A Manhunt in India Left 27 Million People Without Mobile Internet
Manish Kumar runs a car rental service in the city of Jalandhar in India's northern state of Punjab. For the past two weeks, his business has been struggling--starting on March 18, when, for four days, mobile internet was shut down across large areas of the state on the order of the government. Many of his customers use Google Pay to pay their bills. "Most people these days prefer to pay via ecommerce," he said. "The shutdown meant they couldn't do that."
From March 18 to 21, 27 million people across Punjab were left without mobile internet access, disrupting lives and businesses. In some districts, the blackout went on for more than a week. As the government tried to stop the spread of information--or, in its words, "fake news"--it demanded that Twitter block more than 120 accounts, from those belonging to local journalists to that of Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh.
It was all to hunt for one man--a 30-year-old Sikh separatist, Amritpal Singh Sandhu.
Sandhu is a preacher, and a prominent figure in a movement demanding the creation of an independent state for the Sikh community, known as Khalistan. The movement has sympathizers among the large Sikh diaspora, particularly in the UK and Canada, but Indian officials treat it as a threat to national security.
Sandhu's rise in Punjab politics has been rapid. Until last year, he was based in Dubai, working for his family's transport business. Then, in March 2022, he became a surprise choice as head of Waris Punjab De, a pressure group founded to advocate for farmers' rights in Punjab. In August, he returned to Punjab.
The manner of his arrival seemed calibrated to drive attention on social media. He landed dressed like a famous Sikh militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was killed by government forces inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Sandhu's supporters posted the image across multiple Facebook pages, attention started to snowball online, and his profile grew until his story broke out on mainstream media.
"He was clean-shaven until a year ago," says Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor of The Caravan magazine, who has written extensively about Punjab. "Suddenly, he comes into Punjab, claims many things, grows his hair, baptizes himself, and grows a following. There is a huge amount of construction in this man, who never had support on the ground on any large level."
His reach also grew among the huge Sikh diaspora. Many families have members overseas, the result of emigration waves--one of which came after huge riots sparked by Bhindranwale's death. Money from the diaspora supports causes and politicians, making overseas Sikhs influential in the state's political life.
Then, in February, Sandhu and a group of armed supporters stormed a police station in Ajnala, 15 miles from Amritsar in Western Punjab, in retaliation for the arrest of one of his aides. Six police officers were injured. The event gave Sandhu an aura, Bal said. But it was a while before the authorities finally started their operation to find him.
On the morning of Saturday, March 18, a video of Sandhu was livestreamed on Facebook, showing him sitting in a car zooming through vast farm fields while being chased by the police. At noon that day, the internet was shut down.
Professor Jagrup Sekhon, an expert in sociopolitical movements at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, said shutting down the internet was an attempt to rein in Sandhu's growing notoriety and to stop him from mobilizing supporters. "We know the role social media has played in recent times in spreading misinformation," he says. "Sandhu was becoming larger than life."
The Punjab government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party, said the internet shutdown was enforced to curtail the spread of misinformation at a sensitive time. From March 18 to March 21, smartphones could only be used to make calls and receive SMS messages. The next three days, the shutdown was restricted to six districts, after which it was brought down to two. Broadband in homes and offices wasn't disrupted, although most working-class Indians have only mobile access and don't have fixed-line internet installed.
The Indian government has often employed internet shutdowns as a tool for control. Access Now, a nongovernmental organization that tracks internet disruptions, counted 84 partial or total blackouts in India in 2022 and 106 in 2021--mostly in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
The government has also increasingly pressured social media companies to restrict access to politically sensitive content and accounts. Earlier this year, the authorities used emergency powers to compel YouTube and Twitter to remove clips of a controversial BBC documentary, which alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been responsible for deaths during sectarian violence two decades ago.
Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, the social media giant had resisted the Indian government's orders to take down content. In July 2022, the company filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court seeking judicial review of the content that the government wanted to be blocked. However, since Musk's takeover in 2022, the company has largely seemed to comply with orders to block accounts on the request of the Indian government.
Since March 19, at least 120 prominent Twitter accounts, including those of independent journalists Sandeep Singh and Gagandeep Singh, Indian Express reporter Kamaldeep Brar, author Peter Friedrich, and poet Rupi Kaur, have been blocked. The blocks have continued. On March 28, the account of BBC News Punjabi was withheld from Indian users.
A journalist whose account has been withheld shared the email he'd received from Twitter on condition of anonymity, to prevent reprisals. The email stated that Twitter had received a "legal removal demand from the government of India" regarding his Twitter account claiming that his content "violates India's information technology act, 2000." The email also noted that "Indian law obligates Twitter to withhold access to this content in India." The email did not specify the tweet or tweets that violated the IT Act.
Gagandeep Singh, who runs a YouTube channel called Pro Punjab, said he has not been able to access his Twitter since March 20. "I had only been tweeting news stories and developments that are already published elsewhere," he said. "It was really surprising. How can you suppress the voice of journalists that are merely posting verified updates?"
WIRED sent an email to Twitter for a comment but received a poop emoji in response.
While the Indian authorities justify their internet restrictions on the grounds of national security and stability, some observers say there's a risk that the heavy-handed approach could exacerbate tensions. By turning the hunt for Sandhu into a huge, disruptive, statewide event, the government has played into the separatists' hands, allowing them to spin up a narrative that attacks on him are attacks on Sikhism.
Professor Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh, said the internet shutdown in Punjab and targeting of Twitter handles was an "overreaction" because Sandhu doesn't have much groundswell in the first place. "He only managed to energize the radical elements within the diaspora of Punjab," he said. "But in the state, he doesn't have much mass support. He landed from somewhere and he wanted to take off. But he couldn't."
Hartosh Singh Bal agrees. "It created a perception that there is some huge radical activity going on in Punjab when it is quite contrary to the reality," he added. "It further feeds into the diaspora's imagined sense of injustice in the state. It is certainly counterproductive unless the government is interested in creating a narrative of Khalistan."