The scrapping of Article 370 has not only stirred a debate on constitutional nuance and political ramifications of such a move but also on relevance on internet blackout. The internet blackouts are not unusual in India and research has only pointed out that such blackouts have increased overtime. Internet shutdowns are classified into two categories — complete and partial. Partial shutdown includes blocking and throttling with multiple impacts in areas of economy, culture and politics, while complete shutdown means an entire internet blackout. A study by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, defines Internet shutdowns as an intentional and complete disruption of fixed line, “or, mobile Internet, ordered pursuant to the authority of the state, that renders the Internet inaccessible or unusable for a specific population, within the territory of India”. While on the one hand such blackouts have caused an impact on the political economy of the state, on the other hand, they speak volumes about curtailment of freedoms and liberties of citizens. Internet and other mediums are important ways and means to express oneself and aid the citizens in exercising article 19 that is freedom of speech and expression.

Source : Anatomy of an Internet Blackout

The three key results from ICRIER’s study were:

  1. 16315 hours of Internet shutdown in India cost the economy approximately $3.04 billion during the period 2012 to 2017

  2. 12615 hours of mobile Internet shutdowns in India cost the economy approximately $2.37 billion during the period 2012 to 2017.

  3. 3700 hours of mobile and fixed line Internet shutdowns in India cost the economy approximately $678.4 million during the period 2012 to 2017.

Indiaspend in its report has argued that this cost is 1.2 times the 2018-19 budget estimate for the Swachh Bharat Mission.

This is not the first time Kashmir faced an Internet blackout. Over 5 year period from 2012-17, Jammu and Kashmir has faced maximum number of internet shutdowns. As we can see in the map below, the instances of internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir has been 50 times more than almost the rest of the states.

Source: Internet Shutdowns Over 6 Years Cost India 1.2 Times Budget For Swachh Bharat

Furthermore, J&K is the second state to witness an economic impact of these shutdowns of $610.24 million (Rs 4,273 crore). Apart from the economic impact, the question that is raised in such contexts is what is being protected and from whom. How does the curtailment of basic liberties furthers the propaganda of the current government? In other countries, internet shutdowns have been quite common during elections, rallies and political assemblies. In the context of India, the explanation of the government has been so far all about the protection of human life, riots and bloodshed. However, it is important to argue that such shutdowns are not only hampering the citizens from speaking up in favor or against the move to accord Union territory status to Jammu and Kashmir. Typically justified in the name of security and sovereignty, the use of internet blackout often leads to erosion of democracy in a state. History is evident how internet blackouts have been used time and again to suppress revolutions and muffle the voices of citizens.

In case of Kashmir, the blackout also took place in the background of Eid celebrations which also explains how does that further becomes an obstacle in exercising freedom of religion. Often such blackouts are prone to spreading panic and fear– as relatives, and near and dear ones will not possibly get in touch with another. The idea of ‘human security’ takes a prior seat vis-a-vis the freedoms, and mental health of citizenry. The societal structure is increasingly dependent on communications infrastructure — the telecommunications, internet, and other information services are woven into communicative fabrics of society such that it is impossible to live without these networks. Also, control over communications becomes an important tabula rasa locus of power and a constant fight in the political space. Internet shutdowns are although different from internet censorship but it significantly alters the power balance in the society. The censorship might hide a part or selected information from the public eye, but shutdowns do not differentiate between the kinds of information. Therefore, internet shutdowns are instances of enormous human rights violations and deprive the protestors of the right to dissent. While dissent is not even present in the form of any social media protest, democracy is merely reduced to authoritarianism. Although it is happening in one part of the country, but at the same time it is closing down the avenues for the rest of the country to communicate with that one part and also, blocking that one part’s access to information.

Presently, in a democracy we are fighting constantly a battle between being a democracy and being reduced to just another kind of totalitarianism. Undoubtedly, we are bound by a framework of laws, rights and duties– Indian constitution, however, how far these institutions can sustain themselves in the light of propagandization of right-wing government is yet to be seen. The institutional framework of parliament, judiciary is strong, however, the more saffron India becomes, it would be difficult to medicate this majoritarian fever across the country.

This piece is written by Manisha Chachra. Manisha is Associate Researcher at Govern.

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