India imposed the highest number of internet shutdowns globally in 2022, a new report has revealed, in what critics say is yet another blow to the country’s commitment to freedom of speech and access to information.
Of 187 internet shutdowns recorded worldwide, 84 took place in India, according to the report published Tuesday by Access Now, a New York based advocacy group that tracks internet freedom.
This is the fifth consecutive year the world’s largest democracy of more than 1.3 billion people has topped the list, the group said, raising concerns about India’s commitment to internet freedom under its current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The responsibility of Indian states for the majority of shutdowns globally is impossible to ignore and a deep problem on its own,” the report said. “Authorities in regions across the country are increasingly resorting to this repressive measure, inflicting shutdowns on more people in more places.”
Nearly 60% of India’s internet shutdowns last year occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir, where authorities disrupted access due to “political instability and violence,” according to the report.
In August 2019, the BJP revoked the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two federally administered territories, bringing the region under greater control of New Delhi. The unprecedented decision sparked protests and the government has frequently restricted communication lines since, a move rights groups say is aimed at quashing dissent.
Apart from Jammu and Kashmir, authorities in the states of West Bengal and Rajasthan imposed more shutdowns than other Indian regions in response to “protests, communal violence and exams,” according to the report.
India has the world’s second largest digital population, following China, with more than 800 million internet users. The internet has become a vital social and economic lifeline for large swathes of the population and connects the country’s isolated rural pockets, with its growing cities.
The disruptions “impacted the daily lives of millions of people for hundreds of hours in 2022,” the report said.
Concerns in India
The Access Now report comes at a time when India’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression is under increasing scrutiny.
In January, the country banned a documentary from the BBC that was critical of Modi’s alleged role in deadly riots more than 20 years ago. Indian tax authorities raided the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai in the weeks that followed citing “irregularities and discrepancies” in the broadcaster’s taxes.
But critics of the government were not convinced, instead calling the raids “a clear cut case of vendetta” and accused the BJP of intimidating the media. Last week, police in New Delhi arrested a senior opposition politician for allegedly “disturbing harmony” after he misstated the Prime Minister’s middle name, a move Modi’s critics likened to “dictatorial behavior.”
In recent years, the government has repeatedly justified blocking internet access on the grounds of preserving public safety amid widespread fears of mob violence. While the country was in the middle of its general election in 2019, with more than 900 million people eligible to vote, some Indians were denied access to the internet for days at a time as they prepared to cast their ballots.
Authorities said the blocking was “a precautionary measure to maintain law and order,” leading many critics to question India’s grand exercise in political freedom during the world’s largest election. During a nearly year-long protest by angry farmers in 2021 over controversial new pricing laws, the Indian government blocked internet access in several districts after violent skirmishes broke out between demonstrators and police.
Some individual shutdowns have been challenged in the courts, and there is an effort to change the country’s laws to make such blackouts more difficult to impose.
Rest of the world
Last year saw more internet shutdowns worldwide than ever before, Access Now said, prompting the group to raise fears of “digital authoritarianism” as governments continue the trend. Apart from India, other countries that saw internet shutdowns last year include Ukraine, Iran and Myanmar.
During Russia’s invasion of it neighbor Ukraine, the Kremlin cut internet access at least 22 times, according to Access Now, engaging in “cyberattacks and deliberately destroying telecommunications infrastructure.”
The Iranian regime responded to protests ignited by the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini by imposing 18 shutdowns – a move Access Now called “a further escalation of its repressive tactics.”
Myanmar, which in 2021 saw the junta remove its democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saw seven internet blackouts, according to the report. The Southeast Asian country continues to be rocked by violence and instability, while many are grappling with shortages of fuel, food and basic supplies
The “military persisted in keeping people in the dark for extended periods, targeting areas where coup resistance is strongest,” the report said.