How media beat the shutdown in Darjeeling
The West Bengal government banned internet in the hills of north Bengal on June 18. The ban was lifted on September 25, one hundred days later. The precautionary “law and order measure”, introduced in the wake of violence following the breakout of a fresh stir for separate Gorkhaland state, was used as a virtual tool by the administration to bargain for peace with protesters in subsequent weeks. Quite naturally, it caused severe hardships to over one million people. Journalists covering the agitation were among the most severely affected.
“It was a first for me — reporting breaking stories from the ground and having to dictate the development on the phone to my office back in Delhi,” says Amrita Madhukalya, a senior reporter with the DNA newspaper. “The first story I broke after reaching Darjeeling was how the agitation had caused losses in excess of Rs 100 crore ($15.6 million) for the tea industry. I sent that story via a string of five SMSes to office before reading it out to one of our subeditors to ensure no discrepancies crept in.”
Sometimes even phone networks were down. “I have a friend who owns a shop in a small market complex near Chowk Bazaar,” says another senior print journalist from New Delhi. “On this one occasion when even SMSes were not going through, this friend helped me access data from a location that only he knew of. There were at least five to ten journalists from national newspapers looking for internet in Darjeeling in mid-July. He clearly didn’t want to attract their or the district magistrate’s attention.”
The clampdown on internet connectivity began a day after three people died of bullet injuries following clashes between pro-Gorkhaland protesters and the police in the heart of Darjeeling town on June 17. One policeman was feared killed. It later came to light that, having braved a near fatal blow from a khukuri, a traditional Gorkha blade, he was severely injured but alive.
By the evening, several videos of an underprepared but infuriated police force thrashing protesters began to circulate on social media. The state intelligence informed Kolkata that the protesters were planning to march around town with the bodies of the three victims the next afternoon and that the social media outcry against the use of force by police was turning increasingly vitriolic. Internet services were clamped early next morning.
As the Gorkhaland movement lingered on and the intensity of violence waned, data services continued to remain a casualty. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the service would be resumed once normality was restored. As the cycle of news shifted to more compelling narratives and senior journalists from big cities returned from Darjeeling, the vacuum was filled by Facebook news pages run by young social media activists, like With You Darjeeling, Chautari24, North Bengal Today, North Bengal Express, etc.
“A blanket ban on internet since June 17th, 2017 was the biggest challenge we faced,” says Rinchu D Dukpa, who edits the very popular Darjeeling Chronicle, a Facebook news page with over 140,000 subscribers. “Imagine over two months of no internet. Getting word out on important news events from the region was such a challenge those days. In addition, countering distorted, biased and unverified news and narratives spewed by mainstream media and even social media platforms paid for by the state was almost impossible due to lack of internet.”
On several occasions, especially after clashes between locals and the police, rumours quoting death toll would surface. During one such clash in Sukna near Siliguri, one news channel claimed three people had died. It later turned out that there was no casualty. One more interesting rumour that did the rounds was the imposition of President’s rule in Darjeeling. Much of it was fuelled by a lack of healthy flow of information. That there was an internet ban did not help.
The administration of another popular Facebook page run from Darjeeling, which has over 35,000 likes, was taken over by the administrator’s friends in the US. Requesting that his and his page’s name be kept secret, the administrator says he requested his friends in the US to scour content from website reports and e-paper versions of the relevant newspapers.
The ban was eventually lifted on September 25, just five days after the Mamata Banerjee government succeeded in weaning away rebel leader Binay Tamang from the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the party leading the agitation. Binay went on to be appointed as the chairman of a new board of administrators for Darjeeling hills.
“The ban may have been very severe but Darjeeling’s geography did offer respite at certain locations,” says Biswa Yonzon, a freelance journalist. “Those area that face the hills of neighbouring Sikkim, would receive internet signals. The connectivity wasn’t always great but it did the job for most local journalists reporting for papers such as The Statesman, The Telegraph and The Times of India.”
In fact the area just behind Darjeeling’s town square Chowrasta, which faces the towns of Jorethang and Namchi in South Sikkim, is now known as the Jio hill, after the Reliance 4G network. In Kalimpong, the misty Carmichael hill too is called by the same name.
[Click here to read this article on The Centre for Internet & Society, where it was first published.]