Many regimes use internet curbs to stifle dissent, but that is not what India is doing.
The BJP/Modi government is likely to take a beating when it comes to the optics of government-ordered internet shutdowns—the number of occasions when such curbs were imposed increased from four in 2014 to 42 between just January and August 2017. A Reuters analysis shows that 89 shutdowns have been ordered—following assorted reasons, from farmers’ protests and public violence resulting from social media posts to reservation agitations and threat of unrest in Kashmir—since May 2014, of which 74 have ordered by the BJP or allies. It is easy to sell these instances—especially after what the internet did for the Arab Spring—as crackdown on freedom of expression. More so, since the Union government junked older curfew laws that were used to order the curbs, and formalised explicit rules to guide the Centre and the states in this regard. Given such curbs will always carry the risk of stifling freedom of expression, the government must walk the tightrope to ensure the curbs are used solely to preserve internal security and don’t suppress democratic dissent.
Thanks to the ease, speed and spread they afford, social media and messaging services have become one of the most powerful tools to organise people for marches, rallies and demonstrations as well as for voicing dissent and disagreements. However, this is a two-edged sword. They can be just as easily be used to coordinate violent agitations against sentencing of cult leaders, stone-pelting and even reservation agitations that end in widespread violence. In an atmosphere of rabid polarisation by leaders from opposite ends of the ideological and political spectrum, the internet is also being used to throw law & order and peace-keeping off gear and undermine governance delivery. There is no legitimising sweeping internet curbs that threaten democratic principles. At the same time, India’s curbs need a more nuanced response than just summary rejection and criticism. After all, these are not an oppressive and censorious crackdown on dissent like China’s—which, incidentally, just arrested a software developer for providing solutions to circumvent its expansive “firewall” .