India has crossed 100 Internet Shutdowns in 2018, but very little is discussed about how they affect daily lives. MediaNama is publishing a series on the impact that Internet Shutdowns have on people’s lives. These were originally published by the Centre for Internet & Society, and written by reporters working with 101Reporters.com, in a report which was released on May 17th 2018. 

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By Manoj Kumar

Suspension of internet facilities to “prevent mishaps” has been a frequent exercise in Haryana during various agitations, but probing its effect on those responsible to maintain the law & order in the state shows a gap in acceptance of the information tool. There are some who understand its importance in bridging human interaction, and then, there are others who consider it nothing but an easy way to watch porn.

The tricity of Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali witnessed chaos and violence when Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted in two rape cases on August 25. Mobile internet services were shut down across Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh for 72 hours as over one lakh followers of the much-revered “godman” started pouring into Panchkula, camping around the district court complex where the special CBI court was hearing the case. The ban was later extended for another 48 hours to last till August 29.

Reports claimed that 38 people died in the interim violence between August 25 and 29. The internet shutdown, evidently, didn’t serve the purpose. But it did affect the efficiency of the mechanism put in place to control the law and order situation.

Shutdowns obstruct us too: Cops

Haryana police patrolling on horse at Sirsa just before the court verdict on DSS Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.

Panchkula police commissioner Arshinder Singh Chawla said they faced challenges in ascertaining size of the crowd gathering at various locations after the mobile internet communication was temporarily killed. “We were until then sharing information and photos on WhatsApp to figure out the number of people pouring in the city from various points as it helped identify problem areas. DSS followers had started gathering August 22 onwards,” said Chawla, who was heading the operations when DSS followers went on a rampage in Panchkula.

Unavailability of internet had hindered police operations during the Jat agitation in 2016 as well. Jagdish Sharma, a retired DSP who was part of the team countering agitators at the Munak canal when they targeted the chief source of Delhi’s water supply, said his team faced challenges in gathering strength due to the absence of mobile communication. “The protesters had a much larger count than our personnel at the canal, but they weren’t aware of this. We were fearful that our wireless messages asking for reinforcements may be tapped into by them. We could have easily conveyed the message if WhatsApp was working then,” said Sharma. The cops retained control over Munak canal by remaining at their position for two days, until the reinforcements arrived, while posing as if they were prepared to take on the Jat agitators, Sharma added.

The Panchkula police commissioner said that the drone they were using to take photographs and videos during the DSS violence also fell out of use once mobile internet was curtailed. With drones in operation, their tasks would have been much easier, Chawla said.

Panchkula deputy commissioner Gauri Parashar Joshi faced the brunt when her security staff could not communicate with the security personnel at the district court complex. SP Krishan Murari, who was heading a commando squad on the day, said they had to help Joshi scale a wall to escape the court complex as they could not ascertain a safe escape route. The DSS supporters had surrounded the entrances to the complex and were ready to clash with police authorities, he said. Joshi said she could not reach out to her colleagues in the administration to share important messages and orders as the mobile internet services didn’t work.

‘Ban can’t always be boon’

Ram Singh Bishnoi, who was cyber security in-charge with the Haryana police until January 2017, believes a medium like the internet should not be broken down. “I agree that rumours spread like wildfire, but the government should devise other ways to counter the problem than imposing a ban on net services,” he said.

IG (Telecommunication) Paramjit Singh Ahlawat, however, said there is not much use of the internet when the situation turns volatile in the region. Things like internet don’t matter to people when their lives and property are in danger; these services are enjoyed when law and order is under control, he said.

The cops in Haryana, where internet has been shut down over 11 times in the past two years, may learn from the former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria, who avoided a scuffle from turning into a communal riot. Maria was lauded for using WhatsApp and SMS service to convince people not to believe rumours being circulated on their phones when clashes broke out between two communities in Lalbaug during Eid celebrations in early 2015.

Former Haryana DGP Mahender Singh Malik does not believe a ban on internet prevents any untoward incident. The government authorities take such a step in the name of maintaining law and order, but the real reason behind clamping internet is to avoid the masses from being aware of the blunders committed by the same authorities, alleged Malik, terming the decision to ban the internet as “unwise” and “against the digital India” initiative of the Centre.

Malik also suggested that people should get compensation when internet shutdown is forced on them.

‘Internet is for the jobless’

Special forces on duty at Sirsa, headquarter of Dera Sacha Sauda, just before the court verdict on DSS Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh case

However, not all officials in the police department seem to agree with the benefits of having access to the internet.

SP (Telecommunication) Vinod Kumar of Haryana Police said: “How does it (internet) matter to a common man? Internet is for those who have no serious job. It is for those who have time to kill on mobile phones, laptops and at cyber cafes.”

In nearby Uttar Pradesh as well, some cops were of the view that internet shutdown did not have much of an impact on their job or general administration. Sub-inspector Vijay Singh was posted in Saharanpur when the internet was banned from May 24 for 10 days following caste clashes. “Internet band hone se farak sirf un logon ko pada jinhe din bhar keval mobile hee chalana hota hai. Kaam karne wala aadmi mobile aur internet par samay nahi bitata (Only those who have no work suffer because of internet ban. Those who have work in hand do not spend time on mobile and internet),” said Singh, who is now posted in Lucknow.

Internet matlab kya – video, Facebook, blue film… aur kya? Agar itne bade gyani hai jinhe internet band hone se farak pada to wo yaha kya kar rahe hai, kahe nahi jakar ke IIT me admission le liye? (What does internet mean – videos, Facebook, porn films… what else? If you are so affected with internet being banned, why not go and study at IITs,” said Kaushlendra Pandey, another SI-rank policeman from Azamgarh district in UP.

The government of India, on the other hand, is campaigning to promote digital inclusion and accessibility across the country.

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Manoj Kumar is a Chandigarh based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. With additional inputs from Sat Singh and Saurabh Sharma, both members of 101Reporters.com

Cross-posted here with permission under the CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Photographs captured and retrieved by Manoj Dhaka.