The Punjab government first announced a 24-hour curfew from midday on Saturday as security forces launched an operation to arrest fugitive Amritpal Singh, then extended the curfew on Sunday for another 24 hours.
Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, was a prominent figure among the separatist movement that wants to establish an independent state in Punjab called Khalistan for followers of the Sikh religion. He gained national attention in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free one of his arrested followers.
The Khalistan movement is banned in India and is considered a high national security risk by officials, but the movement has sympathizers in the Punjab region, which is majority Sikh, and among members of the large Sikh diaspora based in countries such as Canada and Britain.
In an attempt to curb unrest and curb what they called “fake news,” Punjab authorities shut down internet service starting at noon on Saturday, shortly after they failed to arrest Singh as he passed through central Punjab with a crowd of supporters.
Officials may also have been motivated by a desire to take away social media from Singh’s supporters, who briefly used Saturday to recruit and organize their ranks.
In another video streamed live on Facebook and widely viewed, Singh’s aides, apparently filmed from inside Singh’s car, showed their leader trudging through dirt roads and wheat fields with police in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Singh’s father, Sardar Tersem Singh, took to Twitter asking all Punjabis to “raise their voice against the injustice against him and stand with him,” a post that quickly went viral.
Police said they arrested nearly 80 of his colleagues on Sunday as Singh’s supporters, many armed with swords and spears, marched through the streets of Punjab and blocked roads to demand his freedom. Singh was still running as of late Sunday, and the 4G outage is still active.
Three residents of Punjab who spoke to The Washington Post said that life has been disrupted since noon on Saturday. Only important text messages, such as bank transfer verification codes, have been getting through. Wired Internet services were not affected.
“My entire business depends on the Internet,” says Mohammad Ibrahim, who accepts QR code-based payments at his two clothing stores in a village outside Ludhiana and sells clothes online. Since yesterday, I have been feeling paralyzed.”
In the past five years, Indian officials have ordered more internet shutdowns than any other government, according to the New York-based advocacy group Access Now, which issues annual reports on the practice.
In 2022, authorities around the world cut off their citizens’ internet access 187 times; India accounted for nearly half, or 84 cases, Access Now found.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, director of Asia-Pacific policy for Access Now, said the Punjab government has essentially “declared a state of emergency or curfew for the entire state of Punjab when it comes to the Internet.” He said banning the internet could fuel the spread of rumors or unrest by disseminating independent news reporting.
“They may make the law and order situation more dangerous and violent,” he said.
The authorities in Punjab are using a strategy often seen in another stable Indian state: Jammu and Kashmir. The Muslim-majority region in India’s far north has experienced more than 400 cyber outages in the past decade, according to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New Delhi-based nonprofit.
As of August 2019, the Indian government cut off internet access in Kashmir for 19 months after revoking the region’s autonomous status, sparking widespread protests.
Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at SFLC, said that outside of Kashmir, Indian authorities often cut off internet access in a region hit by protests, and rarely across a large area like Punjab. While Indian activists have challenged the legality of house arrests in the past, Sugathan said, Indian judges have asked police to use legal measures consistent with threats to public safety.
“Definitely shutting down the whole region is not equal,” said Sugathan. “You need the Internet for almost everything these days. And if you close the whole country, the consequences for the people will be unimaginable.”
Punjab police attacked Singh a day after the state ended the Group of 20 meetings. As India hosts delegations from G-20 countries this year, its officials have launched an elaborate marketing campaign to portray their country – “Digital India” – as a leading power in technology. At conferences organized by the government, Indian officials have praised the country’s online payment and identity systems as examples for developing and even developed economies to emulate.
At a time when the government is pushing its citizens to pay for goods and access social services online, such widespread internet shutdowns threaten to undermine the government’s own efforts, Sugathan said.
“The government wants all services to be available online,” he said. “If you talk about ‘Digital India,’ you can’t do this.”