On 23rd May 2018, as the police action on residents of Thoothukudi continued, some social media posts reported fresh rounds of shooting and teargas shell bombing “in front of the Government Hospital.” The updates also mentioned the death of one more person and injuries sustained by two more. Later in the afternoon a video shot from a nearby building showed around 40 policemen marching into Bryant Nagar 8, Thoothukudi where an on looker was killed in police firing. These reports were beginning to indicate that the police action had not stopped, but soon the updates from Thoothukudi disappeared on social media. By evening, it was confirmed that there had been an Internet Shutdown in three districts of Tamil Nadu- Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. While voice calls were allowed, there had been a ban on data services from 23rd May to 27th May. Telecom companies had received a directive from the Chief Secretary to temporarily suspend internet services.
The Software Freedom Law Center database documents such instances where the Government is resorting to suspension of internet services (all disruption mentioned here are of blanket ban of internet). The reasons cited are mostly “breakdown of law and order” that might worsen due to circulation of rumors and misinformation. In India, between January 2012 and 22nd May 2018, there have been 181 internet blackouts (including both wired and/or mobile connection) for various reasons, across 20 states in the country. In 2017 and 2018 (till 22nd May) alone, there have been 70 and 52 internet blackouts, respectively. While the time period of these internet shutdowns vary, the frequency of blanket bans has increased over this period. This includes situations like communal tension and riots, as well as dissent or protests, such as in case of Thoothukudi, the recent Gorkhaland Agitation or the perpetual bans in Kashmir.
The SLFC data shows, the internet ban that started with Kashmir, is now spreading fast and has become the primary tactic of governments across the states for controlling mass protests and communal tension. Initially, internet bans were largely used by governments during war situations, for instance in Jammu and Kashmir. Faced with long-standing state repression, Kashmir, one of the most highly militarized places in the world, has been using the internet in recent times to overcome censorship imposed by the Indian state. Videos related to human rights violations shot by the protesters have regularly exposed the despotic regime. In such a context, internet ban was bound to become necessary to control the free flow of information. The ban on telephony services and internet have been a regular routine in Kashmir, be it during Republic Day parades, the Independence Day Flag hoisting ceremonies, situations of communal tension or protests against the killings by armed forces. Even as India faced international criticisms regarding consistent internet bans, in Jammu Kashmir alone there have been 82 internet shutdowns till 22nd May.
The Centre for Internet and Society, together with ‘101 Reporters’, have published ‘Internet Shutdown Stories’ where they interview Kashmiris about their daily lives (which also includes protests) and governments officials. These journalistic stories throw light on the fact that internet ban has hardly discouraged the protests. As Bazil Ahmed told Junaid Nabi Bazaz (101Reporters), “If the government believes that an internet blockade could prevent protests, they’re living in a fool’s paradise.” He adds, “The actual trigger for the anger comes from the denial of rights and state aggression, not because of the internet.” Another Kashmiri, speaking of the 2016 summer protests when mobile internet connections, both pre-paid and post-paid, were shut down, said, “Were there not protests? Kashmir was resisting Indian forces even before the internet existed, so why would it be difficult for us to use the same means now?” He goes on to refer to the local network and the zeal to resist occupation that drives the protests. On the other hand, the occupant military also finds it difficult to communicate due to their growing reliance on the internet and social media for operations.
Kashmir had no internet access for
over 2,920 hours”(9th July to 19th Nov, 2016 internet mobile services were suspended) . This made India worse than Iraq and Pakistan in terms of number of days without internet, according to a report5 by the Brookings Institution.
Internet shutdown stories, Pg-33
September 2014 in Gujarat was the first instance of internet ban in India, other than in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The reason cited in ‘Living in Digital Darkness’, a handbook on internet shutdowns, prepared by SLFC, states, “Mobile Internet blocked for three days starting 27th September, 2014 in the city of Vadodara, after riots over a morphed picture of a Muslim religious shrine.” Since then we notice about 36 internet bans related to communal tensions and riots. The cited reasons vary from circulation of morphed photos, calls for killing Muslims, violent celebration of festivals, or beef related violence. There were 13 internet shutdowns with regard to attacks on Dalits, including the killing of Bhim army member and the violence that broke out during the National Strike on 2nd April 2018 (in protest to dilution of SC/ST PoA Act). Then there are several instances of bans in the context of anti-reservation movements like the Jat and Patel agitations, DSS chief Ram Rahim’s (who was seen sharing stage with BJP affiliated CM of Haryana, M.L. Khattar) arrest, or during clamping down of peasant and mass protests.
The law and BJP’s textbook subversion
India did not have proper legal mechanisms for suspension of internet, so orders used to come under the archaic section 144 of CrPC or the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. On 7th August 2017, the “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017” were issued surreptitiously by the BJP government in Center under section 7 of the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 in the Gazette of India, without much public attention or Ministerial statement. Though the BJP penned this subversive piece of legislation, it is not as if this manipulative insertion of the rules under the Telegraph Act drew any criticism from the Opposition.
Critiquing the new rule under the Telegraph Act, the Internet Freedom Foundation, formed by volunteers of SavetheInternet.in campaign, mentioned, “there was no public consultation, no opportunity for academics, engineers, experts and research organisations to comment on any draft. Though required under the terms of the Telegraph Act and Indian parliamentary procedure, these telecom service suspension rules have not yet been tabled before the houses of Parliament. A closed process for drafting without involving a multi stakeholder process, or inviting stakeholder comment often results in solutions that are ineffective or which fail to survive judicial scrutiny.” The definition of “public safety” and “public emergency” are not explained clearly in the document; as the criticism states, “the rules do not contain any limitation on the grounds under which the shutdown order can be issued or the period for which it will be in force.”
Breeding Communal tension
The bans, both preventive and reactive, are employed with the stated fear of circulation of inflammatory material through social media. However, the increased frequency of internet shutdowns in such situations have hardly prevented the violence or rioting. It is important to consider that the total internet subscriber population in India is still about 34%, as per TRAI’s (2017) report, among which 72% is in urban areas and 15% in rural areas. Thus, while not underestimating the power of internet-fueled rioting and communal clashes that the country has witnessed regularly in recent time, it is still safe to say that communal propaganda cannot be sustained solely based on the internet. The capture of public spaces plays an essential role in this; glaring examples of such processes being the RSS’s social engineering strategies of sustained communalizations via schools, akharas, cow vigilante groups and violent mobilization on festivals. In this ecosystem of hate politics, social media has become an additional tool for the Hindu right-wing groups which operate their own professional paid IT cells to spread fake news and hate speech. The purpose is to ensure that there is regular consumption of communal and caste hatred, to keep the communal cauldron on boil. Following their steps, other political parties are also instituting their own IT Cells, and finding methods to manipulate public opinion.
While on a “normal day”, at a “normal place”, the Government and the ruling party is actively promoting misinformation campaigns through the Internet and otherwise, banning the internet is the first thing the same Government takes to when riots break out as a consequence of of such campaigns. Shutting down the internet in such situations also affects the journalists reporting from the ground, and the police from trying to do their duty, in the instances when they do, during such communal tensions.
Who defines public safety? When the state Kills?
The Government-Corporate nexus is known for taking several harsh measures when protests or mass actions expose their anti-people nature. Internet ban is one of them. However, this is not the only method that is employed in order to suppress news from a mass protest; as per sources in Thoothukudi, journalists reporting from the ground were threatened by the police, and the local cable blacked out news channels covering the genocidal police action. The AIADMK, BJP’s ally, also allegedly censored the language of media reports, asking them to use the term ‘incident’ instead of ‘massacre’. Censorship and violence on media was also encountered in Kashmir after the 2016 uprising when the local media and circulation of newspaper were under threat from the state machinery. Unlike in Kahsmir, where people have found strategies to counter internet shutdowns, in Thoothukudi the government was able to control the flow of information. The flow of videos and pictures that surfaced on the internet on the first day of police action exposing the despotic acts of the state to a wider mass and forced media attention to it, was largely suppressed with the internet shutdown. Other than leakage of certain stray happenings, largely the state was thus able to cover up its own activities. None of this is however new or stray. The state has long used the Official Secrets Act (1923), Section 144, to block dissemination of information.
This, together with replacing journalism and journalists with anchor-based newsroom opinion-drama, allowed paid media and the State to circulate false information, manipulating the opinion of the masses. Internet makes it possible, to an extent, to take the brute reality of the state to the larger public; with internet and communication bans, the state can purposefully spread false information, not just to discredit the protesters but also to create confusion in the ranks of the protesters. Internet Shutdown Stories reports one such instance when in a farmers’ protest (1st September, 2017) in Sikar (Rajasthan), there was constant spreading of misinformation that the protests had become violent. The protesters, in this case, could counter those strategies with the help of broadband internet which was not suspended. Similar methods were employed in the Gorkhaland agitation where a mass protest was vilified by the state and its paid media. The media houses did not find it important to report on the 100 days of internet restriction and shortage of supplies in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The 2nd April National Strike in protest against the dilution of SC/ST PoA Act saw internet shutdown across several states. Mainstream media mostly did selective reporting on violence perpetrated in the protests, and comfortably overlooked the involvement of BJP henchmen shooting at the protesters, on camera.
Debating Freedom and Internet; Lets debate the Discourse
As per reports, 2017 has seen an alarming increase in the number of hate crimes against religious minorities and Dalits in the country. However, there are allegations that hate crimes are not properly documented in the official Government National Crime Records Bureau data. As in 2017, on the question of cow-related hate crimes, the Home Ministry told the Parliament that NCRB does not maintain any record for the same. “The police are neither trained nor motivated to distinguish hate crimes from ordinary crimes, and rarely charge them under criminal sections associated with hate crimes,” wrote human rights activist Harsh Mander. There are also evidences that crimes under SC/ST PoA act are under-reported for similar reasons. In this same piece Mander writes, “[hate crimes] in India are so invisible and under-reported. Most sections of both mainstream media and civil society organizations self-censor reporting hate crimes and extending humanitarian and human-rights support to the survivors, partly in fear of official retribution if they were to report the truth.”
The internet shutdown debate encounters a similar fate of self-censorship, and seems to be getting limited to loss in business, inconvenience pertaining to education, health-care, and other such services, and to questions regarding free speech and freedom of expression at the most, avoiding the politics of such gag measures. It avoids critical questions such as, “Is social media really a reason for the spread of ‘random’ misinformation, or is social media being used in an organized manner for such purposes, by organized forces?” New initiatives such as AltNews, HoaxSlayer, etc., have recently been working on these issues, and have repeatedly exposed the fake news industry and its networks.
The same state that allows and turns a blind eye to, and in fact perpetrates, 24×7 hate and communal campaign, acting hand-in-glove with Hindutva elements, cannot be the gatekeepers of information. Question needs to be asked as to why no action is taken against such websites that spread communal poison when they can be easily put behind bars on the strength of existing laws. Question also needs to be asked as to why the Prime Minister of the country openly subscribes to many of these social media pages and twitter handles that have been documented as spreading fake news and hate campaigns. A clear definition of public emergency and public safety is the need of the hour. Banning internet services when violence breaks out while maintaining stoic silence when the communal IT cells works overtime to engineer such violence, is dubious, and in fact exposes the political backing provided actively by this government to such malicious social engineering programs.