Local internet services across several areas of India’s National Capital Territory were reportedly shut down on Tuesday, with local Indian users uploading screenshots of text messages to social media reading: “as per government instructions internet services have been stopped in your area until further notice.”
The move comes as hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers organized a “tractor rally” in Delhi on the country’s National Republic Day. While the demonstration had originally received a permit from authorities to move along certain routes, protestors in several areas reportedly burst through police barricades and even entered the city’s infamous Red Fort.
A government order quoted by The Indian Express claimed the shutdown was in the interest of public safety. Motherboard reached out to the Department of Telecommunications affairs but has yet to receive a response.
“In the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency,” the excerpted order reads, “it is necessary and expedient to order the temporary suspension of the internet services in the areas of Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Mukarba Chowk and Nangloi and their adjoining areas in the NCT of Delhi from 1200 hours to 23:59 hours on Jan 26, 2021.”
Indian digital rights groups have reacted to the shutdown with anger and dismay.
“On the same day we enacted the Constitution in our country, our fundamental rights to speech and life enshrined in it are threatened,” the Free Software Movement and Internet Freedom Foundation wrote in a joint statement. “In the last 5 years, there have been more than 400 instances of internet shutdowns across the country, the largest in the world. Shutting down critical communications infrastructure is a blatant violation of our rights. It should be noted that all of these acts are unilateral decisions with no accountability.”
At least one protestor has died in what police claim was caused by a tractor accident—protestors claim that in reality he was shot dead by police, NDTV reported.
Farmers across the country have been protesting since August of 2020 against a liberalization of agricultural policies that they claim will weaken their ability to bargain with private companies and wholesale buyers. Indian farmers continue to be a vulnerable and marginalized group in the country, with predatory lending practices and lack of financial support in the nation’s pandemic response driving many of them even closer to the edge. It is estimated that on average 16,000 farmers commit suicide every year in India.
Internet shutdowns are a tool often used by the Indian government. While the government claims that they are used in the name of restoring law and order, in reality they are often used as a means of squashing dissent. The government has continuously shut down the internet in the tumultuous Kashmir region, for example, and in 2019, Access Now reported that the country had implemented a staggering 121 shutdowns in one year—the most in the world.
As of writing, social media users reported that internet services had yet to be restored for them, despite the fact that the shutdown was supposed to end at midnight.