Grappling With India’s Internet Shutdowns From Afar

India’s relentless digital repression tactics should be a wake-up call for those of us invested in the future of the world’s largest democracy.

A few months ago, a friend emailed me an article about India’s pervasive internet shutdowns and asked: “Have you been keeping up with what’s going on in India? What do your parents think?”

I replied with a few bland sentences, but the email touched a nerve. Or, rather, two nerves: It reaffirmed my position as an outsider, an honorary citizen of India, and it tapped into my feelings of anger, sadness, and helplessness regarding India’s recent assault on free speech, one of its core democratic principles.

Growing up in the States with Indian immigrant parents involves straddling two worlds, two identities­­—the cultures and values of the world’s two largest democracies. Inherent in this dual identity is a keen appreciation that the United States and India are intrinsically linked. Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery bus boycotts. Both countries’ Constitutions begin with the words “We the people.”

Yet India’s increasing reliance on information control to quell dissent should be a wake-up call for those of us invested in the future of the world’s largest democracy. India’s internet shutdowns—106 in 2019—go far beyond those of other nations.

The most well-known internet shutdown in India began on Aug. 5, 2019, in Jammu and Kashmir, the day the Indian government revoked the state’s 70-year-old autonomous status. Fearing revolt, authorities ordered the Muslim-majority state offline immediately—preventively blocking allinternet and cell service. Government officials also claimed that the shutdown would “curb the spread of false information.” According to the Software Freedom Law Center, Jammu and Kashmir has experienced 180 internet shutdowns since 2012. By contrast, just one shutdown has occurred in Hyderabad, my parents’ hometown in southern India, possibly due to its robust IT hub.


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