The Punjab government initially announced a 24-hour curfew starting at noon on Saturday as its security forces launched a massive operation to nab fugitive Amritpal Singh, then extended the curfew for another 24 hours on Sunday.
Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, has been a popular figure within the separatist movement that seeks to establish a sovereign state in Punjab called Khalistan for followers of the Sikh religion. He gained national attention in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free one of his jailed supporters.
The Khalistan movement is banned in India and officials consider it a major threat to national security, but the movement has supporters across the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and among members of the large Sikh diaspora who have settled in countries such as Canada and Britain.
In an attempt to prevent unrest and reduce what they called “fake news”, authorities in Punjab blocked mobile internet service starting at noon on Saturday, shortly after they failed to arrest Singh as he drove through central Punjab with a crowd of supporters.
Officials were also likely motivated by a desire to deny Singh’s supporters social media, which they briefly used on Saturday to seek help and organize their ranks.
In one video streamed live on Facebook and widely viewed, Singh’s associates, apparently filming in Singh’s car, showed their leader speeding down dirt roads and along wheat fields with police in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Singh’s father, Sardar Tersem Singh, took to Twitter and asked all Punjabis to “raise their voice against the injustice against him and stand by him”, a post that quickly went viral.
Police said they arrested nearly 80 of his associates on Sunday even as Singh’s supporters, many brandishing swords and spears, marched through the streets of Punjab and blocked roads demanding his freedom. Singh was still on the run late Sunday and the 4G network shutdown remained in effect.
Three Punjab residents who spoke to The Washington Post said life had been disrupted since Saturday noon. Only essential text messages, such as confirmation codes for bank transfers, went through. Wired Internet services are not affected.
“My whole business depends on the Internet,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, who accepts QR code-based payments at his two clothing stores in a village outside Ludhiana and also sells clothes online. “I feel crippled since yesterday.”
In each of the past five years, Indian officials have ordered internet shutdowns more often than any other government, according to the New York-based advocacy group Access Now, which issues annual reports on the practice.
In 2022, governments around the world reduced their citizens’ internet access 187 times; India accounts for nearly half, or 84 cases, Access Now found.
Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia-Pacific director for Access Now, said the Punjab government has effectively “declared a state of emergency or curfew in the entire state of Punjab when it comes to the internet”. Banning the Internet, he said, could exacerbate the spread of rumors or unrest by interfering with independent news reporting.
“They can make law and order situations more dangerous and potentially violent,” he said.
Authorities in Punjab employed tactics commonly seen in another restive Indian region: Jammu and Kashmir. The Muslim-majority region in India’s far north has experienced internet outages more than 400 times in the past decade, according to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a New Delhi-based nonprofit.
Starting in August 2019, the Indian government cut off internet access in 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 usually cut off internet access in a particular district affected by protests, and rarely in an area like Punjab. When Indian activists have challenged the legality of the closures in the past, Sugathan said, Indian judges have urged police to deploy law enforcement measures that are proportionate to the threat to public safety.
“Definitely a statewide shutdown is out of proportion,” Sugathan said. “You need the Internet for almost everything these days. And if you shut down the entire country, the effects on people will be unimaginable.”
The Punjab police moved against Singh a day after the state concluded its Group of 20 meetings. As India hosted delegates from G-20 countries this year, its officials launched an elaborate marketing campaign to present their country – “Digital India” – as a leading technology powerhouse. At government-sponsored conferences, Indian officials touted the country’s online payment and personal identity systems as a model for developing countries and even advanced economies to emulate.
At a time when the government is forcing its citizens to pay for goods and receive social services online, such a widespread shutdown threatened to undermine its own efforts, Sugathan said.
“The government is committed to making all services available online,” he said. “If you talk about ‘Digital India’, then this cannot happen to you.”