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India cuts internet for 27 million people amid search for fugitive

March 19, 2023 Updated Sun., March 19, 2023 at 8:39 p.m.

By Gerry Shih, Karishma Mehrotra and Shams Irfan Washington Post

NEW DELHI – Indian authorities severed mobile internet access and text messaging for a second day Sunday across Punjab, a state of about 27 million people, as officials carried out a dramatic manhunt to capture a Sikh separatist and braced for potential unrest.

The statewide ban – which crippled most smartphones services except for voice calls and some SMS text messages – marked one of the broadest shutdowns in recent years in India, a country that has increasingly deployed the law enforcement tactic that digital rights activists call draconian and ineffective.

The Punjab government initially announced a 24-hour ban starting midday Saturday as its security forces launched a sprawling operation to arrest the fugitive Amritpal Singh, then extended the ban Sunday for another 24 hours.

Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, has been a popular figure within a separatist movement that seeks to establish a sovereign state in Punjab called Khalistan for followers of the Sikh religion. He rocketed to nationwide notoriety in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free one of his jailed supporters.

While the Khalistan movement is outlawed in India and considered a top national security threat by security officials, the movement has sympathizers across Punjab state, which is majority Sikh, and among the large Sikh diaspora that has settled in countries such as Canada and Britain.

In a bid to forestall unrest and curtail what it called “fake news,” Punjab authorities blocked mobile internet service beginning at noon Saturday, shortly after they failed to apprehend Singh as he drove through central Punjab with a cavalcade of supporters.

Officials were probably also motivated by a desire to deprive Singh’s supporters of social media, which they briefly used Saturday to seek help and organize their ranks.

In one video that was live-streamed to Facebook and widely viewed, Singh’s aides, apparently filming inside Singh’s car, showed their leader barreling down dirt roads and along fields of wheat with police in pursuit. Meanwhile, Singh’s father, Sardar Tersem Singh, took to Twitter to ask all Punjabis “to raise their voice against the injustice against him and stand with him” in a post that quickly went viral.

Police said they had arrested nearly 80 of his associates Sunday even while Singh’s supporters, many of them brandishing swords and spears, marched down streets in Punjab and blocked roads to demand his freedom. Singh was still on the run as of late Sunday, and the 4G blackout remained in effect.

Three Punjab residents who spoke to the Washington Post said life had been disrupted since midday Saturday. Only essential text messages, such as confirmation codes for bank transfers, were trickling through. Wired internet services were not affected.

“My entire business is dependent on internet,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, who accepts QR code-based payments at his two clothing shops in a village outside of Ludhiana and also sells garments online. “Since yesterday, I’ve felt crippled.”

In each of the past five years, Indian officials have ordered internet shutdowns more frequently than any other government, according to New York-based Access Now advocacy group, which issues annual reports on the practice.

In 2022, authorities around the world cut their citizens’ internet access 187 times; India accounted for almost half, or 84 instances, Access Now found.

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director for Access Now, said the Punjab government in effect “declared a state of emergency or curfew across the entire state of Punjab when it comes to the internet.” The internet ban, he argued, could exacerbate the spread of rumors or unrest by hobbling independent news reporting.

“They may make situations of law and order more dangerous and potentially more violent,” he said.

Authorities in Punjab deployed a tactic that is usually seen in another restive Indian region: Jammu and Kashmir. The majority-Muslim region in India’s far north has experienced internet disruptions more than 400 times in the past decade, according to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New Delhi-based nonprofit.

Beginning in August 2019, the Indian government cut internet access in Kashmir for 19 months after it revoked the region’s semiautonomous status, prompting widespread protests.

Prasanth Sugathan, the legal director at SFLC, said that outside of Kashmir, Indian authorities usually cut internet access in a particular protest-hit district, and rarely across an area as vast as Punjab. When Indian activists have challenged the legality of shutdowns in the past, Sugathan said, Indian judges have called on police to deploy law enforcement measures that are proportional to the threat to public safety.

“Definitely shutting down across the state is not proportional,” Sugathan said. “You need the internet for almost everything these days. And if you are shutting the entire state, the effects on people will be unimaginable.”

Punjab’s police moved against Singh a day after the state wrapped up meetings for the Group of 20 nations. As India hosted delegates from G-20 nations this year, its officials launched an elaborate marketing campaign to pitch their country – “Digital India” – as a leading technological power. At conferences organized by the government, Indian officials have touted the country’s online payment and personal identity systems as a model that developing countries and even advanced economies should emulate.

At a time when the government is pushing its citizens to pay for goods and receive welfare services online, such widespread internet shutdowns threatened to undermine the government’s own efforts, Sugathan said.

“The government is pushing for all services being available online,” he said. “If you talk about ‘Digital India,’ then you can’t have this happening.”

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