Over the last few days, protests have erupted across India, interspersed with violence, in response to the hugely controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the possibility of an all-India National Registry of Citizens (NRC). And the anger-fueled protests—mostly led by students from major universities across the country—have met with massive backlash from the state authorities, with reports of protesters being beaten up, fired at by tear gas and even getting shot at directly. But the crackdown is not just on those on the ground. Internet shutdowns and restrictions have become the new normal in regions torn apart by civil strife. And while the authorities impose these to curb more violence, it almost always extends to so much more.
As Kashmir still simmers under what is being called the longest internet shutdown in a democracy across the world, the beginning of communication blockade as part of protests against CAA and NRC started on December 11. It started in Assam and Tripura, and since then, almost five states have seen internet shutdown. On December 18, over 100 people were reported to have been detained over “objectionable” social media posts on CAA. Apart from the restrictions, the authorities are also monitoring forwarded messages on social media.
To understand why the online space is sacred to youth-led protests, and how shutting it down is dangerous, we spoke with Apar Gupta, a prominent digital activist and Executive Director, Internet Freedom Foundation.
The first thing we notice in the protests today is that digital tools are being used very actively to mobilise people as well as to generate media to drive accountability against any kind of disproportionate response to the actual protests. The use of digital tools should not be a surprising element given that the protests are largely student-led, who are, in a lot of ways, digital natives who have grown up with smartphones and technology all around them. It’s an integral part of their lives, how they communicate with each other, form their relationships. And that is why we’re seeing digital tools play such a large role in the organisation and creation of art around the protests itself, and amplifying these messages to a large audience on social media networks.
What governments aim by enforcing internet shutdowns is often to prevent people from coming together and protesting, which is totally unconstitutional. People have the right to protest and gather, and democratically oppose government policies. This is an issue that is legally contested and is at the courts right now, as to the extent of the power government can have to enforce internet shutdowns. It’s already being done in large parts of Kashmir, which arguably is the longest internet shutdown globally in terms of duration. Additionally, there are a total of five Indian states with internet shutdowns in effect.
The effect of internet shutdown goes beyond the protests because it signifies total restrictions on the use of the internet wherever it is available. People in these places utilise it for their day-to-day existence, which is now tied to other forms of communications. For instance, rations now are distributed on the basis of biometric authentication, which take place over networks that rely upon internet connectivity. It’s the same with health services.
So, in a way, the government response has been towards controlling the organisation of the protest primarily, but it’s also been in terms of controlling the media narrative, because the protests by themselves are often integrated with digital tools and social media to amplify these messages. This shapes the media narrative and brings a greater degree of attention towards the protests itself. What we’ve seen is that the government, by enforcing internet shutdowns, starve public attention and they direct it towards other areas that are much more convenient to its political objectives.
The way this trend should play out in the future should be in terms of how we view technology as an integral part of our fundamental rights and our constitutional values. And today, these protests are going back to the language of the constitution, specifically the Preamble, and are voicing these values. We have to place technology in the central framework of our constitution given that it is an institution that has tremendous power. And this power needs to be there with the people rather than the government, considering that we’re a secular democratic republic.
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