Can problems be solved by internet shutdowns?text_fields
The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) launched by students in Delhi under the caption 'United Against Hate' which seeks to 'divide' people in the name of religion, has now spread all over the country. The agitation by the students and protesters in other places, that defied all efforts by the government to muffle dissent in Jamia Millia and Aligarh by brandishing batons and aiming guns, has become a driving force for campuses across the country. That way the Indian street has now become a 'classrooms of protests' as never seen before.
In a way the students were taking up the historic role, when mainstream political movements shuddered at the face of the muscular methods of the Modi government. That intervention has met with success. The slogans they raised in the capital have become the common sentiment of the country. A week into the protests, mainstream opposition parties, human rights movements, neo-democratic collectives and civil society have all become active participants in the stir. But, the Modi government is in an effort to kill these purely democratic and peaceful protests through police raj and internet blockage.
Visuals have come to light in the last few days of students being subjected to inhuman police treatment. College hostels, even the washrooms there, ceased to be safe places for them. Leaders arriving for strikes were arrested while on their way. And now reports come in about strikers being killed in police firing. When crowds flowed to the scenes of protests, authorities disconnected communication channels including internet. In order to freeze the agitations in states like Assam and Meghalaya, the government had cut off internet connection soon after the CAB was passed in parliament. The same government imposed a partial cyber-emergency in the capital on Thursday. By closing several metro stations in tandem, the government is in a sense holding citizens hostage.
A comparable tendency has been in display in the country for the last few years. At the slightest indication of even the sprouting of popular resistance, internet shutdown has been resorted to as an easy way to nip dissent in the bud. In this year alone internet was cut 94 times in India, as per figures relased by New York-based Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC). Last year this happened 134 times. It is 137 days now since internet use has been barred in Jammu-Kashmir. The SFLC report also cites that the longest duration of internet shutdown in a democratic country was that in Kashmir.
In the last three and a half years, internet facility was snapped for 260 days in the Valley. In 2017, some parts of West Bengal was also cut off for about 100 days. It is to be remembered that India is the country with the second largest number of users in the world; that accounts for 65 crore people. It is through the internet-based network that almost all the administrative tasks, including welfare schemes that have been delivered for long, are being performed in the country. Even the common man's ration distributed via E-POS machines is now impossible without the internet. Paradoxically enough, 'Digital India' is also a catch phrase fondly used by the current government.
It may be recalled that it was to bring in a digital era that the citizens of this country were made to stand in queue for kilometers during the note-ban. If a government, which introduced a utopian concept of 'internet-based governance' and later implemented it in lopsided fashion, maims that very technology when it wants to crush criticisms, such a regime does not deserve to be called democratic government. Even otherwise, Modi government's internet censorship belongs less to the model of a democratic country, than a totalitarian one of China. Not surprising then that an article appeared in the official paper of Chinese government in favour of internet shutdown of the Modi government.
All this is happening in an era when an internet interruption lasting even hours is enough to keep people in the dark - also enough to result in economic insecurity. As per the SFLC report, the losses incurred as a result of the reported internet disruptions, including that of Kashmir, will be in the order of 3 billion dollars. Not to speak of the situation if this method is adopted in places lilke the national capital.
If the government is sitting cosy with the notion that protests can be suppressed through censorship, it will do well to understand that within cyber space itself there are alternative channels available. When communication channels without internet facility abound, strikers can resort to them. And protests are intensifying using such alternatives. Therefore, the only way forward for the Modi government at this juncture is to move away from the fascist paths of cyber emergency and yield to democratic will.