This article is born from the personal implication of the author Genoveva Galarza with India, where she has worked for five years in social and green projects. Currently she fights for privacy and digital rights with IUVIA.
You can also read this in Spanish.
I remained resistant to smartphones for a long time. It was while living in India, in 2012, when I realized I simply could not do without one. By 2013 everything I did was through my phone data. No more calls, no more SMS. I talked to all my friends, to my landlord, to my work colleagues, and even ordered my water and gas canisters through WhatsApp, got takeaways and called for cabs, even my regular autowallah asked me to message him through the social network.
Even considering issues of internet connectivity in rural areas and a population divided by huge economic and social gaps, India is the second largest online market in the world, with 560 million internet users. Today - and thanks to 4G - the internet penetration rate stands at 50%, an impressive number considering that just six years ago it was 18%.
We all agree that the internet has brought incredible changes to the most depressed communities, mostly in rural areas, grating access to information, allowing communication, easing access to healthcare and education. Having wondered around the Indian social business ecosystem for several years I have seen all kinds of projects using internet to empower communities. But pushing for a higher penetration growth is not just about solidarity or philanthropy, it's an incredibly profitable move: we are talking about a country with 1,300 million people. We are talking, for example, about nearly 400 million WhatsApp users, or 280 million for Facebook.
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, made internet connectivity the center of his 2014 campaign, with his initiative Digital India. Once he won, government and telecom companies together did a lot on strengthening the country's digital infrastructure, getting a billion Indians online, increasing availability of bandwidth and offering the cheapest data plans one could imagine.
All this effort seemed vain when the same government so rapidly started taking connectivity away from their citizens.
2015, the Net Neutrality regulations
2015 was an interesting year for internet rights in India. All of a sudden, after years of accepting with joy all the online stuff like a blessing, we found ourselves talking and reading in mainstream media about something that was new for most: Net Neutrality.
Years before, Indian telecom company directors and spokespersons had been publicly insinuating that they weren't making enough money, while Google and Facebook were thriving thanks to the Indian market. So, decided to take their share, Indian leading telecom companies (Bharti Airtel, BSNL, Vodafone) got rid of neutrality in their networks in order to make profitable agreements with service provider companies. Preferred platforms could now be favored by slowing down the connection to the other services, prioritizing their traffic, or charging users different tariffs and hence encouraging the use of some platforms over others.
Airtel implemented the "Google Free Zone" plan, which allowed users to access Google products free of cost. Airtel also included free access to both Amazon and its Indian competitor Flipkart in its zero-rating plan "Airtel Zero", giving the two giants a great advantage over smaller online retail companies. With the collaboration of Reliance (owned by the richest man in India), Facebook tried to launch its project Internet.Org across India. This "non-profit" initiative, which had already been tested in 5 nations in Africa and South America, claims to take the internet to underdeveloped communities by providing free access to a set of websites through an app called "Free Basics". These sites would of course be pre-selected by Facebook.
All this was done with the compliance of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). This institution said that, although these business strategies were against Net Neutrality, they weren't illegal, as India did not have any regulation on that area. The ongoing international conversation about neutrality and digital rights forced TRAI to investigate the matter and release an open consultation paper for public feedback, although it was hidden in a corner of their site and was given little time to respond. The viral campaign Save The Internet and the multiple protests organized by Free Software groups did the rest: finally TRAI ruled in favour of Net Neutrality, considering it necessary for a free and equal internet. Today India has one of the most restrictive regulations on the area.
To the ban of Internet.Org in India, Zucheberg responded "It's not an equal internet if the majority of people can't participate", slammed the door and left.
The internet kill switches
And I never thought I'd say this but hell, Zucheberg was right in his statement! —only a small detail: Internet.Org really offered more risks than guarantees. In 2015, after the Save The Internet victory, Indian internet activists started noticing that government enforced communication shutdowns were growing at a dangerous speed.
In 2016 India had become the country with more internet shutdowns in the world. By march of 2019 there had been more blackouts in that year than in the whole of 2016.
Internet shutdowns have been the result of a variety of reasons, all of them completely unjustifiable. Generally the switch had been pulled during protests and opposition actions (even minor ones), but it has also been common to shut communications on the months prior to elections, or even during examinations as a tactic to prevent cheating. Let's stop here for a minute: according to a report by the Brookings Institution, India lost over US$968 million between July 2015 and June 2016 because of internet shutdowns. Shutdowns that were sometimes enforced to stop people from cheating in an exam.
But in the eye of the storm of internet blockades is Kashmir.
A silenced region
The territory of Kashmir has been submerged in political and military conflict since the partition of India in 1947. As a bit of context, both India and Pakistan claim the entirety of a territory that is currently controlled by India on a 55%, Pakistan on a 30% and China on a remaining 15%. The territory has been through three Indo-Pakistani wars since the British partition, and has triggered numerous protests and separatist movements. Kashmiri civilian population has lived through more than 70 years of heavy militarization and human rights abuses.
The Indian constitution granted special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir: This was the Article 370 passed in 1954. One of authors of this constitution was Nehru, an independence activist and the first prime minister of the democratic India. Nehru assured that the fate of Kashmir would be decided by its people through a referendum "held under international auspices like the United Nations". A referendum that never happened. Instead, in August 2019 the special status of autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir granted in 1954 by the Article 370 was revoked by the Indian Government. To control dissent, the government arrested Kashmiri politicians, activists, journalists and educators, sent the the Indian troops to the territory, imposed curfew and shut all phone and internet communications.
The pictures from the limited reporting that has made its way our of this blackout are breathtaking. Armed men from different forces —the Indian military, the Kashmiri police, the counter-insurgency battalions...— surrounding protesters. Protesters holding signs asking for freedom, signs that put to question the famous biggest democracy of the world. And all of it framed by the most traditional Indian urban landscape: a huge tangle of telephone cables covering the house fronts. And seeing those cables I remember what an Egyptian taxi driver told me once when I tried to use a broken seat belt: "Decoration!".
In January 2020 the block was partially lifted and the government allowed access to around 300 sites (banking and education sites, media content such as Netflix or Spotify, or local and international media outlets such as The Hindu, the New York Times or the Washington Post). Also mobile data access has been restored, but only to citizens whose credentials have been verified and only using 2G connectivity. All social media sites remain blocked: it has been eleven months.
As usual, the official justification for this 11-month long blackout is national security. According to government officials, the internet has to remain shut to stop propagation and coordination of terror activities, and circulation of inflammatory material. But how legal is this? Is the government entitled to put the Kashmiris through a year of total isolation?
Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Kashmir Times, filed a petition to the Indian Supreme Court for the information blackout to be lifted. During the judgement it was discussed whether the internet should be understood as a fundamental right. The Supreme Court recognized that, although the Internet access is not mentioned in the constitution as such, it must be understood as something akin to a fundamental right, as its restriction means the direct violation of several of the fundamental rights of India —particularly freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of trade. However, the Supreme Court finally ruled against the petition to lift the block. In a May Supreme Court petition to restore 4G something similar happened: it was agreed that the internet suspension during the Covid-19 pandemic violated the rights to health, education, freedom of speech, freedom of trade and access to justice. And still, nothing was done. Finally the Supreme Court abdicated all responsibility to decide about the internet suspension to a "Special Committee", headed by the ones that pulled the switch in the first place.
The lawful claws of censorship
Being this blockade a nationally and internationally recognized violation of the Kashmiris' fundamental rights, how is it legally possible to keep up with it during such a long time? Before such complex and contradictory situations there's always someone that repeats jokingly the slogan that the country chose for promoting tourism: "Incredible India!". The answer is the Telegraph Act from 1885 —read again: telegraph act— which allows central or state government to restrict or interfere the transmission of messages. That's right: 2020's internet is being regulated under a telegraph-specific law from the colonial era.
The government has also widely used another more recent legislation: the infamous section 66A of the Information Technology Act, that penalizes the publishing of offensive, false or threatening information, added to section 69A, that allows the government to block certain websites in the interest of "sovereignty and integrity of India". Section 66A was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2015 (no surprise here), as it was found too vague and imprecise and allowed arbitrary arrests of college students and cartoonists that simply expressed critical views on social media. Fun fact: the Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian NGO that was born out of the Save The Internet campaign mentioned before, calls this bill a Legal Zombie. Wanna know why? Because even if it was ruled out five years ago, it's still being used today to file cases against internet users expressing dissenting opinions. (1)
One of the worst consequences of the Kashmir blackout has been the inability to report. Journalism has never been easy in Kashmir, but since August 2019 it has become nearly impossible. Journalists did not have access to fact checking tools and channels: there was no internet connection, no phone lines, and the curfew stopped them from moving freely around the territory. Added to the constant risk of being arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a repressive anti-terrorist bill that has been widely used to silence journalists and photographers.
It is impossible to write about what is happening in Kashmir: the government of Narendra Modi has done an awesome job silencing the region. The block has slowly (and wisely) been partially loosened up during an ideal moment in which something else took over the Indian and global media: the Coronavirus pandemic. Of the Kashmiri communication blockade we've got tons of isolated and personalized stories that have travelled out of the territory inside hidden USB drives or through 2G phone data. A constellation of tales of authoritarian abuses, arrested journalists, politicians and activists, and an enormous economic damage to all Kashmiris. But no conclusions, no numbers, no retaliations. It's gone from a bad situation to a worse one.
It is important to mention that the Coronavirus pandemic arrived to India not only in the midst of the Kashmiri internet blackout, but also while the government was being heavily criticized for its draconian censorship practices against dissenting population. After passing the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019 —a bill that regulates Indian citizenship for illegal migrants of religious minorities except for Muslims (2)— there's been an intense wave of protests that have been repressed by police brutality and the arrest of journalists, politicians, human rights activists and students (3).
The ribbon on top: Covid-19
I have been unfocused during this pandemic. While a background voice repeated global news about one big and common worldwide problem, I became overly conscious about my surroundings, my routines, those of my neighbours. During a global crisis I became more locally focused than ever. The virus entered our society —Spanish, European, privileged— and showed us our weaknesses by wrecking the most underprivileged, leaving the disadvantaged behind, with no space to maneuver and erasing the little voice they had left. It took me some time of self-centered pity to think about the effects of the pandemic in societies with different problems. With tougher problems.
"The pandemic is a portal" was the title that Arundhati Roy, inspiring woman, breathtaking writer, incredible activist, chose for her article in the Financial Times about the crude reality of Covid-19 wrecking Indian society. The pandemic is a gateway between a past full of inequality and abuse, and a future that is yet to be defined. The pandemic is a forced stop, a moment for pause and reflection, a checkpoint to pause and choose carefully what baggage we want to take with us to the other side. "As an appalled world watched", writes Arundhati, "India revealed herself in all her shame —her brutal, structural, social and economic inequality, her callous indifference to suffering. The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things."
In the middle of one of the trickiest conflicts of Kashmir, in the middle of the darkest wave of anti-muslim institutional violence since the 2002 Gujarat riots. In the middle of an increased military tension with China across the Himalayan border. In the middle of a rise of the far-right international politics, with Bolsonaro and Trump coming to bump elbows with Modi. Right in the middle of such dark times for the Indian lower classes and minorities, Coronavirus has come as a perfect scapegoat for justifying an increasing media censorship.
In March, the Ministry of Home Affairs explained that fake news were the biggest danger in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Not misinformation, nor selling Indian protective gear and respiratory machines to other countries, not hunger or poverty triggering mass-migrations to rural areas: fake news. So the government had to control it, and filed a petition to the Supreme Court so that media could only publish government-approved information. Don't worry: it was rejected. However, the arrests to journalists and activists publishing government opposing news —and twits, and social media posts, and pictures— has increased using Covid-19 national health emergency as an excuse.
VOA has tracked how press freedom has suffered internationally during the Covid-19 emergency. In its interactive map you can see 6 press freedom cases in China, 7 in Russia, 8 in United States, 5 in Iran. And 19 cases in India. India is currently ranked 142 out of 180 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Of course, the dissemination of fake news and the failure of the government in their attempt to control the published information, has made them extend again the block of internet in the region of Kashmir. Several NGOs have pointed out that keeping the blackout in this territory could be extremely dangerous during the Covid-19 crisis, as citizens are unable to get information about the state of the virus in their regions, seek for help, get educated about the new hygiene measures that have suddenly become vital for all.
The largest democracy on earth
At the end of June 2020 TikTok and other 53 Chinese apps were banned in India as a follow-up to the Indo-Chinese conflict in the Himalayan border. Although it is true that TikTok has very serious privacy issues, the anti-TikTok mood that has stuffed Indian social media with celebratory messages has more to do with patriotic and class-related feelings than with privacy. Turns out that the Chinese app had become extremely popular among ostracized communities in India. So much, that it got a nasty term attached to it: "the Indian TikTok Cringe" —you can look it up, although I would advice you not to if you have a minimum class sensitivity. Cringe is the word that a digitized Indian upper class has chosen to describe TikTok reigning content, created by the semi-urban, rural and lower class India. TikTok had reach the goal that was set for the Internet in Modi's Digital India plans: to create a digital space where marginalized people have a voice and can express freely.
But there's no need to bring up more examples to understand the benefits that internet can bring to underrepresented communities. And at the same time we keep seeing how Internet connectivity - access and dissemination of information - is the first punching bag when Indians face political conflicts and other crisis, and when they feel the need to oppose the government.
I've lived in India for five years, and probably "we are the largest democracy in the world" is the phrase that I've heard the most —maybe after "in India we treat women like goddess". And I get it, I've rarely seen something as incredible as a two-month long electoral process designed for 1,300 million people. But as the pillars of Indian democracy and the values captured in its constitution slowly collapse (secularism, equality, freedom of press... ), the "largest democracy" phrase doesn't seem to be a badge to show off with pride. India's efforts to control access to Internet as well as its content is one more step towards losing the meaning of democracy.
(1) See the IFF campaign Zombie Tracker, aimed at tracking cases being filed under the unconstitutional Section 66A of the Information Technology Act: https://twitter.com/internetfreedom/status/1276025885645135873
(2) Again a bit of political context on the side, India has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since the 2014 elections. BJP is a Hindu nationalist right-wing party that is also linked in ideology and origin to the right-wing paramilitary organization RSS. Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) popularity has grown in India in the last 30 years, since a religious dispute for a Muslim mosque built in a sacred Hindu spot triggered a Hindu nationalist violent rally to destroy the mosque. It's complicated. The state of constant oppression and violence that Muslims have faced in the hands of Hindu right-wing nationalists has been disregarded, tolerated and sometimes even verbally encouraged by BJP politicians. But it had never been so blatantly enacted by the laws until the Citizenship Amendment Act of December 2019.
(3) The UN has urged India to release the protesters as they "appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA, and their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated". Several Indian journalists associations and NGOs have also denounced arbitrary arrests while covering the CAA protests and police brutality, and their phones, cameras, laptops and even vehicles being seized and destroyed by the police.
1. "Double standards: Facebook and Google are happy to support net neutrality in US but violate it in India". scroll.in
2. "Internet Shutdowns Tracker". internetshutdowns.in
3. "India had more Internet shutdowns in 2016 than any other country". internetfreedom.in
4. "Internet Shutdown in Indian Democracy". ipleaders.in
5. Supreme Court Proceeding: "Anuradha Bhasin vs Union Of India on 10 January 2020". indiankanoon.org
6. Supreme Court Proceeding: "Foundation for Media Professionals vs. Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir on May 2020". indiankanoon.org
7. "A violation of right found, but no remedy given". thehindu.com
8. "The Kashmir Blackout". menafn.com
9. "Kashmir’s media survived blackout – but warn of shrinking freedoms". csmonitor.com
10. "In Kashmir, journalists struggle under India’s blackout". cjr.org
11. "No Email. No WhatsApp. No Internet. This Is Now Normal Life In Kashmir". buzzfeednews.com
12. "Supreme Court Verdict on 4G in Jammu and Kashmir Undermines the Rule of Law". thewire.in
13. "How India Censors the Web". Centre for Internet and Society
14. "CAA/NRC: Journalists Covering Protests Face Police Ire Across States". newsclick.in
15. "Stop the witch-hunt of activists and journalists in Delhi and Kashmir and repeal the draconian UAPA!". countercurrents.org
Covid-19 in India:
16. Arundhati Roy: "The pandemic is a portal". ft.com
17. "How India’s government tries to suppress all Covid-19 reporting". Reporters Without Borders, rsf.org
18. "Indian Supreme Court denies government request for prior censorship of COVID-19 news". Committee to Protect Journalists, cpj.org
19. "Global: Crackdown on journalists weakens efforts to tackle COVID-19". Amnesty International, amnesty.org
20. "COVID-19: The Hit on Press Freedom". voanews.com
TikTok and chinese apps:
21. "Examining the Legal and Policy Process Behind India's Ban on Chinese Apps". thewire.in
22. "How TikTok’s ‘Cringe’ Empowered Indians More Than FB or Insta". thequint.com
23. "Chasing fame and fun 15 seconds at a time: Why TikTok has India hooked". indianexpress.com