The Great Indian Internet Shutdown Is the Troubling Future of Protest Control
As India experiences the longest-ever internet blockade for a democracy, more countries are pressing the internet kill switch to snub dissent
When the internet went dark in the northern Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir on August 4 last year, photojournalist Junaid Bhat assumed it was just the result of another clampdown. Muslim-majority Kashmir has been in the midst of a three-decade-long armed revolt against the Indian government, and the 12.3 million residents of Jammu and Kashmir have experienced over 175 such shutdowns since 2012. But the following day, India stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous statehood, detaining mainstream politicians and sending the region into a state of turmoil. The internet shutdown is still ongoing, five months later.
As Bhat waited for services to be restored, he photographed the empty streets, the barricaded crossroads, the abandoned shops, and the vacant playgrounds of Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, which was under paramilitary lockdown. Without internet access, he could not send reports back to his newsroom in Delhi, some 500 miles away. Eventually, he had no choice but to make the trip himself. He has been returning every week since, carrying his reportage on pen drives, all to circumvent the longest internet blackout ever seen in a democracy.
India has become the internet shutdown capital of the world, having imposed the blockade 373 times since 2012 and a record-breaking 106 times in 2019 alone. The government routinely blocks online access, citing public safety and national security reasons, but critics allege that the blackouts are meant to thwart dissent. Human rights experts at the United Nations immediately condemned the shutdown in Kashmir as “a form of collective punishment on the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offense.”
Experts warn that the Kashmir shutdown is part of a trend of protest suppression that is rapidly gaining momentum across the world. According to a report published this month by Top10VPN, a U.K.-based internet research firm focused on digital privacy, 122 major internet shutdowns were reported in 21 countries last…