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Indian Officials Cut Internet For 27 Million People Amid Search For Fugitive

Tuesday March 21, 2023. 12:20 AM , from Slashdot
Indian authorities severed mobile internet access and text messaging for a second day Sunday across Punjab, a state of about 27 million people, as officials sought to capture a Sikh separatist and braced for potential unrest. The Washington Post reports: The statewide ban -- which crippled most smartphone services except for voice calls and some SMS text messages -- marked one of the broadest shutdowns in recent years in India, a country that has increasingly deployed the law enforcement tactic, which digital rights activists call draconian and ineffective. The Punjab government, led by the opposition Aam Admi Party, initially announced a 24-hour ban starting midday Saturday as its security forces launched a sprawling operation to arrest the fugitive Amritpal Singh, then extended the ban Sunday for another 24 hours.

Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, 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. He rocketed to nationwide notoriety in February after his supporters stormed a police station to free one of his jailed supporters. The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India and considered a top national security threat by officials, but the movement has sympathizers across Punjab state, which is majority Sikh, and among members of the large Sikh diaspora who have settled in countries such as Canada and Britain. In a bid to forestall unrest and curtail what it called 'fake news,' Punjab authorities blocked mobile internet service beginning at noon Saturday, shortly after they failed to apprehend Singh as he drove through central Punjab with a cavalcade of supporters. Officials were probably also motivated by a desire to deprive Singh's supporters of social media, which they briefly used Saturday to seek help and organize their ranks.

Singh was still on the run as of late Sunday, and the 4G blackout remained in effect. Three Punjab residents who spoke to The Washington Post said life had been disrupted since midday Saturday. Only essential text messages, such as confirmation codes for bank transfers, were trickling through. Wired internet services were not affected. 'My entire business is dependent on internet,' said Mohammad Ibrahim, who accepts QR code-based payments at his two clothing shops in a village outside of Ludhiana and also sells garments online. 'Since yesterday, I've felt crippled.'

Read more of this story at Slashdot.
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