The Punjab government initially announced a 24-hour ban from Saturday afternoon when its security forces launched an extensive operation to apprehend fugitive Amritpal Singh, and extended the ban for another 24 hours on Sunday.
Singh, a 30-year-old clergyman, is a popular figure within a separatist movement seeking to establish a sovereign state in Punjab called Khalistan for followers of the Sikh religion. He became nationally known in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free one of his captured supporters.
Although banned in India and regarded by security officials as one of the greatest threats to national security, the Khalistan movement has sympathizers in the state of Punjab, which is largely made up of Sikhs, and among the large Sikh diaspora living in countries such as Canada and Great Britain.
In an effort to prevent unrest and contain what it called “fake news”, Punjab authorities blocked mobile internet services from Saturday afternoon, shortly after failing to arrest Singh as he drove through central Punjab with a procession of supporters.
Officials were also likely motivated by a desire to deprive Singh’s supporters of social media, which they briefly used on Saturday to seek help and organize their ranks.
In a video live-streamed to Facebook and widely viewed, Singh’s aides, who were apparently filming in Singh’s car, showed their leader running down dirt roads and past wheat fields with police in pursuit. Meanwhile, Singh’s father, Sardar Tersem Singh, took to Twitter to ask all Punjabis to “raise their voices against the injustice against him and support him” in a post that quickly went viral.
Police said they had arrested nearly 80 of his associates on Sunday as Singh’s supporters, many of them brandishing swords and spears, marched through the streets of Punjab blocking roads to demand his freedom. Singh was still on the run at the end of Sunday and the 4G outage remained in effect.
Three Punjab residents who spoke to The Washington Post said life had been disrupted since Saturday afternoon. Only essential text messages, such as bank transfer confirmation codes, trickled through. Wired internet services were not affected.
“My whole 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 also sells clothes online. “Since yesterday I feel crippled.”
In each of the past five years, Indian officials have ordered internet shutdowns more times than any other government, according to the New York-based Access Now advocacy group, which releases annual reports on the practice.
By 2022, authorities around the world have shut down their citizens’ internet access 187 times; India accounted for nearly half, or 84 cases, Access Now found.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director for Access Now, said the Punjab government has effectively “declared a state of emergency or curfew across the state of Punjab when it comes to the internet.” The internet ban, he argued, could exacerbate the spread of rumors or unrest by hindering independent news coverage.
“They can make legal situations more dangerous and potentially more violent,” he said.
Authorities in Punjab employed a tactic commonly seen in another troubled Indian region: Jammu and Kashmir. According to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New Delhi-based non-profit organization, the predominantly Muslim region of India’s far north has experienced more than 400 internet outages in the past decade.
As of August 2019, the Indian government suspended internet access in Kashmir for 19 months after revoking the region’s semi-autonomous status, sparking widespread protests.
Prasanth Sugathan, SFLC’s legal director, said that outside of Kashmir, Indian authorities usually shut down internet access in a particular protest-hit district, and rarely in a vast area like Punjab. When Indian activists have challenged the legality of closures in the past, Sugathan said, Indian judges have called on police to take law enforcement action commensurate with the threat to public safety.
“Certainly shutting down the entire state is disproportionate,” Sugathan said. “Nowadays you need the internet for almost everything. And if you shut down the entire state, the impact on people will be unimaginable.”
Punjab police cracked down on Singh a day after the state concluded meetings of the Group of 20 countries. As India hosted delegates from G-20 countries this year, the officials launched an extensive marketing campaign to promote their country – “Digital India” – as a leading technology power. At conferences organized by the government, Indian officials have touted the country’s online payment and personal identity systems as a model that developing countries and even advanced economies should emulate.
At a time when the government is pressuring its citizens to pay for goods online and receive welfare services, such widespread internet shutdowns threatened to undermine the government’s own efforts, Sugathan said.
“The government is insisting that all services are available online,” he said. “If you’re talking about ‘Digital India’ then this shouldn’t be happening.”