The world’s most populous democracy is now also the world leader in internet shutdowns. India has imposed hundreds of internet blackouts in different parts of the country over the past few years, including cutting off connectivity throughout the disputed state of Kashmir for six months.
Home to over 12 million people, the region has suffered tremendously as a result—unemployment has spiked and over $1 billion in economic losses have been attributed to the blackout. Internet speed limits and other restrictions remain active, making many online services virtually unusable and the road to recovery even longer—especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
For the September/October issue of MIT Technology Review, journalist and author Sonia Falerio explains how India became the internet shutdown capital of the world. This week on Deep Tech, she joins our editor-in-chief, Gideon Lichfield, to discuss why backlash from a controversial citizenship bill prompted the government to cut online communications.
Check out more episodes of Deep Tech here.
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Full episode transcript
Gideon Lichfield: In August of 2019, the Indian government imposed a total communications shutdown in the volatile, disputed region of Kashmir.
For six months, 12 million people had no internet, no cable TV, and for some of that time, no cellphones or even landlines. It was the longest internet blockade ever in the democratic world. Even now, speed limits and other restrictions make many online services virtually unusable.
In the past few years, India has imposed hundreds of internet blackouts in different parts of the country, sometimes just for hours, sometimes for months. The government claims they’re necessary for keeping the peace, particularly in areas like Kashmir, where there are regular outbreaks of violence.
But over time, the shutdowns have become the Indian government’s go-to tactic for suppressing all kinds of political unrest. The world’s most populous democracy is now also the world leader in internet shutdowns—ahead of places like Iran, Venezuela and even China.
And these blackouts don’t just silence dissent. They can wreck local economies. And, during a pandemic, they can cut people off from lifesaving information.
Today, I’m talking to the journalist and author Sonia Faleiro. Her story in our latest issue—the techno-nationalism issue—explains why India became the internet shutdown capital of the world, and what price its people are paying.
I’m Gideon Lichfield, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review, and this is Deep Tech.
So, Sonia, India has been using internet shutdowns increasingly often. And not just in Kashmir. In your story, you write about one that happened last December in Delhi, the capital. What was the impetus for that shutdown?
Sonia Faleiro: So the shutdown in Delhi was intended to stop people protesting. There was a large anti-government protest planned for December 19 at the Red Fort in Delhi, which is a historic monument from where the prime minister traditionally delivers a televised address to the nation on independence day. The protest was against a controversial citizenship bill that the government planned to introduce.
Anchor for CNN: A day of unrest in India, again, over that controversial new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against muslims. In some areas, police used water cannons and they also used tear gas.
Police blocked access roads and cut the mobile internet outside The Red Fort where the march was supposed to begin.
Indian Protestor: I’m here because I find this act—The Citizenship Amendment Act—completely unconstitutional, anti people, arbitrary, and against the basic features of the Indian constitution.
Sonia Faleiro: The bill promised to fast-track indian citizenship for persecuted groups from neighboring countries. It included people of all the major South Asian religions. Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism, all but Islam. It was a clearly Islamophobic move aimed at further alienating India’s Muslims and the protets were intended to draw attention to that.
Gideon Lichfield: So why has the Indian government been targeting Muslims in this way?
Sonia Faleiro: So there are about 200 million Muslims in India. It’s the largest minority. And India is a secular Republic, but Narendra Modi, the prime minister, is a Hindu nationalist. He’s been a lifelong member of a group called The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which sells itself as a volunteer organization that seeks to uplift the poor. But it’s actually a paramilitary group. And Modi has been a member of this group since he was eight years old.
The views of the RSS are influenced by European facist movements and leaders of the group have openly expressed admiration for hitler. And have said things along the lines like, you know, Hindus could “profit from the example of the Nazis” who manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging Germany of the Jews.
Gideon Lichfield: So what would the consequences have been for India’s Muslims of this citizenship law?
Sonia Faleiro: So essentially what it means is that; You know, a Muslim who cannot prove that they are an Indian citizen, which is very likely not just for Muslims, but for many. Many Indians don’t possess any form of identification at all. They don’t even have birth certificates. So anybody who cannot prove that they are Indian can apply for citizenship through this new citizenship law. Anybody who is a Christian or a Hindu or a Parsi or a Jain, but Muslims cannot. So 200 million Muslims are therefore in danger of becoming stateless people. What’s happening is that the government is creating detention camps all over the country. There are about 16 of them. And what we know of some of these camps is that they’re meant to be long term. They have schools and they have hospitals and there’s absolutely no way for somebody who is funneled into one of these camps to leave. There is no recourse for them.
Gideon Lichfield: So when people came out in December protesting the citizenship law in Delhi the government shut off the internet for quite large parts of the city, I think. Correct?
Sonia Faleiro: That’s right.
Gideon Lichfield: For how long?
Sonia Faleiro: It wasn’t for very long. In fact it was for a few hours, but it was very clearly done in order to prevent people from a particular part of Delhi, East Delhi, which has a majority Muslim population, from knowing what right it’s happening and from mobilizing. So the government’s idea was, you know, if they don’t know where to go, then they’re not going to join a protest. And then the large numbers that had been anticipated will not come together.
Gideon Lichfield: The longest internet blackout in India has been in Kashmir, six months or so, which ended in January. But even since then, internet speeds have been throttled back to 2G, which is, you know, very, very low speed. What is it like being in Kashmir with communications so drastically shut off during a pandemic?
Sonia Faleiro: It was surreal, you know? My phone stopped working the moment I arrived in Srinagar. So I landed in Srinagar. I looked at my phone and it was just like, you know, a paperweight. It had no use for me anymore because the internet was shut down but so were phones and, as I later found out, so were cable TV channels.
Gideon Lichfield: So there was no television. There was nothing?
Sonia Faleiro: There was nothing. It was like being a black hole. There was no way of knowing what was going on, even in the city, let alone in, in the rest of the country. So it was dystopian, it was deeply disturbing. And, you know, the impact was very clear on the faces of the people.
Gideon Lichfield: What was the impact on the economy of Kashmir?
Sonia Faleiro: Kashmir had a robust economy. You know it had a thriving tourism industry, a thriving handicraft industry. It’s a place that is fabled for its beauty. So people come from all over the world to visit Kashmir, to go skiing there. And at the time of the blackout the poverty rate was less than half that of the national average, which is 22%. The economy was more robust than many Indian States.
But naturally the blackout destroyed everything because virtually every industry relies on the internet. So within the first four months, the economy suffered losses of more than 1 billion. And as of now around 500,000 people have lost their jobs.
Anchor for CNA News: India’s supreme court has ordered the government to restore the internet in kashmir ruling that the communication shutdown was unconstitutional.
Anchor for NDTV News: Broadband internet will be partially restored for institutions in Kashmir Valley after more than five months of blackout. The process, which will be conducted in phases, will start on today. However, social networking sites—even news websites—will remain out of bounds completely.
Gideon Lichfield: So for the last six months or so, Kashmiris have been living with the pandemic and still with very little connectivity. And how has that been for them?
Sonia Faleiro: So in January, when the courts told the government that they have to lift the internet ban, the government responded by giving people access, as you point out to 2G speeds. And the other thing that they did alongside this was to essentially firewall most of the internet. They gave people access to about 300 so-called “white listed” websites. You know, websites that they thought were safe for people to use.
Then we find that the pandemic is taking root and it’s spreading in Kashmir, which like many other Indian States does not have a robust healthcare system. Nobody really knew how to protect themselves. Nobody even knew what it was and, you know, that the information was constantly evolving.
One of the doctors that I spoke to in Srinagar is, he’s a urologist called Omar Saleem Akthar and works at a public hospital in Srinagar—told me that he couldn’t even download the medical guidelines. So what he would do was ask friends who are traveling outside the state to take printouts and bring them back to him so he could know what he was dealing with.
Omar Salim Akthar: Think of it as being lost at sea without the radio.
And then when the pandemic hit in February, we all heard it on the television. There was very little information that was coming via the internet because it was so slow.
And there were doctors who were literally awake for the whole night just trying to download a few megabytes of data on how the patients with suspected COVID-19 should be managed and how facilities should be secured.
It was just extremely difficult to survive in that state. So the data on COVID-19 is constantly changing. It’s an evolving disease and we need updates regularly. And a lot of those updates are coming in the form of videos. They’re coming in the form of webinars. And you’re not able to access that when you have a 2G speed internet connection. So it leaves us hungry for more information and dependent on information that may be outdated by the time we get it.
Sonia Faleiro: What’s worse, a government-sponsored, online based, healthcare system that granted free insurance to Indians living below the poverty line, would no longer be accessible during the internet shutdown.
Omar Salim Akthar: So I had a cancer patient who hadn’t received chemotherapy. I had many patients on dialysis who had deferred their dialysis or had to pay out of pocket. And that really hurt me.
I remember feeling helpless. Helpless, hopeless, despondent, all sorts of sad emotions in the English language that you can think of. But more than anything, I was angry because I felt that, you know, this was not called for.
Sonia Faleiro: Omar says he saw a humanitarian crisis quickly unfolding before him in Kashmir. And he knew something had to be done.
Omar Salim Akthar: I thought that it would be a good idea that, probably the message is not going across, and that I’d just you know raise this point and say that, “okay, you know, we don’t have any telephones. No landlines. No mobiles. No form of communication. We don’t have any internet. But maybe it would be worthwhile to restore the internet to healthcare facilities” so that these people who are dependent on the internet for their health care can come and, you know, access that healthcare.
Sonia Falerio: He created a few posters on standard printer paper and brought his message to the local press colony—where many Kashmiri media outlets have offices.
Omar Salim Akthar: And I remember sitting down there for about five minutes and I believe I was asked a few questions by a few journalists and within about five minutes or so, a police officer came and bundled me into a Jeep and took me to jail.
When I was in jail, I was lucky to have met // the officer who was supervising that police station. And he listened to what I was saying and said that “you shouldn’t be doing this and please go home and don’t do this again.”
Sonia Falerio: As a physician, online teacher and parent to young children, internet connectivity is essential for Omar. So he did what anyone else with the money would do: He opted for installing a broadband, fiber optic internet connection in his home.
Omar Salim Akthar: So my son and my daughter now have access to high speed broadband internet. Whereas the people who are less fortunate than me who did not have that money still have access to just 2G internet sparingly. And that too is disrupted from time to time. My point here is, over the period of the pandemic, a digital divide has been created between the haves and the have nots.
The internet was used as a leveling platform 20, 15, 10 years ago. The rich, poor, all the like had access to the same internet, same information. And now we have created a digital divide whereby poor people, because they cannot afford high speed broadband connections, are restricted to low speed internet, which prevents the access of students to teaching materials.
Whereas those who are rich and can afford broadband internet connections, which are high-speed, have now access to those teaching materials and better you know educational opportunities. And this effect is going to last years and years into the future.
Gideon Lichfield: So India is a democracy, but it’s been using these internet shutdowns increasingly. There have been dozens each year for the past two or three years. How does it legally justify shutting off phones and the internet for millions of people?
Sonia Faleiro: Yeah. So when the Indian government wants to impose a blackout, it invokes a law called the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885.
Gideon Lichfield: This is a law that goes all the way back to the British?
Sonia Faleiro: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the British created it. They found it a very useful tool to stop uprisings during the colonial era. Later, Indian governments used it as an excuse to wiretap you know opposition politicians and journalists, because what it does is it gives the government at the federal and state level the right to shut all communications—including the internet more recently—if it believes that by doing so it protects public safety or if there’s a public emergency. In 2017, the law was amended to specify that it allowed the temporary suspension of telecom services.
Now there are major problems with the law. For one thing, you know, it doesn’t define public safety or public emergency. So the government can say anything is a public emergency. It can say that for example, a large gathering of people is a public safety issue because people may get injured. The other problem Is that it doesn’t limit how long a shutdown can last. So, you know, In the case of the Delhi shutdown, for example, it lasted a few hours. In Kashmir, the shutdown lasted six months.
Gideon Lichfield: As you write in the story, India started using these shutdowns as a way to suppress the spread of rumors on WhatsApp that were triggering murders. It seems like there’s a genuine problem of misinformation in India. Why is that?
Sonia Faleiro: Yeah. So for years, you know, India was way behind the curve. So for example, prior to 2016, you couldn’t even stream Netflix without interruption. Internet services were very expensive and the internet was considered by many people in India to be an unattainable thing. The purview of well-off, educated people. But everything changed in 2016. So what happened then was that India’s richest man, the billionaire Mukesh Ambani launched his Telecom operation, which he called Jio.
So for the very small cost of a SIM card, Jio offered new subscribers free 4G data. The offer was for a limited time, but it was incredible. Suddenly, high speed internet was available to everyone. By then, basically everybody had a mobile phone. They’re ubiquitous in India. There are 468 million of them. But now the same mobile phone users—whether they were vegetable vendors or bus drivers or students—also had high speed internet and Jio quickly amassed 200 million subscribers.
So the next natural step was a price war and the cost of data plunged to the equivalent of maybe a few cents. Basically the cheapest in the world. So they had this sudden access, you know, there was no transition period. You’re talking about people—many people—who didn’t have computers, forget about laptops. You know, they had no computer literacy. They had no introduction to the internet. And then suddenly this whole world dramatically opens up to them and they don’t know what to believe.
Gideon Lichfield: So people are suddenly exposed to a whole lot of new information online and no real ways of telling what is true and what is false?
Sonia Faleiro: Yeah, absolutely. So for example, at the start of the pandemic, you know, people were receiving WhatsApp health advice that was telling them to avoid ice cream and meat. And to go and sit in the sun or gargle with warm salt water if they want to avoid contracting the virus. And because this information came to them over WhatsApp, they believed it and they followed this fake advice. So, you know, the lack of information literacy really does have extremely dangerous consequences in India.
Gideon Lichfield: And what is the Indian government then doing to try to stem the spread of fake news?
Sonia Faleiro: You know, after it became clear that people were taking medical advice from WhatsApp and endangering, not just themselves, but everyone around them—which is a particular concern in India because people live in, you know, they have have smaller living areas and they live in large, joined families—the government issued an advisory.
But the truth is that the Modi government isn’t led by science. Members of his Bharatiya Janata Party have recommended cow urine and cow dung as possible cures for the Coronavirus. In general, fake news in India, like anywhere in the world, favors populist leaders. So the Modi government has no real incentive to stop it.
Gideon Lichfield: That’s it for this episode of Deep Tech. This is a podcast just for subscribers of MIT Technology Review, to bring alive the issues our journalists are thinking and writing about.
You’ll find Sonia Faleiro’s article “Blind Spot” in the September issue of the magazine.
Deep Tech is written and produced by Anthony Green and edited by Jennifer Strong and Michael Reilly. And I’m Gideon Lichfield. Thanks for listening.