India cuts internet connection across Punjab amid hunt for Amritpal Singh


NEW DELHI — Indian authorities cut off mobile internet access and text messaging for a second day in Punjab, a state of about 27 million people, on Sunday as officials sought to arrest a Sikh separatist and brace for potential unrest. Prepare.

The statewide ban – which crippled most smartphone services except for voice calls and some SMS text messages – marks one of the widest shutdowns in recent years in India, a country that has increasingly resorted to law enforcement tactics. Digital rights activists say the tactic is harsh and ineffective.

The Punjab state government initially announced a 24-hour ban from noon on Saturday as its security forces launched a massive operation to arrest fugitive Amritpal Singh, before extending it for another 24 hours on Sunday.

Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, has been a popular figure in a separatist movement seeking to create a sovereign state called Khalistan for Sikh followers in Punjab. He gained notoriety in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free a detained supporter.

The Khalistan movement, banned in India and seen by officials as the top national security threat, has sympathizers in the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and the large Sikh diaspora settled in countries including Canada and Britain.

In an effort to stem unrest and reduce so-called “fake news,” Punjab authorities blocked mobile internet services from midday on Saturday, shortly after failing to arrest Singh as he drove through central Punjab with a large crowd of supporters.

Officials may also be motivated by depriving Singh’s supporters of the desire to use social media, which they briefly used on Saturday to seek help and organize their ranks.

In a video that was broadcast live on Facebook and widely circulated, apparently filmed by Singh’s aides from inside Singh’s car, it shows their leader speeding across dirt roads and wheat fields, with police in pursuit. Meanwhile, Singh’s father, Sardar Tersem Singh, called on all Punjabis on Twitter to “speak out, speak out against the injustice against him and stand with him”, the post quickly popular.

Police said they arrested nearly 80 of Singh’s accomplices on Sunday, while supporters of Singh, many wielding swords and spears, marched through the streets of Punjab and blocked roads demanding his release. As of late Sunday, Singh was still at large and the 4G outage was still in effect.

Three Punjab residents interviewed by The Washington Post said their lives had been disrupted since noon on Saturday. Only basic text messages, such as confirmation codes for bank transfers, slowly come through. Wired Internet service is unaffected.

“My whole business is dependent on the internet,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, who also sells clothes online while accepting QR code payments at two clothing stores in a village outside Ludhiana. “Since yesterday, I’ve felt like I’ve been paralyzed.”

Over the past five years, Indian officials have ordered internet shutdowns more often than any other government, according to Access Now, a New York-based advocacy group that publishes an annual report on the practice.

Authorities around the world cut off citizens’ internet access 187 times in 2022; India accounted for almost half, or 84 instances, Access Now found.

Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific policy director at Access Now, said the Punjab government had effectively “declared a state of emergency or a curfew for the entire state of Punjab when it comes to the internet.” He argued that an internet ban could impede independent news reporting, fueling the spread of rumors or unrest.

“They could make the law and order situation more dangerous and potentially more violent,” he said.

Authorities in Punjab state have employed a tactic common in another troubled part of India: Jammu and Kashmir. India’s northernmost Muslim-majority region has experienced more than 400 internet outages in the past decade, according to the New Delhi-based nonprofit Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC).

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

Prasanth Sugathan, legal director at SFLC, said that outside of Kashmir, Indian authorities typically cut off internet access in specific protest areas, and rarely in areas as vast as Punjab. When activists in India have questioned the legality of the shutdowns in the past, Indian judges have called on police to take enforcement measures commensurate with the threat to public safety, Sugathan said.

“The statewide shutdown is certainly disproportionate,” Sugathan said. “Almost everything needs the internet now. If you shut down the entire state, the impact on people would be unimaginable.”

Police in Punjab state took action against Singh a day after the state wrapped up the G-20 meeting. As India hosts representatives from G-20 nations this year, its officials have launched an elaborate marketing campaign to promote their country — “Digital India” — as a leading tech powerhouse. At the government-organized meeting, Indian officials hailed the country’s online payment and personal identification system as a model that developing and even advanced economies should emulate.

Sugathan said such a widespread internet shutdown could undermine the government’s own efforts at a time when it is pushing its citizens to pay for goods and receive benefit services online.

“The government is pushing for all services to be delivered online,” he said. “If you talk about ‘Digital India’, this is not going to happen to you.”

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