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India cracks down on free expression as protests against citizenship law grow

Mohammad Anas Qureshi, 20, who is a fruit vendor, poses for photo with the national flag of India in front of riot police during a protest against a new citizenship law in Delhi, India, December 19, 2019.
Mohammad Anas Qureshi, 20, who is a fruit vendor, poses for photo with the national flag of India in front of riot police during a protest against a new citizenship law in Delhi, India, December 19, 2019. Danish Siddiqui, Reuters

Facing mass protests over a citizenship law that excludes Muslims, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has imposed a crackdown on freedom of expression not seen in the country since the “Emergency” of the late 1970s.

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At least 21 people have been killed, dozens injured and more than 1,500 arrested across India over 10 days of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was voted into law on December 11 and has been widely criticised as an affront to India’s secular constitution.

The law creates a path to citizenship for Hindus, Christians and other religious groups who immigrated from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan without proper documentation. It does not apply to Muslims. Critics say the law is discriminatory, marking the Modi government’s latest effort to marginalize India’s 200 million Muslims.

In several parts of the country, the government has banned protests, imposed curfews and shut down internet services, in addition to using water cannons, batons and even live fire on demonstrators.

Journalists, prominent activists and intellectuals have been among those detained. On Friday, an advisory from the national ministry of information and broadcasting instructed television channels not to broadcast “any content which promotes anti-national attitudes” or “which is likely to instigate violence”. The ministry demanded “strict compliance”, in the second such advisory since last week.

“I don’t think this has ever happened ever before,” said Gyan Prakash, a historian at Princeton University and author of Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning Point.

“People often describe the situation as an undeclared emergency, but this in fact is much more grave than what Indira Gandhi tried in 1975,” said Prakash, whose book documents India’s 18-month “Emergency” period under then prime minister Gandhi. That period saw elections suspended, the press censored and political opponents jailed in what is widely seen as a lapse in India’s 70-year history as the world’s most populous democracy.

Prakash said that not only were civil liberties being curtailed in many of the same ways today, but these “authoritarian” methods were being used in the service of the Hindu majoritarian agenda of the Modi government. Furthermore, he said, “the judiciary has failed to act independently and is completely intimidated”.

“It’s that combination that makes it all the more serious,” he said. “People think that something fundamental is changing.” 

Internet suspended

Since Thursday, parts of New Delhi as well as cities in at least four other states – Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh – have seen internet or phone services shut down for hours and even days at a time, affecting tens of millions of people. Telecom providers in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, were ordered to block SMS messages and mobile data for 45 hours beginning on Thursday.

In Aligarh, where police beat students and fired tear gas shells inside a university last week, internet was suspended on Saturday for the sixth consecutive day. This comes as at least 11 people have been killed since Friday in protests across Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, while some 600 people have been taken into custody as part of “preventive action”.

Frédérick Douzet, a cybersecurity expert and professor at the French Institute of Geopolitics, Université Paris 8, told FRANCE 24 the internet cuts were “extremely significant”.

“It’s an attack on civil liberties, an attack on freedom of expression and the freedom to demonstrate,” said Douzet. “So it’s shocking in general, and it’s even more shocking coming from a democracy.”

“There is clearly a will to silence the demonstrators and to prevent them from circulating information, bearing witness beyond their borders to the repression they are undergoing and communicating with the outside world,” Douzet added.

In Assam, which saw some of the earliest protests against the citizenship law, internet services were restored Friday after a 10-day blockade. The state has seen ongoing protests since the release in late August of a new National Register of Citizens that excludes some 2 million of its Muslim residents.

On Saturday, hundreds of women staged a sit-in against the citizenship law in Gauhati, the state capital.

The Indian government says that the internet cuts are necessary to combat rumors and misinformation that are fueling violence and stresses that they are only temporary.

Alp Toker, executive director of the NetBlocks observatory in London, questions this logic.

“We haven’t seen much evidence at all that this is effective in controlling protests or even violence,” Toker told FRANCE 24. “In fact, it seems to just cover up instances of violence against individuals.”

This week’s internet shutdowns mark the extension of a tactic already used extensively by Modi’s government. Authorities have interrupted internet services at least 102 times so far this year, according to an online tracker maintained by the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre. Since Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government first came into power in 2014, the internet has been suspended more than 360 times.

Broadband and mobile internet services were blocked for much of August in Indian-administered Kashmir amid an ongoing crackdown in the country’s only Muslim-majority region after it was stripped of the semi-autonomous status accorded to it during partition in 1947. 

Such curbs on freedom of expression have been “routine” in Kashmir and India’s northeastern states, said Prakash, but didn’t attract mainstream attention in the rest of the country because “people thought it was happening only in border areas.” Now, for the first time, internet cuts have reached as far as the nation’s capital.

International playbook

In 2018, the #KeepItOn coalition, which works with the support of 191 organisations globally, and the nonprofit group Access Now reported that of the 196 internet shutdowns reported from 25 countries, India was responsible for the majority, with 134 incidents – almost two-thirds of the world’s documented shutdowns.

Toker, of the NetBlocks observatory, said other countries were looking to India’s example to justify shutdowns of their own. There is “a kind of playbook developing, and it really arises because the international community tends not to speak up about these kinds of shutdowns”, he said.

“If we look at Iran for example, that’s a country that had a major internet shutdown recently …  some voices there, in leadership, have actually cited India saying, ‘Hey, if this leading democracy can do it, then perhaps so can we.’”

China, reputed to have the world’s most extensive system of online censorship and surveillance, has likewise expressed its approval for India’s shutdowns. The measures prove that “shutting down the internet in a state of emergency should be standard practice for sovereign countries,” the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said on December 17.

Journalists detained amid wider arrests

In addition to the more than 1,500 arrested, another 4,000 people have been detained and then released nationwide during the protests.

Two senior federal government officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said those arrested were responsible for violence. Some protesters have clashed with police, vandalised public property and burned cars, buses and other vehicles.

But many have been taken into custody while protesting peacefully, including prominent intellectuals like political commentator Yogendra Yadav and historian Ramachandra Guha, who was detained while giving an interview. In Mangaluru, in the southern state of Karnataka, nine journalists were detained Friday while reporting on the protests. In Uttar Pradesh, a local correspondent for the Hindu – one of India’s largest English-language newspapers – was taken into custody, verbally abused and accused of “conspiracy” by plainclothes officers in what the police later called a “misunderstanding”.

Reporters Without Borders ranked India 140th out of 180 countries on its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, down two spots from the year before.

‘Silver lining’

Still, Prakash said there is a “silver lining” to the unrest.

Before the protests began, many in India expressed “a sense of fear” and reluctance to talk openly about politics, in a context of growing government surveillance.

“Something has changed since this protest began,” Prakash said. “You find people talking more freely.” He was one of thousands of academics, students and teachers who signed a petition denouncing police raids on student protesters at two Muslim universities.

Discontent around a variety of issues has crystallised around the citizenship law, Prakash explains. And contrary to some reports, it’s not only – or even primarily – Muslims who are protesting.

Describing a protest he attended Friday at Delhi’s central India Gate, Prakash said “it was a very mixed crowd,” and the overwhelming majority of protesters there were young.

“The protest is very organic” and bottom-up, he said, drawing in “people you wouldn’t normally consider politically motivated”.

Drawing them together is a sense that the citizenship law violates India’s secular constitution, using state power to assert a Hindu-majoritarian programme.

“This move over the citizenship law seems to have touched a nerve,” added Prakash. “People feel that some red line was crossed.”

(With AP and REUTERS)

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