India: press freedom at ‘Internet shutdown capital’

Like Nigeria, India has a vibrant press. In fact, it boasts that it is the most populous democracy in the world. Yet, in December 2019, Live-Mint, the online service of India’s financial daily Mint, declared India “the Internet shutdown capital of the world.” According to the news service, India accounted for 67 percent of all documented Internet shutdowns in the world in 2018. With 134 instances, India far outdistanced the next closest countries: Pakistan (12), Iraq and Yemen (7 each), and Ethiopia (6).

In RSF’s index of press freedom, India’s ranking has ranged from average to very low. In 2002, India was ranked 60th out of 139 countries. In 2005, it plummeted to 106th out of 167. And in 2019 it fell even steeper to 140th out of 180 countries. It is not that India’s press system has dramatically changed over the years. It is that infractions against the press have varied in number and scope.

In December 2019, the Indian parliament passed a law that made illegal immigrants from neighboring countries, except for Muslims, eligible for citizenship. This triggered massive protests in parts of the country, but most intensely in the state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh. Some protested against the exclusion of Muslims and others against the plan to grant citizenship. Following failed attempts to quell the demonstrations, the state government shut down the Internet.

Just months earlier, the Indian federal government took even more draconian measures in the quasi-autonomous state of Kashmir. It is a state over which India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads. In August 2019, the Indian parliament declared a state of emergency there without warning, stripped the state of its special status, and began the process of federalizing it.

The declaration was followed immediately with a crackdown on political activities and communication. Thousands of political leaders and activists were arrested and detained indefinitely without charges. Movement of people was restricted, and Internet and telephone services—both landline and mobile—were suspended indefinitely. The government claimed that these drastic measures were a prelude to pursuing greater economic development in the region. But they came in the shadow of recent escalation in the protracted feud between India and Pakistan, which also claims the region as its own.

In any case, the repression in Kashmir is not without precedent in India itself. Since it became independent from Britain in 1947, there have been three such declarations of national emergency. The first two were in 1962 and 1971, and both were related to wars: a Chinese invasion and war with Pakistan, respectively. The third emergency, 1975-1977, was the only one declared in response to domestic politics. It was also the one that most directly affected the press and generated the most outcry.

India was in economic and political distress. Inflation was on the rise, and transportation workers were on strike. There were also mass street protests accusing the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of gross corruption. Even the very legitimacy of the government was in question. Allegations of irregularities in its election were under judicial review, and a court’s ruling was pending. It was in this charged political environment that Gandhi declared a state of emergency in June 1975. For nearly two years thereafter, the government clamped down on civil liberties, including press freedom.

Critics said her primary motive was to pre-empt the court’s decision, as the declaration did indeed. But Gandhi alleged that the unrest was a campaign to bring down her government and that the CIA was behind it. Invoking the pertinent clause in the constitution, she said that that justified the declaration of emergency.

Gandhi’s allegation against the CIA was not at all implausible. The crisis came at the height of the Cold War between the Western bloc (lead by the United States) and the Eastern bloc (led by the Soviet Union). And India had a warm relationship with the Soviets and a frosty one with the United States. In that scenario, it was quite consistent with the CIA’s pattern of operations to seek to bring down Gandhi’s government.6

In any case, the emergency declaration damaged Gandhi politically. The formerly popular daughter of independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, became very unpopular. Not surprisingly, her ruling Congress Party lost the parliamentary election of March 1977, the first time since India’s independence. And with that, Gandhi was out of office. But she reclaimed the office about three years later following a landslide victory in the general election of January 1980.

So, though her defeat in 1977 served as a warning that Indians would not tolerate any form of dictatorship, her return to office within three years was proof that such could readily be forgiven. Still, the lesson has remained. There has not been any such sweeping declaration of

As democracies turn 77 emergency powers since then. Even the declaration of such in Kashmir pales in comparison.

For the most part, India’s press system reflects its political peculiarities. Most notable is the press’s own self-policing regarding the reporting of religious/ethnic clashes. The traditional rule of thumb among the established press is to exercise caution so as not to widen the clashes. Beyond that, the press assertively guards its independence and for the most part the government respects it. That’s notwithstanding the continuous pressures and periodic jolts.

This is the general pattern in democracies around the world. Unlike China, much of the non-Western world does not cede democratic ethos to the West. There is a general commitment to political rights, including freedom of expression. But, of course, the devil is often in the details.

Notes

  • 1 Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Paris January 16, 1787. http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1289.
  • 2 “Reporters Without Borders Publishes the First Worldwide Press Freedom Index.” https://rsf.org/en/reporters-without-borders-publishes-first-worldwide-press-freedom-index-october-2002.
  • 3 https://rsf.org/en/worldwide-press-freedom-index-2005.
  • 4 https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.
  • 5 John Nerone, Violence Against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 118-119.
  • 6 A good source of information on this subject is John Stockwell’s expose In Search of Enemies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974). Stockwell, a major in the U.S. Marines, was a paramilitary intelligence officer with the CIA.
 
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