'Draconian' internet shutdowns in parts of India mean Canadians can't contact family. And it's happened before
Rights groups decry government blackouts as officials say measures necessary to quell unrest
Tony Huidrom, a Toronto-based medical professional, was visiting family in India's eastern state of Manipur for a month, during which time he had no way of contacting his family in Toronto due to internet blackouts.
"Once I entered Manipur, I was in the dark for seven days," he said. Now that he's back in Canada, Huidrom says he has to muddle his way through to connect with his 90-year-old father, who's still in India.
The sparsely populated state is reeling from ethnic violence that's affected tens of thousands of people. Amid the ongoing violence, Manipur remains under a government-authorized internet shutdown that has lasted for more than a month, leaving diaspora communities in Canada scrambling to reach families back home. Notwithstanding expensive international calling, the internet is the only way for many here to connect with friends and relatives.
The government calls the clampdown on the internet a way to maintain law and order in the area, similar to the long-lasting internet blackout that took place in India-controlled Kashmir in 2019. But experts say denying internet access has become a default policing tactic by Indian authorities.
Huidrom's brother works in a government office in India, one of the few places where the internet still works. Huidrom, mindful of the nine and a half hour time difference, calls his brother's office every day.
"When I miss the timing of my brother's office hours, I cannot communicate," he said, calling the government's move to ban the internet inhumane and unacceptable.
"That's the crudest form of punishment to the public, showing their naked failure to control the violence, and this is not the only time we've had something like this," Huidrom said.
Part of a consistent trend
Manipur is the latest addition to a long list of internet shutdowns in India. According to Access Now, an internet advocacy watchdog, India has topped the yearly count of internet shutdowns across the world for five straight years.
Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more often than any other country in the world. One Access Now estimate says India was responsible for the most shutdowns in 2022 — with 84 out of 187 global shutdowns.
CBC News reached out to the High Commission of India in Ottawa about the internet shutdowns and how they are impacting people trying to reach relatives back home. In a statement received on Tuesday, High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma wrote that Indian citizens in Canada "are welcome to consult us in case of consular difficulties they are facing."
"As a responsible government of the largest democracy in the world, we take actions to maintain law and order, which are fully compliant with the sovereign Indian legal framework. All our international commitments are very much parts of the larger Indian legal framework, which we observe and cherish," Verma wrote in an email.
Vancouver-resident Lienlaltheng Gangte's ancestral home in Manipur was burned down at the beginning of the conflict. His 80-year-old father is currently one of nearly 60,000 people who are out of their homes.
Manipur is teetering on what many believe is the brink of a civil war. Ethnic clashes between two communities — the Kukis and the majority Meitei — have left more than 100 dead and over 400 wounded.
Gangte is the founding member of North American Manipur Tribal Association, formed as a response to the conflict. In a little more than a month, it has gained more than 150 members from across the country.
With the internet blackout, Gangte says, the government has made the conflict worse.
"The most personal and immediate issue now is to be able to talk to friends and family to see how they are doing, and that itself, is severely limited now," he said.
He has written to the High Commission of India in Ottawa to get them to address the crisis, but hasn't received any response yet.
A report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) titled No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food and released on June 14 found that internet shutdowns in India are often unwarranted, unaccounted for and deny basic rights to marginalized people and those living in poverty.
"HRW and IFF call upon the Indian central and state governments to end broad, indiscriminate shutdowns," the report reads.
Shutdowns undemocratic, expert says
Jonathan Penney, a legal scholar and social scientist at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, believes blockades to communication channels are not a sign of a healthy democracy.
"When you shut down critical communications infrastructure like the internet, citizens suffer," said Penney, who has research and teaching expertise in law, technology and human rights.
"Fundamental rights, like rights of free expression, association and the right to seek, receive and impart information are seriously crippled, with serious implications for the long-term health of Indian democracy."
In August 2019, the government completely blocked all communication networks in India-controlled Kashmir for an unprecedented length of time. The complete blackout lasted for more than five months, becoming one of the longest internet shutdowns in a democratic country, according to Access Now.
The authorities shut down the internet in an effort to prevent Kashmiris from organizing protests after the government revoked the state's constitutional autonomous status, splitting it into two separate, federally governed territories.
Some services were gradually restored, but mobile 4G internet access remained effectively down for more than 500 days, until February 2021.
During that lengthy shutdown in India-controlled Kashmir, the Indian Supreme Court — the country's highest judicial body — issued a landmark ruling in 2020, finding that internet suspensions are "drastic" measures that can only be used if they are necessary and unavoidable and if there are no less intrusive options.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, at a media briefing in the U.S. last year, addressed concerns around internet shutdowns in the country.
"The big song and dance about the internet being cut," he said. "Now, if you've reached a stage where you say that an internet cut is more dangerous than loss of human lives, then what can I say?"
The Indian government relies on provisions in India's Telegraph Act of 1885 to justify the shutdowns — a statute enacted during British colonial times. It was part of broader legal infrastructure that Britain relied on not only for telegraph censorship and surveillance in India, but also around the world.
"It is a cruel irony that today, this British Colonial Act is being abused by the Indian government to enforce draconian internet measures that undermine human rights and Indian democracy," Penney said.