Internet access

India's Internet shutdown: Most states block services without following Centre’s new rules

Six states issued termination orders following law and order crises in the past fortnight, but only two followed the 2017 rules.

In the past fortnight, six states have used internet shutdowns to control law and order crises. They are West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan. But of these, only two states – Madhya Pradesh and Punjab – followed the procedure laid down in rules notified by the Centre in 2017.

While there was communal tension in West Bengal following clashes during Ram Navami celebrations, large-scale security operations against militants in Kashmir on Sunday put the Valley on the boil. A day later, a Bharat Bandh called by Dalit organisations to protest a Supreme Court order on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which they alleged diluted the law, turned violent, leaving nine dead and disrupting normal life in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Apart from imposing the standard prohibitory orders, such as restrictions on the movement and assembly of people, the administration in each of these states limited or blocked internet services in affected areas.

Internet shutdown as standard procedure

Internet shutdowns have become par for the course in India in situations like these. According to a tracker maintained by the Delhi-based non-profit Software Freedom Law Centre, there have been 161 instances of internet shutdowns in the country since 2012. A bulk of these have been in the last few years. In 2016, there were 31 shutdowns; in 2017, there were 70. This year, the number till the afternoon of April 5 stood at 32. These numbers are among the highest in the world.

Local administrations maintain the internet is often used to spread rumours and instigate violence. Hence, short-term suspension of services in times of law and order crises helps keep the situation under control.

But India’s high rate of internet shutdowns has often been criticised by human rights groups and press freedom organisations on the grounds that they violate press freedom and infringe upon human rights.

There are also economic costs to these outages. A report by the think-tank Brookings India said that in 2016, India lost close to Rs 6,000 crore as a result of internet bans.

The new rules

Ostensibly responding to some of these concerns, the Central government in September came up with rules to legislate the authority required and procedures to be followed to “temporarily suspend telecom services” in case of “public emergency or public safety”. Issued by the Ministry of Communications under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, these rules were codified as the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017.

These rules confer the status of competent authority on the Union home secretary when the order is issued by the government of India. For a state government, the power lies with the state home secretary. In “unavoidable circumstances”, though, orders could be issued by an officer “not below the rank of a joint secretary to the government of India, who has been duly authorised by the Union home secretary or the state home secretary”.

But many have expressed concerns about these rules too, claiming that they lack clarity and were passed without public consultation. The United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists called the rules arbitrary and a “severe form of censorship that deprives journalists of a key platform for gathering and disseminating news, and the country’s citizens of vital access to news and information”.

Yet, an examination of the official orders notifying recent internet shutdowns suggests that most states do not follow these rules.

Shutdowns under Section 144

In West Bengal’s violence-hit Paschim Bardhaman district, mobile internet and broadband services were completely terminated from March 28 to March 30 mid-day. The order, which covered local cable television news channels, was passed by the district magistrate under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. This provision gives district magistrates wide-ranging powers to pass orders to maintain public order. Most internet termination orders in India flowed from this provision prior to the temporary internet suspension rules framed last year. The practice seems to still continue.

The district magistrate, in his order, reasoned that there could be “great risk and danger to human life and property if the public continues to avail the normal broadband internet services”. The order stated:

“While the Constitution of India guarantees the freedom of expression of Indian citizens but at the same time it allows for reasonable restrictions on the same.

“And whereas no restriction is being imposed on voice calls and SMS and on newspapers, hence communication and dissemination of knowledge and information is not stopped in any way.”

Paschim Bardhaman district magistrate Shashank Sethi said his orders did not contravene the Centre’s rules mandating the procedure to temporarily disconnect internet services. “It was done with the approval of the home secretary and later it was extended by the home secretary himself,” said Sethi.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district, where mobile internet services were blocked from April 2 to April 3 in the wake of protests by Dalit groups that turned violent, the termination order was again issued by the district magistrate under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The order stated that due to the “unavailability of time”, the decision was taken unilaterally without giving a hearing to other involved parties.

The order makes no mention of the new temporary suspension rules.

Asked why the order did not follow the Centre’s rules, a spokesperson for the office of Meerut’s district magistrate said the magistrate was empowered to shut internet services for a certain “time frame”, explaining, “The rule says that a DM can approve it for a certain time frame, but after that the home secretary’s approval is required.”

The temporary suspension rules of 2017 allow for an officer authorised by the state home secretary to pass internet shutdown orders, “subject to the confirmation from the competent authority within 24 hours of issuing such order”. However, the rules state that the officer passing the order should not be below the rank of joint commissioner to the Central government. A district magistrate is on par with a deputy secretary-level officer of the Central government, a rank three notches below joint secretary in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

In Rajasthan, where several districts were impacted by the same protests, orders to terminate mobile internet services were issued by divisional commissioners under the 2017 rules. The order invoked the powers authorised by the state’s home department to divisional commissioners in accordance with the temporary suspension rules of 2017 to suspend mobile internet services from the afternoon of April 2 till the next evening.

Some districts in the state also passed their own orders. In Barmer, the district magistrate, Nakate Shivprasad Madan, ordered for mobile internet services to be terminated under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Madan said he was aware of the temporary suspensions rules but insisted that “both of them [Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and the 2017 rules] shouldn’t be mixed together”. He said, “144 is imposed to prohibit some actions to ensure law and order. To shut down the internet is to assist that order because social media is used to spread rumours. If you don’t curb one arm, the other arm will not work properly.”

The exceptions

However, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh – the other two states where Dalit protests turned violent – followed the template of the 2017 rules.

Punjab suspended mobile internet services from April 1 till the next evening. The order, issued by the state’s home secretary, stated that intelligence agencies “hinted towards a situation where data services could be grossly misused by certain unscrupulous elements”.

In Madhya Pradesh, there was total shutdown of internet services in four districts for a day. All orders were passed by the state’s home secretary.

The curious case of Kashmir

Fearing law and order trouble, the administration in Kashmir blocked mobile internet services for more than two days in at least four districts. According to a telecom company executive, this was done on verbal orders received from the office of the inspector general of the state police. Scroll.in could not independently confirm this. Multiple attempts to contact the inspector general’s office proved futile.

With 72 internet shutdowns since 2012, Jammu and Kashmir accounts for nearly half of India’s internet outages. In 2016, the Kashmir Valley had no access to mobile internet for about four months. A right to information query yielded no clear answer on who ordered these shutdowns with the state’s civil administration claiming it had no hand.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.