India’s Internet Crackdown Fuels Anger as Farmers Block Highways
(Bloomberg) -- Tens of thousands of protesting Indian farmers have blocked highways across the country in defiance of the government’s internet and phone blackout, facing off against a heavy security deployment stationed behind rows of razor wire and concrete blocks.
They’re demanding a repeal of laws pushed through parliament by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government last year that they claim favor big companies over small landholders. They have rejected the government’s offer to suspend the reforms for 18 months, as well as a mediation process established by the Supreme Court.
“I believed PM Modi would bring about a change and voted for the BJP in 2014 and 2019 and in the state elections in 2017 but no more,” said farmer Maksood Ahmed Ansari at one of the protest sites outside the capital New Delhi. “We fell for the promises, but no more.”
Backed by a growing international campaign of celebrities and activists such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, farmers issued a statement Friday calling for an “immediate reinstatement” of telecommunication services that were disrupted at protest sites outside of the capital, New Delhi border. “The government’s efforts to suppress the voice of disagreement continue,” the farmer unions said in a statement.
India restricted internet use more than any nation in 2020 and suffered the highest economic cost as a result, according to a report by Top10VPN.com, a company that reviews virtual private networks. Authorities have resorted to internet shutdowns to stem protests in recent years, including nationwide demonstrations over a discriminatory citizenship law and after it revoked the special autonomous status of Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim majority region.
Fourth-generation mobile internet services are being restored in Kashmir, the region’s Information Secretary Rohit Kansal said late Friday on Twitter.
“Time and again government authorities use times of political unrest to monopolize their control over information,” said Allie Funk, New York-based senior research analyst at Freedom House. “That the world’s largest democracy can carry out such sweeping abrogations with little or no push back from other countries has just allowed the curbs to be normalized.”
The government has toughened its stance against the protesters after violent clashes broke out last month: Authorities fortified Delhi’s borders with concrete barricades, concertina wire and long metal spikes at key protest sites in addition to cutting water, phone and internet. On Wednesday, the government issued a legal notice to Twitter over its decision to restore the handles of users who tweeted the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide on Jan. 26, saying those tweets were “designed to inflame passions, hatred and factually incorrect.”
Four months in, the farmer’s agitation continues to grow.
“I have been here since the beginning of the protest, it is now a people’s movement. Farmers across states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh are here and more are joining in,” said 30-year old Dheeraj Rathi, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh. “We voted them to power, over 100 farmers have died during the protest but not a single representative has bothered to come or try and resolve this issue. Let the elections come and you will see how things change.”
Modi’s administration has defended the laws, saying they eliminated cartels that exploited farmers and would ultimately boost incomes by making the agricultural sector more competitive. The legislation passed easily in a parliament dominated by Modi’s allies, which won a landslide in a national election in 2019.
The increased global attention on the farmer protests threatens to damage India’s reputation as it looks to attract more investment from companies looking to diversify supply chains away from China in the wake of the pandemic and burgeoning geopolitical tensions. The country is among the world’s worst hit by Covid-19 and faces an unprecedented economic recession.
The Biden administration also weighed in on the protests, backing the farmers in their call for access to the internet. “We recognize that unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
India’s crackdown on the internet could hurt the country’s relations with democratic partners such as the U.S., U.K. and Japan, according to Raman Cheema, Asia policy director and senior international counsel at Access Now, an internet freedom advocacy group.
“It doesn’t help combat violence,” he said. “It only makes things worse.”
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