India is a nation known for its rich culture, or so we'd like to believe. When in reality, apart from being known for its fatalistic gender inequality and widespread caste-based violence, India has now also 'earned' the title of being the 'World’s Leader in Internet Shutdowns'.
For a country that also holds the distinction of being the world's largest democracy, this title sets a dangerous precedent about the future direction India is moving towards. And parts of India can not even comment on it.
This does not include the prolonged shutdown in J&K, following the scrapping of Article 370 or the shutdown in Assam and Meghalaya, following the protests against the implementation of CAB.
Data is cheap but internet is shackled. Instead of making internet a basic right like Kerala has done, we have Kashmir entering the fifth month of e-curfew. This must end. India must lose this dishonour of being the internet shutdown capital of the world. https://t.co/jvaHzc9kml— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) December 9, 2019
Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Whole northeast is under cage now, Curfew Fitted, No mobile service, Army marching, Many protesters died till now, Bangladesh Ministers cancel their Indian visit & why this happened just bcz of #NRC #CAB#Amit_Shah_is_New_Jinnah— Zuhaib Afridi (@zuhaibafridi6) December 13, 2019
In fact, as per a 2018 Freedom on Net country report by Freedom House, India has been implementing internet shutdown since 2010.
But, it's been since 2017 that there has been a staggering increase in the decline in internet freedom. In its point-rating scale, with 100 being the least free, India scores a 43 (partly free).
Though in 2017, the SC ruled that privacy is a fundamental right.
However, as far as internet access is concerned, internetshutdowns.in, a site dedicated to drawing 'attention to the troubling trend of disconnecting access to Internet services' in India, also supports the findings of the report by Freedom House.
What these facts and figures glaringly highlight is how different regions of the country have been cut-off from access to information.
How people have been restrained from communicating with family members. How NGOs have been unable to reach out to people in distress. How students have been denied access to educational material. How businesses have suffered severe losses because customer reach has been blocked.
In 2016, when an internet shutdown had been enforced in Kashmir, Farooq Khan (coordinator at Help Poor Voluntary Trust) had shared with ScoopWhoop the far-fetched impact of the shutdown:
In the morning we had to ferry a patient from the airport. He had undergone heart surgery at Delhi and needed an ambulance to take him home. Due to blackout, the patient had to wait for hours at the airport before our ambulance finally reached him. In this age of Information Technology, it feels like we have been pushed to Stone Age.
His is only one of the many voices that are silenced. Because internet shutdowns affect every section of society - especially those who need it the most. And these restrictions, targeting the 'common people', are becoming increasingly 'common'.
As per the government, internet shutdowns are meant to 'maintain law and order'. And yet, these shutdowns have been mostly preventive rather than reactive.
In simple words, the government is shutting down the internet with the expectation that the law and order will not be maintained.
This would imply that the government is aware of how, the bill, act, decision or action they are implementing, may not have the favour of the very citizens it's supposed to be governing.
And yet, it's not the bill that gets amended or shelved. No, what gets restricted, banned, or altogether silenced, is the voice of the citizens.
In the modern age, the internet is the voice of concerned citizens. It is our medium for expressing our angst, our disapproval, and our concerns. It is our tool for staying in touch with family, connecting with friends, and sharing our lives. It is our source of entertainment and information.
#Map shows the number of times #Internet has been shutdown in entire or parts of state/UT since 2012 and it has been on an increasing trend— Raj Bhagat Palanichamy (@rajbhagatt) December 13, 2019
Reasons vary from environmental protests to communal clashes. J&K tops with 180, Rajasthan has 67!
Data - @SFLCin#InternetShutdowns pic.twitter.com/bG7AiYn3kZ
Yes, spreading misinformation, data breaches, trolling, and other such examples of internet abuse do exist. But, the solution to internet misuse is to build stronger laws for data privacy and protection. Stopping access to internet services altogether is definitely not the solution.
More importantly, the internet shutdown actually contributes to a system of misinformation and fear. Because lack of knowledge drives citizens to rely on unreliable (and at times, problematic) sources of information.
Simultaneously, the lack of access to family members and friends builds an atmosphere of fear - especially when you're aware that your loved ones are staying in an area of unrest and curfew.
Additionally, there is little to no evidence that shows that an internet shutdown has actually helped in maintaining peace and order. Rather, it actually builds the feeling of alienation from the rest of the country.
However, while these are the drastic results of an internet shutdown, another important thing to consider is what an internet shutdown signifies for us?
As a democracy, we have the right to raise our concerns to the government, draw attention to government failures, and share information about on-ground realities. We also have the right to question government actions and/or inaction.
Shutting down the internet bans us from all this and more. It's a breach of our personal freedom and our democratic right. And it is, in no way, a solution to the problems of our democracy.
There are laws in place for the wrongful dissemination of information. There are laws in place for casting disparaging and unfounded remarks on a person's character. There are laws in place for threatening the spread of information and even for obstructing the flow of free information.
An internet shutdown goes against the very grain of freedom of speech. And in today's day and age, it's equivalent to stopping the press and banning publications. Because, for the citizens of today, the internet is our primary medium of communication and information.
Over a decade ago, in a movie that was a better representation of patriotism than most 'nationalist' movies today, a character (played by R. Madhavan) had this to say -
Today, there are concerned citizens who want to give a voice to their issues and help make their country a better home for themselves. Only, the 'democratic government' does not seem willing to listen.