June 2020, he started “open-air classes” at an eidgah, an open area outside a mosque. Every day, students, mostly boys, would travel to the eidgah, bringing chairs, mats, and books. “Those who came in cars brought chairs. Those who used scooters and bicycles brought mats,” he said. But then the summer sun made it unbearable to sit in the open for too long. So they started meeting at 5:30 a.m. “It’s so breezy and green. Some students say that it feels like jannat (‘paradise’),” Alam said.
Other students have been less fortunate. Nadia Ishfaq Nahvi, a clinical psychologist in Kashmir, said she increasingly works with teenagers struggling with substance abuse and depression. “These are people who have seen their parents’ businesses collapse during the lockdown. I ask them to talk to friends and take interest in studies. But they ask me, ‘How? Where is the internet? And for what? Is life worth it?’”
When the coronavirus lockdown began, Nahvi opened her Facebook profile to the public and invited people to discuss their mental health issues with her. She started giving them what she calls text therapy. “As a woman, I could not share my phone number publicly [for fear of harassment], and video calls did not work due to the slow internet. So I started talking to patients over Facebook Messenger,” she said. “But as I later realized, Facebook was not enough as people had so much to talk about. All their feelings repressed for years were coming to the surface. They all complained of palpitations and anxiety attacks, and many had suicidal thoughts.”
Soon, she was overwhelmed by the messages. “I often used to stay up till late in the night just to be able to speak with the patients because the internet speed is better at that time.”
A 2015 Doctors Without Borders survey said nearly half of Kashmir’s adult population had mental health issues as a result of the region’s long history of conflict. Under the lockdown, it has turned into a severe crisis, according to mental health experts. Nahvi said a lot of her patients have lost the ability and willingness to heal. “Psychological disorders, especially psychotic diseases, need constant medical help. It was all disrupted after the ban.”
Rehman, too, was diagnosed with acute depression and anxiety in 2019. “I dreaded waking up in mornings. I cried all the time,” she said. “Once I broke down in front of my doctor. He asked me what the matter was. I said, ‘I just want to go away from this place.’”
Sajad, who managed to leave Kashmir just before the curfew, said she had to start therapy too. “It was taxing to see all this happen in Kashmir, even though I wasn’t there physically. For several days, I could not communicate with my family.”
Before the coronavirus lockdown, Sajad moved back to Kashmir to live with her family. “The first thing I did was getting a broadband connection,” she said. “I paid 2,500 rupees ($35) every month. It was expensive, and not everybody could afford it. But there was no other way. And yet, I would lose work on some days, especially after an encounter.” Encounters are the Indian government’s term for the killing of a militant or rebel by the authorities, after which internet services are typically snapped in the vicinity for a few days.
Irfaan Bashir, a journalist reporting from Kashmir whose name has been changed for anonymity, said he had to dictate all his stories over the phone to his colleagues in Delhi. “I worked like this for a long time after August 2019,” he said. Bashir also uses a broadband network, which offers better speed than the mobile internet, but said it can still take him up to 20 minutes to upload a text story. “And forget about the pictures; I can’t upload them … All this has increased our workload. We are spending much more time at work than what is normal.”
The moves have not gone unchallenged in court. In January 2020, India’s Supreme Court, in response to a petition filed by journalist Anuradha Bhasin, acknowledged that the communication blockade was infringing people’s rights and asked the government to review its orders. But the government continued to impose the ban.
Apar Gupta, a lawyer and co-founder of Internet Freedom Foundation in Delhi, said, “The court’s judgement was defective by design because while it correctly understood the ban’s link to fundamental rights, it did not actually direct the government to restore access. It shifted the duty back to the government.”
In the past year and a half, several rounds of litigation were introduced in the Supreme Court by different organizations, activists, and journalists to demand the restoration of 4G networks. United Nations human rights experts also called the blackout a “collective punishment” of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and urged the government to restore access. In February 2021, the shutdown in Haryana attracted global attention when several U.S. celebrities, including Rihanna, tweeted in the farmers’ favor.
A few days after the global outcry and 550 days after imposing the communication ban in Jammu and Kashmir, the government declared it was restoring 4G services. But the damage remains—as does the fear that similar bans could return. According to a report by Top10VPN, a United Kingdom-based digital privacy and security research group, internet shutdowns in India cost its economy $2.8 billion in 2020.
“The actual suffering of the people cannot be accounted for, but the government, by way of monetary compensation, can try to reverse the extreme effect,” Gupta said. “People who paid for the services but could not avail them can be given the amount back. But above all, the government should acknowledge that the ban was disproportionate and unconstitutional.”
Rehman eventually released her parrot, Noor, hoping to find her own liberation. “During the early phases of the ban, I would take out my scooter and ride around my neighborhood 20 times a day. In retrospect, I think I was only looking for normalcy. I wondered if I was feeling so terrible and suffocated inside, how must have the parrot been feeling?”
Update, Feb. 19, 2021: This piece was updated to clarify the timing of internet restoration in Jammu and Kashmir.