Internet Blackouts as a Political Tool in Kashmir, India

Police in Kashmir confronting violent protestors December 2018

The increasing availability of the internet around the world has made it a platform for expressing and debating political ideas.[1] The internet has allowed for the broader community to become more engaged and knowledgeable on political issues – something that is beneficial in keeping governments accountable and upholding the rule of law. It is for this reason that many governments perceive the internet as a threat to their power. As such, governments across the world have come to use internet blackouts as a political tool to control dissidents and the spread of information in an attempt to limit the spread of anti-government rhetoric.

Whilst this political tool may seem conditioned for use in authoritarian regimes, the largest democracy in the world – India – frequently implements internet blackouts. The disputed Kashmir region in north-west India suffered a seven-month blackout from August 2019 – March 2020. The region has a long history of dispute and conflict, with ongoing actions of terrorism and political violence. The Indian government thus justified the shutdown as a way of restoring public order and preventing organizations from coordinating attacks.[2]

Yet in contrast to governments’ goals, internet blackouts (including Kashmir’s) do not yield their desired effect. Research from Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator has shown that blackouts instead “encourage a tactical shift to strategies that are less orderly, more chaotic and more violent.”[3] The repressive nature of internet blackouts validate the anti-government ideology that authorities are trying to quash. In Kashmir, internet blackouts have further disenfranchised Kashmiris who were already questioning government leadership.

Similarly, blackouts do not stop political dissidents – protests can still be planned and organized without the internet (as demonstrated by the successful anti-communist demonstrations in Eastern Europe during the Cold War). This is especially the case in the twenty-first century, as modern technologies allow blackouts to be circumvented by VPNs. Protestors and dissidents can, in fact, continue to communicate behind the government’s back.[4] The Kashmir blackout did not reduce levels of protest; in fact,Jan Rydzak’s research indicates that violence was actually four times more likely during the blackout period due to groups’ decreased ability to effectively communicate and coordinate non-violent rebellions.[5]

Countries that have implemented internet blackouts have witnessed social, economic, and political consequences.  For example, due to people’s limited access to Indian banks and businesses, the government-imposed internet blackouts in India were estimated to have cost their economy over 1 billion USD in 2019.[6]  The education sector was particularly hit hard – since their education is delivered largely online, Kashmiri pupils had difficulty accessing their schools and universities.[7]

While governments are increasingly employing internet blackouts as a tool to control political dissidents, the case of the internet shutdown in Kashmir illustrates  that this tactic can be unsuccessful and lead to serious ramifications. The blackout not only failed to stop violent protests in the region, but it also caused further social and economic problems to emerge.

Works Cited:

[1] Cassondra Mix, “Internet Communication Blackout: Attack Under Non-International Armed Conflict?” Journal of Law & Cyber Warfare 3, no. 1 (2014): 70-102.

[2] Jan Rydzak, “Of Blackouts and Bandhs: The Strategy and Structure of Disconnected Protest in India,” Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator (2019).

[3] Jan Rydzak, “The repercussions of shutting down social media,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2019,  (accessed November 9, 2020).

[4] Laura Denardis, “Multi-Stakeholderism: The Internet Governance Challenge to Democracy.” Harvard International Review 34, no. 4 (2013): 40-44.

[5] Jan Rydzak, “Of Blackouts and Bandhs”.

[6] Chitralekha. “Censorship for Counter-insurgency: Dilemmas for Citizenship in Kashmir.” Economic and Political Weekly 49, no. 21 (2014): 55-58.

[7] Brian Stauffer, “Shutting down the Internet to Shut up Critics” World Report 2020. Human Rights Watch, 2020, (accessed November 9, 2020).