In Srinagar, the capital city of Jammu and Kashmir, over one million people woke up last week to a complete telecommunications blackout. Texts were not being delivered, calls were not going through, and devices of all kinds were not connecting to the internet.
The blackout was mandated by the Indian government, which just hours later would unilaterally strip the disputed territory of its autonomy status — a move that would ignite the multi-faceted tensions in the region and inflame the enduring conflict between the two neighboring nuclear powers: India and Pakistan.
Yet this instance of blocking communications was not novel. Indian authorities were employing a tactic that they — and governments across the globe — have perfected, and use habitually when faced with unrest and dissent.
It was, in fact, the 347th time the Indian government has strategically cut off the internet in various parts of the nation since 2012, according to the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a New Delhi-based internet rights organization. More than half of those instances occurred in Kashmir, with 54 in 2019 alone.
Shutdowns bring "many aspects of modern society to a grinding halt," SFLC told Cheddar. "Businesses, educational institutions, hospitals, and even governments themselves have come to rely extensively on the Internet over time, and without it, the day-to-day functioning of such entities are significantly crippled."
Communication networks were stifled across Kashmir around midnight local time on August 4, the monitoring organization NetBlocks reported. After dawn, the government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which has allowed Jammu and Kashmir — the area on the Indian-administered side of the contested region — autonomous authority over its internal affairs. The scrapping of the legal designation is being challenged in the Indian Supreme Court but, if allowed, would break up the region into two Union Territories governed by the central government in New Delhi.
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said "a new era has begun" and that the move will help Kashmir develop economically, and bring the region's Muslim-majority population further into the fold of Indian society.
The decision was forcefully rejected by Pakistan and Kashmiri leaders, who decried the move as a major violation of sovereignty by hardline Hindu nationalists. Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, said the takeover was an "attempt is to change demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing" and said it was "Hindu Supremacists version of Hitler's Lebensraum."
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near a temporary barricade in Srinagar on August 14. Photo Credit: FAROOQ KHAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The dispute over Kashmir has persisted since the partition of British India in 1947. In the subsequent decades, India and Pakistan have fought over control of Kashmir — launching multiple wars as well as aggressively confronting, and fueling, Kashmiri independence movements.
In 2016, for instance, riots broke out after Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old, social media savvy leader of a Kashmiri separatist group. Nearly 100 people were killed in the unrest that followed, and the government shut down internet and mobile phone networks for 133 days.
Anticipating equally, if not worse, unrest in response to the revocation of Article 370, India's government last week preemptively rendered the region incommunicado, blocking mobile phone networks, landlines, cable TV access, and shutting down internet service providers.
"[Kashmiris] cannot make sure their loved ones are safe, or practice their right to expression and political participation — the government cannot unreasonably deny anyone in this country this right," said Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Indian nonprofit Internet Freedom Foundation. "The voices from Jammu and Kashmir need to be heard the loudest, not silenced en masse."
Without internet and phone access, Kashmiris were also cut off from the outside world.
It was not until days later that images and stories started to emerge from Srinagar, which detailed a widespread military deployment with thousands of troops working to keep order and impose a mandatory curfew. Kashmiri leaders were also detained, local media reported.
Protests, nonetheless, occurred throughout Srinagar. Residents condemned the change in governing status, as well as, decried the communications blackout, which led to panic buying and shortages of food and medicine. ATMs also ran dry, according to reports, leaving the most vulnerable without access to cash.
"A large-scale communication disruption at such a crucial time for Kashmir is an egregious violation of citizens' rights to information from a free press," said Aliya Iftikhar, a senior researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Communication blocks have no place in a democracy.
Yet India — the world's largest democracy — is not the only country to employ communications blackouts when faced with civil unrest.
The tactic was widely used during the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, most notably in Egypt where the embattled regime of President Hosni Mubarak mandated a nearly nationwide internet and phone blackout. The directive, which cut off over 80 million people from the rest of the world, was unprecedented in such a large county.
Vodafone, one of the major cellular providers in Egypt, said in a subsequent statement that it was formally instructed to shut down mobile networks, an order the company's counsel said it was legally required to comply with. Most of the internet service providers in Egypt were already state-run so hitting the “off button” was relatively easy for the Mubarak administration in its final weeks.
Turkey, ostensibly another democracy, refined its ability to block internet access after the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016, which resulted in a two-year state of emergency. In September of that year, Ankara shut down the internet and mobile phone networks in roughly a dozen Kurdish-majority cities for several hours, affecting nearly 12 million people, according to the monitoring group Turkey Blocks. Communications were restricted as the government removed Kurdish mayors from their posts.
"The government's actions since the coup attempt will have lasting damage on internet freedom," the international watchdog organization Freedom House said.
Proponents claim such blackouts during crises are necessary to combat rumor mongering and misinformation, especially in the era of fake news and deep fakes. India, for one, has experienced deadly mob violence in recent years incited by false rumors spread on Whatsapp. Critics argue, however, that blackouts only fuel conspiratorial mistrust and chaos, as well as violate civil rights and hurt businesses.
Nonetheless, India persists in being the undisputed global leader of internet shutdowns. In a report published last month on digital freedom in 2018, Access Now recorded 134 shutdowns in India. In second place, the online monitoring group said, was Pakistan with just 12 disruptions.
As recently as Tuesday, internet service was cut in several neighborhoods in Jaipur, Rajasthan to prevent rumors from spreading and groups from organizing following clashes between local communities and religious pilgrims.
Yet despite good intentions — genuine or not — critics argue that internet shutdowns are fundamentally wrong and ultimately do more harm than good. As the Committee to Protect Journalists said: "Communication blocks have no place in a democracy."