Human Rights Watch, Internet Freedom Foundation
November 23, 2023

This report documents how internet shutdowns in India and IAJK disproportionately harm millions of people living with poverty and social marginalization who depend on state welfare schemes, denying them access to basic rights and entitlements guaranteed under the Indian constitution and international human rights law. The report finds that the decisions by authorities at both central and state levels to disrupt internet access are often erratic, wholly unnecessary and disproportionate in violation of international legal standards.

Topics: lack of official data, digital India, legal provisions allowing internet suspension, impact of internet shutdowns on human rights, Jammu and Kashmir: India's longest internet blackout, impact on government's social protection measures, arbitrary internet shutdowns, India's obligations under international law, recommendations, list of internet shutdowns in India

Terms: Indian Telegraph Act, Section 144, New Telecom Bill, Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, denial of right to free expression, denial of righg to free assembly, violation fo media freedom, denial of access to education, denial of right to health, denial of right to livelihood


In January 2020, in a landmark judgment, Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India ,the Indian Supreme Court held that suspension of internet services is a “drastic measure” that must beconsidered by the state only if it is “necessary” and “unavoidable,” after assessingthe “existence of an alternate less intrusive remedy.”… Human Rights Watch andInternet Freedom Foundation identified 127 shutdowns in the three years betweenthe Supreme Court’s Anuradha Bhasin judgmentin January 2020 and December 31, 2022. Of 28 Indian states, 18shut down the internet at least once in these three years. Local authorities used internetshutdowns in 54 cases to prevent or in response to protests, 37 to prevent cheating in school examinations or in exams for government jobs, 18 in response to communalviolence, and 18 for other law and order concerns. This number does not include internet shutdowns in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir where the authorities continued toshut down the internet more than any other place in the country.

…Karti P. Chidambaram, an opposition member of parliament and member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee thatauthored the report, said internet shutdowns reflect a “colonial policing mindset,” andare a form of draconian law enforcement. “Our immediate reaction is to impose a curfew,shut down, keep people at home. It is still very British and that is still continuing. It isa very crude policing tactic and they have simply taken that and applied it to the internet,too.”

…The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016 unequivocally condemning internet shutdowns and called upon all states to “refrain from and cease such measures.” UN human rights experts have saidblanket internet shutdowns violate international human rights law and in 2021the UN secretary-general noted the need to reinforce universal access to the internet by 2030 as a human right. He emphasized that the UN would work with governments,business, and civil society to find alternatives to disruptive blanket internet shutdowns.

In June 2022, India signed a statement along with G7 nations and four other countries, committing to ensure “an open, free, global,interoperable, reliable and secure internet.” As a signatory to the Resilience Democracies statement, India also resolved to protect “the freedom of expression and opinion online andoffline and ensuring a free and independent media landscape through our work with relevant international initiatives.” Access to the internet is widely recognized as an indispensable enabler of a broad range of human rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights instruments to which India is a party. States have the obligation to respect and ensure the right to freedom of expression without distinction of any kind. Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression are only permissible when they are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat. Given their indiscriminate and widespread impacts,internet shutdowns rarely meet the proportionality test.

…Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more than any other country in the world. While the authorities have imposed acomplete internet blackout in some instances in some parts of the country, more often, the shutdowns involve cutting off access to the internet on mobile phones. This, however,amounts to an internet blackout for the majority of the population because, as of November2022, according to government data, 96 percent of internet subscribers accessed itusing mobile devices while only 4 percent had access to fixed line internet. Mobile connectivity is even more critical inrural areas, as 94 percent of fixed line connections were concentrated in urbanareas as of March 2021. The shutdowns thus disproportionately hurt people who cannot afford fixed line internet or those in rural and remote areas, where thereis little to no access to fixed line internet.

There is no official data on internet shutdowns because the central government does not keep a record. However, some rights groups and technology companies collect data on internet shutdowns. The international digital rights group Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition reported that in 2022,India was responsible for the most shutdowns in the world for the fifth consecutive year,with 84 shutdowns out of 187 globally. In 2021, according to the tech giant Meta, there were 101 intentional internet disruptions globally, out of which 41—more than any other country—were in India.6 While their numbers may differ depending on their sources and methodology, most data show that the largest number of intentional internet disruptions by the authorities took place in India.

…Jammuand Kashmir: India’s Longest Internet Blackout Jammu and Kashmir has experienced the most internet shutdowns in the country. Since 2012, of the 690 country-wide shutdowns in India, 418 (61 percent) have been in Jammu and Kashmir. Peerzada Raouf Ahmad, an assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School in Haryana who is working with a team of faculty and students on internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir, said:

In Kashmir, internet shutdowns serve as an instrument of control that perpetuate a state of permanent undeclaredemergency. Its implications go far beyond the idea of control to governance through disciplining the population. It works with the assumptionthat treats the entire population as suspect. Whenever there is an internet shutdown in an area of Kashmir, everyone living there becomes a suspect and a possible threat. This reduces citizens to a state of permanent precarity that jeopardizes the entire idea of democracy.

The Jammu and Kashmir shutdown that began in August 2019 was unprecedented. On August 5, 2019, the Indian government imposed a complete communication blackout in the region in anticipation of unrest as the government announced that it was revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which granted constitutional autonomy and splitting the state into two separate federally-governed territories—Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh. The authorities suspended landlines, mobile calling services, SMS services, mobile internet and fixed line internet. The government set up one landline at the deputy commissioner’s office in Srinagar, and people often had to walk long distances, then wait for hours, simply to make that one phone call to relatives outside. The government also detainedseveral political leaders, imposed broad restrictions on freedom of movement, banned public meetings, and deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to theregion.

The total blackout on fixed line internet and mobile networks lasted nearly 213 days, until March 4, 2020. The shutdown on mobile 4Ginternet access effectively lasted even longer, for 550 days, until February 2021. A freelance journalist based in Srinagar, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation:

Just imagine the number of times you use the internet in a day. For entertainment, for information, for jobapplications, for education, to connect with your loved ones, for checking up on things, for ordering things, for travel, for ticketing, for studying—for every aspect of life. You start to realize its importance when it is taken away from you.

The communications shutdown, coupled with movement restrictions, caused a complete information blackout in the region. Families were unable to check in with each other. People could not properly access medical services. Schools and colleges were closed, and without internet or telephones, educationwas completely disrupted. Livelihood was severely impacted. Residents did not have accurate information about the unfolding political and social developments within Kashmir and in the rest of the world. It also prevented them from sharing their trauma or voice protest. As a 28-year-old Kashmiri professional said, “It felt like the silenceof the graveyard.”

The authorities enforced this shutdown at great cost for people to exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression. “In effect, the government has placed all of us in prison,” a businessman said in August 2019. “We cannot move freely. We cannot speak freely. Isn’t that prison?” One woman said she had heard her mother, wholives in another town, was unwell, but could not call her or meet her: “If you cannot call your family, meet your mother, how is that normal?”

Link to Original Article

June 2023

Originally published

Photo creditDownload (PDF)Download Here
Subscribe to our newsletter
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.