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Indian state turns off internet for 27 million, for four days, to stymie one man

Digital rights org criticizes use of fill-in-the-blank template used to quell separatist protests

Police in the Indian state of Punjab hunting the leader of a Sikh separatist group have imposed a state-wide shut down of mobile internet and SMS services since Saturday, in order to pursue a single man.

The order, which impacted Punjab's 27 million residents, was issued after 30-year old Amritpal Singh of protest movement Waris Punjab De evaded arrest for allegedly disrupting communal harmony. Over 100 of his followers have been arrested.

"Punjab Police India continued its crackdown on Waris Punjab De elements wanted on criminal charges, and also made preventive arrests of persons attempting to disturb peace and law & order in the state. Amritpal Singh remains a fugitive and efforts are being made to arrest him," said the Government of Punjab posted to Facebook on Monday – presumably for the benefit of those viewing Facebook over Wi-Fi or landline connections.

The shutdown, allegedly designed to quell the spread of misinformation and enhance public safety, was extended past its Monday expiration to noon Tuesday, but was continued in four districts.

Although his LinkedIn profile lists Singh as a transport operations manager with a mechanical engineering degree, he became the leader of Waris Punjab De – an organization active in farmers' protests – after its leader Deep Sidhu died last year. Prior to 2022, he was relatively unknown.

It’s easy to see why Singh has drawn concern: he campaigns for a separate state for Sikhs and has been quoted as advocating violence. His followers are known to get rowdy – allegedly destroying furniture at a Sikh house of worship and even reportedly storming a police station to demand the release of arrested aide, Lovepreet Singh Toofan, in February.

The shutdown affects only mobile services. However, many Indians access the internet solely through mobile devices: India's most recent subscriber data [PDF] counted 799.8 million wireless broadband subscribers and just 32 million wireline accounts.

Indian non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has criticized the shutdown and the pre-drafted fill-in-the-banks template used for issuing orders.

"This indicates a lack of administrative discretion and points towards internet shutdowns being ordered as a mere formality, rather than a necessity. Applicable law, including Supreme Court guidelines, require internet shutdowns orders to contain reasons for the suspension," tweeted IFF.

"Such a templatized order indicates a level of automation in the administrative process for ordering internet shutdowns," added the org.

Meanwhile, India's Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) pointed out that India is a record-breaker when it comes to its number of internet shutdowns.

"Time and again, India halts its ambitious rise as a digital superpower by bringing large parts of its economy to its knees. Whether it's examination of grade three students or police operations, Indian authorities' first reflex action is to deprive everyone of access to the internet," said SFLC. ®

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