India cuts internet to all of Punjab amid search for Amritpal Singh


NEW DELHI — Indian authorities cut off mobile internet access and text messaging for a second day Sunday across Punjab, a state of about 27 million, as authorities sought to capture a Sikh separatist and prepared for possible trouble.

The statewide ban – which crippled most smartphone services except voice calls and some text messages – marked one of the biggest shutdowns in India in recent years, a country that has increasingly deployed law enforcement tactics, which digital rights activists say are draconian and ineffective.

The Punjab government initially announced a 24-hour ban from midday on Saturday as its security forces launched a sprawling operation to apprehend fugitive Amritpal Singh, then extended the ban on Sunday for another 24 hours.

Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, is a popular figure within a separatist movement that seeks to establish a sovereign state in Punjab called Khalistan for followers of the Sikh religion. He rose to national prominence in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free one of his imprisoned supporters.

The Khalistan movement is banned in India and considered a major national security threat by officials, but the movement has supporters throughout the predominantly Sikh state of Punjab and among members of the larger Sikh diaspora who settled in countries such as Canada and Great Britain.

In a bid to prevent unrest and reduce what they called ‘fake news’, authorities in Punjab blocked mobile internet service from noon on Saturday, shortly after they failed to apprehend Singh as he he was crossing the center of the Punjab with a cavalcade of partisans.

Officials were likely also motivated by a desire to deprive Singh supporters of social media, which they briefly used on Saturday to ask for help and organize their ranks.

In a widely viewed Facebook Live video, Singh’s aides, apparently filming inside Singh’s car, showed their leader racing down dirt roads and along wheat fields with police at their side. pursuit. Meanwhile, Singh’s father, Sardar Tersem Singh, took to Twitter to ask all Punjabis to “speak out against the injustice against him and stand by his side”, a message that quickly went viral.

Police said they arrested nearly 80 of his associates on Sunday even as Singh supporters, many wielding swords and spears, marched through the streets of Punjab and blocked roads to demand his freedom. Singh was still at large on Sunday evening and the 4G outage remained in effect.

Three Punjabi residents who spoke to The Washington Post said life had been disrupted since midday Saturday. Only essential text messages, such as confirmation codes for bank transfers, passed. Wired Internet services were not affected.

“My whole business depends on the internet,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, who accepts QR code payments at his two clothing stores in a village outside Ludhiana and also sells clothes online. “Since yesterday, I feel paralyzed.”

In each of the past five years, Indian officials have ordered internet shutdowns more frequently than any other government, according to New York-based advocacy group Access Now, which publishes annual reports on the practice.

In 2022, authorities around the world cut their citizens’ internet access 187 times; India accounted for almost half, or 84 cases, according to Access Now.

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director for Access Now, said that the Punjab government had indeed “declared a state of emergency or curfew in the entire state of Punjab with respect to the internet. “. The internet ban, he said, could exacerbate the spread of rumors or unrest by hampering independent reporting.

“They can make public order situations more dangerous and potentially more violent,” he said.

Authorities in Punjab have deployed a tactic usually seen in another restive Indian region: Jammu and Kashmir. India’s Muslim-majority far north region has seen more than 400 internet outages in the past decade, according to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New Delhi-based nonprofit. .

From August 2019, the Indian government cut internet access in Kashmir for 19 months after revoking the region’s semi-autonomous status, sparking widespread protests.

Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of the SFLC, said that outside of Kashmir, Indian authorities usually cut off internet access in a particular district affected by the protests, and rarely in an area as large as Punjab. When Indian activists have challenged the legality of closures in the past, Sugathan said, Indian judges have called on police to deploy law enforcement measures commensurate with the threat to public safety.

“The statewide permanent shutdown is not proportionate,” Sugathan said. “These days, you need the Internet for almost everything. And if you shut down the whole state, the effects on people will be unimaginable.

Punjab police moved in on Singh a day after the state wrapped up the Group of 20 Nations meetings. As India hosted delegates from the G-20 countries this year, its officials launched an elaborate marketing campaign to portray their country – “digital India” – as a leading tech powerhouse. At government-sponsored conferences, Indian officials have touted the country’s online payment and personal identity systems as a model that developing countries and even advanced economies should emulate.

At a time when the government is pushing its citizens to pay for goods and receive social services online, such widespread internet shutdowns threatened to undermine the government’s own efforts, Sugathan said.

“The government is pushing for all services to be available online,” he said. “If you’re talking about ‘Digital India’ then you can’t make that happen.”

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