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Was there an unofficial internet shutdown in BHU & NTPC?

December 24, 2017
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Was there an unofficial internet shutdown in BHU & NTPC?

Varanasi/Rae Bareli: During the student-led protests at Banaras Hindu University in September, anger over how the university handled a sexual harassment complaint was exacerbated by the police brutality that rained down the protesting female students. Amidst this chaos, many students inexplicably found that they unable to communicate with their parents and peers because they couldn’t connect online.

Shraddha Singh, a second-year fine arts student at BHU, had to walk three kilometres to reserve her train ticket home and couldn’t call her mother to talk about the injuries she sustained during the lathi-charge on September 23. The 21-year-old student said, “First, the police came into the hostel to beat us up. Then the internet was blocked. Neither was the hostel WiFi working, nor the mobile internet. Forget about booking tickets, we weren’t even able to make calls.” She felt this was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the protest by those who were “afraid” of where it would lead.

Worse still, the hostel warden had asked the girls to vacate their dorms immediately, and the students were cast into the streets without access to the Internet. Tanjim Haroom, a Bangladeshi political science student at the university, found herself stranded in Varanasi like many of her classmates. “I go home only once in a year but this time, I was forced to vacate the hostel and I could not get in touch with any of my relatives or family due to this sudden shutdown of internet and phone services. I was helpless in this city and just had some Rs 700 ($11) with me. I finally got shelter at the Mumukshu Ashram and was able to contact my family from their landline phone.”

Predictably, officials from the university insisted that there wasn’t any clampdown on the internet. The then vice-chancellor, Professor Girish Chandra Tripathi, when asked about this unofficial shutdown, said that there was none. “There could have been a network issue because the internet was working fine in our office. I cannot say what the students have alleged. Making allegations is very easy,” he said over the phone to 101reporters. Varanasi district magistrate Yogeshwar Ram Mishra also denied that internet or phone services were suspended during the protests.

But a worrying number of first-person accounts do prove otherwise. According to Avinash Ojha, a first-year post-graduate student at the university, internet and phone services were restricted in the varsity campus soon after the lathi-charge on the students. They weren’t able to get online from the night of September 23 to 25.

The students had to go to Assi Ghat or other far-flung places to talk to their families and make travel arrangements out of the city. Ojha also suspected the hand of the university’s vice-chancellor behind this move.

Another case of suspected unofficial shutdown might have occurred on November 1, when a boiler explosion occurred at the National Thermal Power Corporation plant in Rae Bareili, that has since killed 34 people.

A senior officer of NTPC, on the condition of anonymity, told 101reporters that Reliance Jio was asked to cap their services in the area until things settled down. “I had heard my seniors discussing the need for this in order to avoid panic. There are a large number of Jio users here, so that specific service was asked to restrict its internet speed and calling facility for a while.”

Here too, there is evidence that the outage affected several people in the area. Amresh Singh, a property dealer hailing from Baiswara area of Rae Bareli was in Unchahar when the explosion occurred. He discovered that his phone network was not working. “There was no internet on my mobile phone after 4pm. I was able to access internet only after reaching Jagatpur, which is around 10 kilometres away from Unchahar,” said Singh. “It felt like the phone lines were deliberately disrupted. I initially thought something was wrong with my phone, but the people with me were also not able to use their phones. Maybe the government quietly shut down the network to prevent panic.”

An NTPC plant in UP witnessed a horrific blast, allegedly out of negligence. Picture credit: Saurabh Sharma

Mantu Baruah, a labourer from Jharkhand working at the NTPC, had a near-identical experience. His Jio network stopped working after 4 pm that day, and he was unable to contact his family on WhatsApp to tell them that he was safe. “I tried many times, maybe over a hundred times, to send an image but it didn’t work. Jio network was down. Neither video calls nor phone calls were working. The authorities had made this happen so people outside wouldn’t know what was going on here.”

But Ruchi Ratna, AGM (HR) at NTPC’s North Zone office in Lucknow, tells us that there was a network congestion that day, not a shutdown. “Even we were unable to talk to our officers and were getting our information through the media,” she said. Sanjay Kumar Khatri, Rae Bareily’s district magistrate said over the phone, “There is no question of an ‘unofficial shutdown’. I myself faced issues in sending messages on WhatsApp but my BSNL mobile was working fine and even journalists here were sending images and videos real time.”

However, a senior communication manager at Reliance Jio’s Vibhuti Khand office in Lucknow revealed to this reporter that the internet was indeed restricted in both these instances for 12 hours each. “This was only done on the order of the government. I do not hold any written information, but it must be with the head office,” the communication manager said. At the time of publishing, our requests for comments from the official spokespeople of Jio had not received a response.

Arvind Kumar, principal secretary (Home), Uttar Pradesh government, said that there were no restrictions or shutdowns during either incident. “There could have been network issues. The government did not ask any service provider to restrict its services. I will look into the matter, about where the orders to restrict Jio were issued from, but it did not come from the Uttar Pradesh government,” he said.  

While activists have roundly criticised the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency of Public Safety) Rules, notified in August without public consultation, there is now a better-defined (albeit still vague) protocol for implementation of internet blackouts. For instance, only the central or state home secretary can issue the orders. Prior to this, internet restrictions were issued by various authorities, along with section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, aimed at preventing “obstruction, annoyance or injury”. This wide berth has allowed the administration to quietly get away with short-term internet bans without proper explanation. In fact, those monitoring these shutdowns are only able to maintain such records by tracking media reports; no official records are available to the public. Without official transparency, often, if there is no news story, it is like there was no internet ban.

 

[Click here to read this article on The Centre for Internet & Society, where it was first published.]