The government solution to unrest is to turn it off and on again
India used to be the world’s largest democracy and had the most users of the free Internet. Now it’s becoming an increasingly fascist state which shuts off the Internet more than any country in the world.
India’s Internet shutdowns are becoming longer and more common; the rule rather than the exception. Shutdowns went from rare in 2012 to common and seemingly never-ending today. The entire region of Jammu and Kashmir has now been cut off from the Internet for nearly 5 months, the longest ever in a democracy.
This has very real costs. For one thing, people's voices are cut off as an occupying military and police do God knows what. It all happens in digital darkness. Then there are the essential tasks. Ordering medicines for a pharmacy. Registering for exams. Letting loved ones know you’re alive. This all happens through the Internet, and these human rights are what the Indian government is denying.
Then there are the economic costs. In 2015 it was estimated that shutdowns cost India nearly $1 billion, and the situation has only gotten worse. This measure calculates based on what the ‘digital’ economy is, but the two are rapidly becoming one thing. Tourism is digital, commerce is digital, basic mobility and digital are becoming more and more intertwined. How is a society supposed to work when ATMs and credit card machines can’t connect? When tourists can’t book rooms? When students can’t study? Cutting off the Internet isn’t just cutting off the digital economy anymore, it’s cutting off the economy entire.
And it’s not just Jammu & Kashmir. Internet Shutdowns tracks the WiFi going off in real-time and it’s everywhere, but not because of local issues. More and more it’s because of resistance to policies from the central government.
India is at a crossroads. The formerly secular democracy is becoming a race-based state, starting with the provinces and with the drafting of subtler versions of the Nuremberg Laws. What those Nazi laws encoded was a class of people without citizenship rights. Modi’s government is setting up a National Register Of Citizens and slowly trying to lay the legal grounds to class Muslims as “Other”. They are also building concentration camps to send them to.
When they rolled out the NRC in Assam nearly 2 million people (mostly Muslims) were left out and made vulnerable to deportation. Recently they passed a Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to explicitly exclude Muslims even further. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc will be let in, even if they came from other countries. Only Muslims will be left out, and sent to the camps the state is building. This is similar to the Nuremberg laws which also recognized citizenship for the German ‘race’, even if they were in or from other countries.
This is the scary fascist reality on the ground, and it gets air cover from a pliant press and wholesale Internet blackouts. And yet people are fighting back.
As people began protestings the CAA in the north-east, the Internet was cut there, so you could no longer hear them. If you squint you can see them as dots of red in Akamai’s real-time Internet monitor, marked by the entire absence of their communities.
Now the protests have spread. First to Jami Millia Islamia University in Delhi, where students were beaten by Police. That sparked solidarity among other schools and there are now protests all over.
This is now a lot of unrest, not geographically contained, all of it caused by dangerous and racists acts of the government. And, if the protests continue in urban areas they won’t just be able to turn off the Internet. They won’t be able to turn off the voices of their own people.
At least I hope they won’t. India is facing a crossroads in their democracy, and the Internet is the canary in the coal mine. If it dies a lot of other freedoms will die as well. I hope the Indian people can resist. I hope they get their Internet and their freedoms back. It’s the world’s biggest democracy, with a lot of people in it. I hope they can pull back from the brink. From a neighbor, Godspeed.