Law in the Internet Society
Downloading Dissent, Uploading Identity


When Reliance Limited made its voice over LTE service publicly available in 2016, it took 333 million subscribers less than three years to transform Jio’s literal translation ‘live’ into their everyday lives. But the North-South division is a classic symbol of life that marks the disconnect in India. In Kerala, the High Court held that the right to have access to the internet is part of the fundamental right to education as well as the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution. In Kashmir, however, it is day 67. In this essay, I seek to briefly respond to internet shutdowns and its effects on Kashmiris.

History of internet shutdowns

Populist governance, as opposed to fascism, has a remarkable ability of adapting. The Arab Spring, in 2011, rose from the collective will forged on the internet. The consequences were for all to see. But for some of those who saw, the task was to nip this mobilization of citizens in the bud. So, it started. In 2012, India witnessed the first instance of an internet shutdown when mobile internet services were suspended in the Kashmir Valley to contain protests against a blasphemous video deemed offensive to Islamic sentiments. This order was premised on the broad plank provided by Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, i.e. “in the interest of public safety and maintaining public order”. This was the first time that mobile internet services, in its entirety, were suspended in India for policing reasons, and not as part of broader telecommunications restrictions such as those imposed on Republic Day or Independence Day in Jammu-Kashmir.

Between January 2012 and January 2019, 278 Internet shutdowns have been recorded. These shutdowns have largely stemmed from the malleable State powers proffered by Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Within the Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 144 resides as the sole occupant under the chapter of “temporary measures to maintain public tranquillity” and gives State Governments the “power to issue orders for immediate remedy in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger”. Software Freedom Law Centre, in its report published in 2018, demonstrates that out of the 278 internet shutdowns, 160 were observed to be preventive measures i.e. restrictions imposed in anticipation of law and order breakdowns, whereas 118 shutdowns were reactive in nature i.e. imposed in order to contain on-going law and order breakdowns.

It further notes that 60 of the 278 Internet shutdowns between January, 2012-2019 lasted less than 24 hours, 55 lasted between 24 and 72 hours, 39 lasted for over 72 hours, while no information was available on the respective durations of 113 Internet shutdowns. The non-availability of information is attributable chiefly to the fact that no public notifications are issued by the Government or Internet Service Providers before, during, or after shutdowns, leaving stakeholders outside affected areas to source this information from available news reports, which do not consistently mention the durations for which Internet access was blocked.

The Kashmir clampdown

Far from being a tool for political dissent, the Government of India solidified control over the Valley by arrogating to itself the power to maintain peace, law and order. It is not merely the control over the narrative, but the disassembly of the counter-narrative through propaganda. This formed the Gramscian structure of domination, where the civil society is conditioned to subscribe to the State’s rationale and perpetuate it by delegitimizing any dissidents. Data trails left by users offer a significant insight into their behavioral patterns, but the monopolization of power to invade the network services of a region goes far beyond passive interference to a type of networked authoritarianism.

The relationship between the central government and Jammu-Kashmir was radically altered on August 5, 2019. The annual Hindu pilgrimage to the holy site in Amarnath was cancelled, unprecedented military personnel were stationed at different locations, the political elites and influential leaders were detained and most critically, mobile network services were (still are) suspended. Later, in the same week, Home Minister Amit Shah tabled a resolution to delete the special status conferred to Jammu and Kashmir by revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, along with a range of unilateral measures that seceded the Kashmiri agency.

This pattern is not uncommon in India, which leads the world in temporary shutdowns of the internet. From local bureaucrats to Home Minister Amit Shah, government officials cite public security as a reason to suspend a channel that has become the routine mode of communication for most Indians. Since the medium is the message, the politics of free speech is the politics of the internet. The shutdown of WhatsApp? , however temporary, is how the government controls people’s minds. Moreover, the shutdown is temporary by design.

The idea of Kashmir now

For 67 days, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have been made invisible, not visually but communally. The absolutist powers of a State refashion law to simply a vehicle to erase identities. For most part, this identity is most powerfully expressed through the internet. But the remote control lies in the hands of those who control not just Kashmir, but the idea of Kashmiriness. In the internet age, attention is a scare resource. As Kasturirangan argues, the way to control minds is by controlling attention, whether by making people focus where businesses and governments want them to (white holes) or by creating black holes of information where they would rather people did not look. There is absolutely no advantage in making that black hole permanent because attention is fickle and it keeps shifting from one spectacle to the next. Smart governments and businesses are constantly creating and destroying white holes and black holes. From managing expectations about jobs to creating new dystopic images about anti-nationals, every modern state is in the business of constant focusing and refocusing of citizens’ attentions.

Till then, for us, everything has returned to normalcy in Kashmir. Or so they say.


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r2 - 11 Oct 2019 - 22:22:06 - ArjunJoshi
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