Kept in the dark: Social and psychological impacts of network shutdowns in India


This publication discusses the social, psychological and economic implications of network shutdowns in India. It was published by the New Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation in February 2018 and written by Bijo P. Abraham, Ritu Srivastava, Shivani Lal and Zothan Mawii – then, researchers at the organisation.

The paper notes a total of 108 internet shutdowns in India between 2012 and 2016 – 51 in Jammu and Kashmir; 12 in Rajasthan; 10 in Gujarat and Haryana; four in Uttar Pradesh; three in Nagaland and West Bengal; two in Bihar, Maharashtra, Manipur and Odisha; and one in Arunachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Punjab and Tripura. The report argues that recurrent shutdowns lead to human rights infringements in terms of access to education, livelihoods and basic necessities.

The authors draw on existing reports by the media, academics as well as organisations such as the United Nations. They include excerpts of in-depth interviews conducted in states such as Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir, which recorded high shutdown rates.

The 72-page paper has eight sections covering a background on the issue; access to essential services such as education during shutdowns; the economic, social and psychological effects of such measures; and their political implications. It has two annexures with the government of India’s 2017 rules on temporary telecom service shutdowns, and media reports on such events.


  1. The report states that social media platforms have become vital for sharing information, socialising and promoting businesses. They are avenues for exercising one’s freedom of expression as well as that of assembly and association. The internet has been declared a human right by the United Nations – the authors note. In a 2015 judgement, the Supreme Court too deemed the internet to be an “essential medium to further our constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression."

  2. The number of internet users in India reached 420 million in 2017. Digital technologies have helped small businesses, from internet café owners and sim card shops, to fishermen who use cell phones to determine the rate of catch while at sea.

  3. Since 2012, the report notes, there has been an increase in the number of State-led crackdowns on free speech on the internet. This has been done by censoring websites, suspending internet services and arresting people based on their online activities. The government usually implements shutdowns in the name of  ‘national security’ or ‘national interest’. When imposed during times of protest and social unrest, they often worsen the situation by halting communications among households and families. Network shutdowns target mobile internet connectivity and cause considerable income losses.

  4. The frequent and prolonged shutdowns in Kashmir have caused problems for students, who have been unable to fill online forms for national examinations such as the AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) entrance and NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test). The internet shutdown in Darjeeling in June 2017 – due to widespread protests for Gorkha statehood – led to similar distress among students. The authors underscore the economic impact of shutdowns – in 2016, India is estimated to have lost $968 million due to shutdowns.

  5. The report contains numerous excerpts from interviews to demonstrate the effects of shutdowns on people’s social and economic rights, including citizens’ access to essential entitlements, and the services enshrined in the government’s Digital India initiative. (The Digital India programme was launched in 2015 to provide internet and digital infrastructure to each citizen, provide governance services online and ensure universal digital literacy.)

  6. People’s reactions to the suspension of internet services depend on the shutdown’s extent and the regularity of its occurrence.

  7. In Kashmir, respondents reported facing restricted mobility during shutdowns, along with a sense of suffocation, isolation, fear, helplessness, stress, panic and anger. Many felt that the claims of threats to national security did not justify the disruption of their everyday lives.

  8. The impact of shutdowns on education, health services as well as livelihoods, has had a profound effect on the way Kashmiris view the government. Quoting the views of several respondents, the authors emphasise that social exclusion has become a major consequence of network shutdowns, as the internet and social media have become an indispensable part of people’s lives.

  9. In 2017, the Ministry of Communications released a notification to regulate protocols for network shutdowns. The authors are of the opinion that the rules are likely to set a dangerous precedent by legitimising the act of denying citizens access to a basic right – the internet.

  10. The main recommendation of the report is for the government to clearly define ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’, and what constitute as threats to these. There should be mechanisms to hold the State accountable for when it suspends communications for lesser reasons. The report asserts that the government should not treat shutdowns as the first response during social unrest. Instead, they should push for wider and better access to internet facilities.

    Focus and Factoids by Sunita D’Sa Prabhu.


Zothan Mawii, Ritu Srivastava, Shivani Lal and Bijo P. Abraham


Digital Empowerment Foundation, New Delhi


Feb, 2018