Indian government faces backlash over Internet shutdowns despite ‘Digital India’ push

While boasting technological advancements such as a robust digital payments system, India has earned a dubious distinction by leading the world in internet shutdowns, with 84 occurring in a single year.

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After over 140 days, mobile internet was restored in Manipur, India. However, the reconnection came at a heavy cost to businesses rendered non-functional during the blackout. The government’s reason for the internet shutdown was ethnic violence between the Meitei and Kuki tribes, resulting in over 175 deaths. While initially justified for maintaining law and order, the blackout persisted, severely impacting the region’s livelihoods and economy.

India, often touted as a leader in the digital revolution with its ‘Digital India’ campaign, is facing criticism and backlash for its frequent internet shutdowns. Despite showcasing digital advancements like a widely used digital payments system, the government’s extensive use of internet blackouts, numbering 84 in just one year, has raised concerns about civil liberties and human rights violations.

Critics argue that these shutdowns, which often last far beyond their initial justifications, disproportionately affect marginalized communities and disrupt essential services, contradicting the vision of a digitally empowered India.

Why does it matter?

The abrupt and prolonged internet shutdown in Manipur resulted in severe economic losses, increased misinformation, and the concealment of violent incidents, including human rights abuses. Since 2017, India’s government has frequently used the 1885 Telegraph Act to enact internet blackouts for various reasons, from communal riots to school exams. Critics argue that blocking internet access has become a standard law enforcement tactic employed by Indian authorities. For a nation striving to emerge as a leader in digital transformation, the widespread use of shutdowns directly impacts a fundamental element crucial to digital progress: digital access.