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Pursuit of Sikh Separatist Prompts Widespread Internet Shutdown in Punjab, India

Personnel from the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and the Punjab police conducted a flag march in an effort to apprehend fugitive Amritpal Singh.

Indian authorities have instituted a mobile internet and text messaging blackout in the state of Punjab, which has a population of around 27 million, in an effort to capture a Sikh separatist. The ban began midday Saturday and was extended for another 24 hours on Sunday. The fugitive, Amritpal Singh, is a 30-year-old preacher who has been a popular figure within a separatist movement that seeks to establish a sovereign state in Punjab called Khalistan for followers of the Sikh religion.

The Khalistan movement is considered a top national security threat, and the Punjab government sought to curtail the spread of “fake news” and potential unrest by blocking mobile internet service. Police attempts to apprehend Singh were unsuccessful, and his supporters used social media to seek help and organize their ranks. Nearly 80 of his associates were arrested on Sunday.

The blackout has crippled most smartphone services except for voice calls and some SMS text messages, and life has been disrupted since Saturday. Wired internet services were not affected, but businesses that depend on internet access, such as those that accept QR code-based payments and sell garments online, are feeling crippled.

India has increasingly deployed internet shutdowns in recent years, and it was responsible for almost half of the 187 global internet shutdowns in 2022, according to the New York-based advocacy group Access Now. While authorities usually cut internet access in a particular protest-hit district, the Punjab government has shut down internet access across the entire state. India has also previously cut internet access in the majority-Muslim region of Jammu and Kashmir for 19 months after revoking the region’s semiautonomous status.

Digital rights activists have called internet shutdowns draconian and ineffective, saying they exacerbate the spread of rumors or unrest by hobbling independent news reporting and make situations of law and order more dangerous and potentially more violent. The Indian government’s own efforts to push for services being available online are also threatened by the widespread internet shutdowns.

By CircleID Reporter

CircleID’s internal staff reporting on news tips and developing stories. Do you have information the professional Internet community should be aware of? Contact us.

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