Indian authorities have shut down internet access across much of the nation amid widespread protests against prime minister and far-right supremacist Narendra Modi and his government’s new law designed to bar Muslims from gaining citizenship.
The Citizenship Amendment Act passed this week created an expedited path to citizenship for migrants who have moved to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan so long as they follow the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsee or Jain religions—but not the Islamic faith followed by hundreds of millions in the country.
Modi’s government has insisted that Muslims are not listed in the bill because they do not face the same discrimination in the three countries that the others do.
Modi’s opponents have another viewpoint more in line with Modi’s well-documented quasi-fascist sympathies and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s platform of Hindu supremacy: The law is an explicit manoeuvre to start expelling Muslims from India en masse—as has already begun with a citizenship review process in the state of Assam that which put millions at risk of having their legal status revoked.
Home minister Amit Shah has promised that the review process will go nationwide as part of a process to purge “infiltrators” and “termites.” Modi’s government has also asserted that federal and state governments have sweeping powers to impose surveillance on all digital communications in the country for reasons as vague as “the security of the state.”
According to the New York Times, demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act spilled out in major cities “from Kolkata in the east to Kochi in the south,” with attendance in the tens of thousands at least. CNN reported that despite a wave of bans on public gatherings based on colonial-era law, protesters turned out in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Chennai.
Authorities have responded with both physical force—nine deaths and hundreds of detentions have been reported in the last week—and crackdowns on internet access.
India leads the world in internet lockdowns, with the internet shutdown tracker showing 95 such orders have been ordered this year alone. Kashmir, which was India’s only Muslim-majority state until Modi’s government revoked its autonomy in August, and its 60 million citizens have been cut off from the web since then.
In recent days, the Guardian reported that authorities have ordered Vodafone and Airtel to cut off mobile internet access in parts of New Delhi, with another company, Jio, reportedly doing the same. Internet blackouts have also been reported in Assam, Karnataka, and parts of Uttar Pradesh, the paper wrote, while the Washington Post reported the mobile blackouts have spread to at least five other cities.
When counting all of these shutdowns together, India has now imposed the largest internet shutdown on the planet.
Pavan Duggal, a cyberlaw expert, told the Post he was unaware of any prior blackouts in New Delhi. Bharat Tiwari, 50-year-old photographer and demonstrator, told the paper that the crackdowns show “the government is desperate.” Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said the shutdowns were an “insult to India’s soul.”
“India today has the ignominy of being the largest internet shutdown in the world,” Indian Communist party leader Sitaram Yechury told the Guardian. “It is unacceptable … This is worse than what we saw during the [1975-77] emergency. Today’s protests showed the determination of youngsters to not let democracy be butchered. This was not a one-off protest, such protests will continue.”