Internet shutdowns: a concern for free speech in India?

Internet shutdowns since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014 have increased 18-fold in India between 2012 and 2017. The number of occasions when such curbs were imposed increased from three in 2012 to 55 in 2017.

Government officials ordered 42 internet shutdowns between January and August 2017, compared with six in all of 2014, according to data from the New Delhi-based advocacy group Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC).

Out of the total number of 114 internet shutdowns in the five year period, nearly 53, highest in the country were reported from Jammu and Kashmir. Last two years 2016 and 2017 accounted for 66% of suspension of internet services (that year saw killing of Burhan Wani and its aftermath).


Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat account for 57% of the shutdowns and the bulk of them happened in 2016 and 2017. Governments in these 3 states imposed 35 internet blackouts, of which 28 happened in the last two years.

Patel agitation and caste and communal clashes were responsible in Gujarat. Rajasthan witnessed communal/caste clashes, the Jat agitation and farmers’ stir. In Haryana Jat agitations in 2016 and Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction in 2017 were two main reasons which lead to internet blackouts.

UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Nagaland account for 21% of internet shutdowns from 2012-17.

Overall nearly 84% of internet shutdowns happened in 2016 and 2017.

Interestingly, the Southern states and Goa did not have a single internet blackout. The IT hubs of Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai are located in this region and even floods and social unrest (Tamil Nadu), State bifurcation violence (Andhra/Telangana); River sharing protests (Karnataka/Tamil Nadu) did not lead to the internet being blocked by Southern governments.

Some might easily conclude that especially after what the internet did for the Arab Spring as crackdown on freedom of expression.

Although it is very difficult to come to an absolute conclusion but such curbs carry the risk of stifling freedom of expression.

The government must walk the tightrope to ensure the curbs are used solely to preserve internal security and don’t suppress democratic dissent as there is no legitimate sweeping for internet curbs that threaten democratic principles.