India suspends internet and phone services
NEW DELHI, Dec 21, (AP): Three people died Saturday during clashes between demonstrators and police in northern India, raising the nationwide death toll in protests against a new citizenship law to 17, police said. O.P. Singh, the chief of police in Uttar Pradesh state, said the latest deaths increased the death toll in the state to nine since Friday, when police clashed with thousands of protesters who took to the streets in several parts of the country to oppose the new law, which they say discriminates against Muslims.
“The number of fatalities may increase,” Singh said. He did not give further details on the latest deaths. The ongoing backlash against the law marks the strongest show of dissent against the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he was first elected in 2014.
The law allows Hindus, Christians and other religious minorities who are in India illegally to become citizens if they can show they were persecuted because of their religion in Muslimmajority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It does not apply to Muslims. Critics have slammed the law as a violation of India’s secular constitution and have called it the latest effort by the Modi government to marginalize the country’s 200 million Muslims. Modi has defended the law as a humanitarian gesture.
Six people were killed during clashes in Uttar Pradesh on Friday, and police said Saturday that over 600 in the state had been taken into custody since then as part of “preventive action.” Police have imposed a British colonial- era law banning the assembly of more than four people in some parts of the state. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory Friday night asking broadcasters across the country to refrain from using content that could inflame further violence. The ministry asked for “strict compliance.”
In the northeastern border state of Assam, where internet services were restored after a 10-day blockade, hundreds of women on Saturday staged a sit-in against the law in Guwahati, the state capital.
“Our peaceful protests will continue till this illegal and unconstitutional citizenship law amendment is scrapped,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, the leader of the All Assam Students Union, which organized the rally. He rejected an offer for dialogue by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, saying talks cannot take place when the “government was hoping to strike some compromise.”
In New Delhi on Saturday, police charged more than a dozen people with rioting in connection with violence during a protest Friday night in the capital’s Daryaganj area. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, meanwhile, criticized the law.
At a news conference following the conclusion of an Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir said Saturday that India is a secular state and the religions of people should not prevent them from attaining citizenship. “To exclude Muslims from becoming citizens, even by due process, I think is unfair,” he said.
Following the remark, India’s foreign ministry summoned the Malaysian Charge d’Affaires to lodge a complaint. Indian authorities have stepped up phone and mobile internet shutdowns in some parts of the country in an effort to thwart a groundswell of protests over a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.
Student-led protests that have galvanized a large section of the Indian public have been met with communications blocks in areas of New Delhi, in the eastern state of West Bengal, the northern city of Aligarh and the entire state of Assam in the days since the contentious law was passed in Parliament. In Aligarh, where police beat students and fired tear gas shells inside a university last week, internet services on Saturday were suspended for the sixth straight day. The services were also barred in the capital of northern Uttar Pradesh, where nine people have been killed statewide in protests since Friday. Internet services were restored in the northeastern border state of Assam, the center of a decades-old movement against migrants from Bangladesh and where the protests began last week. Internet shutdowns are a favored tactic for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Authorities have interrupted internet services at least 102 times so far this year, according to a public online tracker maintained by the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre. In 2018, the #KeepItOn coalition, which works with the support of 191 organizations globally, and the nonprofit group Access Now reported that of the 196 internet shutdowns reported from 25 countries, India was responsible for the majority, with 134 incidents – almost 67% of the world’s documented shutdowns.
Since Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government first came into power in 2014, the internet has been suspended more than 360 times. Authoritarian regimes across the world have used similar tactics. In Egypt, for example, the government has blocked more than 500 websites in recent years to try to stifle dissent.
As Iran faced nationwide protests over government-set gasoline prices rising in November, the government shut down internet access to the outside world amid violence and a securityforce crackdown that reportedly killed over 300 people. That’s as Iran’s Shiite theocracy already has created a socalled “halal net,” a controlled set of local websites and services.
Iran already bans Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites after protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election, but tech-savvy Iranians long have circumvented those restrictions with virtual private networks and other means. In November, however, the shutdown blocked even those methods. In Pakistan, India’s archrival, the military and government have routinely restricted cellphone service and had Twitter and Facebook shutter accounts that they said contravene the country’s laws.