India has cut off internet and SMS service to the entire state of Punjab, affecting almot 30 million people, as authorities search for a radical Sikh preacher. The shutdown imposed Saturday was supposed to expire Monday but it was extended for at least 24 hours, paralyzing businesses, colleges, and digital payments, the Guardian reports. Authorities say the internet shutdown is to stop the spread of "fake news" during the operation to arrest Amritpal Singh. The 30-year-old is a leading figure in the separatist Khalistan movement, which seeks to create an independent homeland for Sikhs.
The advocacy group Access Now says India cuts off citizens' internet access far more often than any other government, the Washington Post reports. Outside the troubled Jammu and Kashmir region, which had its internet cut off for 19 months after unrest in 2019, it's rare for an area as large as Punjab to lose access, says Prasanth Sugathan at the Software Freedom Law Center, a nonprofit based in New Delhi. "Definitely shutting down across the state is not proportional," Sugathan says. "You need the internet for almost everything these days. And if you are shutting the entire state, the effects on people will be unimaginable."
Before the Saturday shutdown, Singh's supporters were using the internet to organize themselves and seek help. The manhunt for Singh has sparked protests at Indian embassies and consulates in cities around the world, including San Francisco, where Sikh protesters smashed windows at the consulate after clashing with consulate workers, the AP reports. (Read more India stories.)