The Black Mirror Has Finally Cracked

In sweeping firsts, Internet services across Delhi and NCR were suspended in an attempt to prevail law and order in light of the ongoing protests across the capital.

The resistance against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which started as a student protest in Jamia on last Sunday soon shaped up to be a nationwide movement mobilising students, activists and the rest of India all across the country. The peaceful protests of Jamia that unfolded under cameras and raised questions about police’s brutal reciprocity along with the undisputed participation of several anti-social elements have come to define the events of last Sunday and the way this movement has taken shape.

The Resistance and the Resistors

In subsequent days following the events of 15th December, the capital has housed multiple democratic protests. Students marched in solidarity in massive numbers not only in Delhi but across Assam, Mumbai, Bangalore, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Gujarat, Pune and others.  The movement has come to be termed as 2019’s civil disobedience against the overnight amendments and draconian policies that undermine the secular ideas that shape India.

Historians, activists and civilians alike have been detained and arrested in the last week alone. Many names and faces have now become synonymous with this emerging resistance over the last week. Some of these include the detention of Ramchandra Guha, Yogendra Yadav, and Harsh Mander alongside subsequent arrests of Chandrashekhar Azad and Akhil Gogoi and lately, Sadaf Jafar.

Furthermore, emerging reports of police brutality, Internet shutdowns and mass arrests have been shaping the narrative of the ongoing discourse.  In Uttar Pradesh alone, 18 individuals including a minor have reportedly died and thousands have been taken under custody.

Shaping the Narrative of Violence and Control

As the protests and protestors grew in number, all attempts were made to curb the events by the centre. On the 19th of December, with the intentions to halt protests, Section 144 was imposed in parts of Delhi NCR. The news came in the morning when protestors were already en-route. This automatically implied gathered protestors were detained in buses from the starting point of the rally, mainly Red Fort and Mandi House. Following this, the venue soon shifted to Jantar Mantar, with updates being circulated via Whatsapp along with social media alerts and videos of detainees surfacing on digital platforms.

To restrict further movement, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) under the orders from the centre also imposed blockages on several metro stations to maintain law and order. These included some of the busiest terminals like Mandi House, Rajiv Chowk, Barahkhamba, Janpath and others. DMRC’s official twitter handle further posted several tweets between the 18th of December and 21st of December to share updates upon these imposed restrictions. Moreover, multiple flights were cancelled as Haryana-Delhi border was also sealed on the 19th of December.

The Fifth Estate Fortification

Taking a final stance against the rising agitation, the internet was shut down in multiple parts of north and central Delhi namely Mandi House, Seelampur, Jaffrabad, Mustafabad, Jamia Nagar, Shaheen Bagh and Bawana.

NCA Ajit Doval along with DCP Amulya Patnaik took this decision in a late night special meeting last Thursday with an aim to dismiss and deter the anti-social elements joining the protests. These Internet shut downs surfaced after an official letter was circulated to ‘Nodal Officers’ at major news channels and offices by DCP (Special Cell) P S Kushwah.  These included some of the major telecom operators apart from Airtel and Vodafone.

On 20th December, Internet services were further shut down in (parts of) many districts of Uttar Pradesh including major cities like Noida, Ghaziabad, Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Prayagraj, and Bareilly. As the resistance against the CAA and NRC moved beyond campuses, all over the streets of India, implementation of section 144 transcended beyond the capital.

By 24th December, Internet services in Lucknow remained suspended for a fifth day while Section 144 remains an ongoing reality till the 31st of December this year for the entire state of UP.

The Cracking and the Control

In sensitive situations, moves like Internet control by the government are to be expected to curb ‘rumour-mongering’, hate speech and other guerrilla activities that incept in the digital realms before transpiring into real life.

On 16th December 2019, PM Modi posted a tweet encouraging dialogue and dissent; however, the moves of the centre and state authorities seem to be sending an alternate message since then.

In the past few years, discussions pertaining to digital identities like Aadhaar and public surveillance have been gaining momentum in India. In addition to this, ambiguous amendments like CAA, NRC, NPR will further be able to capture and digitise citizen information. One of the major sparks igniting the ongoing flame of constitutional debate and secular values, especially in the past few weeks.

With the recent Data Protection Bill amendment on December 11th, further localisation of citizen data, especially in times of public unrest, can be expected.

As India finally moves into a centralised controlled fifth-estate, it is redefining the relationship between the Internet, free speech, data manipulation and political activism. Lessons are to be learnt here for both the individual and the state, in order to come to terms with the use, regulation and control of the Internet and consequently, the way people communicate and exist.

P.S – As I type this, Internet remains shut for over 4 months in most parts of Jammu & Kashmir since the 5th of August 2019.

(Airtel) Data shutdown messages from 16th Dec – 23rd Dec in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh

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