Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts
A farmer talks on his mobile phone during an ongoing protest to demand minimum crop prices, near the Punjab-Haryana state border at Shambhu in Patiala district on February 22, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 05 March 2024

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts

Indian farmers cut off as activists warn of pre-election digital blackouts
  • Farmers march on Delhi to demand higher prices for crops, Internet shutdowns hamper flow of food and aid 
  • Campaigners say shutdowns aim to quell dissent as India tops world charts of Internet switchoffs

SHAMBHU, India: They have been beaten with canes, doused in tear gas and blocked by concrete barricades and metal spikes but the thousands of farmers trying to march to India’s capital to demand higher crop prices also face an invisible barrier — digital blackouts.

As their caravan of tractors and trucks moved from the northern state of Punjab toward New Delhi in February, the farmers found their phones going dead as state authorities imposed temporary Internet shutdowns.

It is not the first time authorities have cut the Internet — India imposed the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world in 2022 — and campaigners fear more digital crackdowns ahead of elections expected by May.

Farm union leaders are seeking guarantees, backed by law, of more state support or a minimum purchase price for crops.

The farmers, who set off on their “Delhi Chalo” (Let’s go to Dehli) protest in early February, were stopped by security forces about 200 km (125 miles) north of the capital, with water cannons and tear gas used to push them back.

They are now camped out at Shambhu Barrier, on the border between the states of Punjab and Haryana.

Since Feb. 12, Haryana state authorities have cut access to mobile Internet services at regular intervals and for several days at a time. They said they did so to “stop the spread of misinformation and rumors” and to prevent the mobilization of “mobs of agitators and demonstrators,” according to local media.

The farmers, many of whom are members of the Sikh religious minority from Punjab, say the shutdowns made it hard to get medical help for the injured and to source food. It also cut them off from their leaders, making coordination difficult.

“Snapping the communication lines only spreads rumors and distresses our families,” said Hardeep Singh, a 28-year-old who was nursing an injured eye after recent clashes with police.

“We’re already far away from home and the communication blackout adds to our miseries,” he said.

Farmers shout slogans during a protest against India's central government to demand minimum crop prices in Amritsar on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

Neither the chief minister’s office in Haryana nor the state’s telecoms ministry responded to requests for comment.

Campaigners have accused the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of repeatedly using Internet shutdowns to stifle opposition.

“The alarming trend of Internet shutdowns coupled with widespread online censorship is a grim reflection of digital authoritarianism, particularly in the lead-up to elections,” said Gayatri Malhotra of the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation.

“Should this trajectory persist, it threatens to severely impede people’s access to information, curtail their capacity to make informed electoral decisions, and restrict their freedom to organize, assemble and communicate their electoral demands peacefully,” Malhotra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


India frequently uses Internet shutdowns to control protests, including in disputed Kashmir and northeastern Manipur state, where dozens have died in ethnic clashes since last year.

A farmer performs a fire breathing act during a protest demanding minimum crop prices, at Shambhu Haryana-Punjab border near Ambala some 220 Km from New Delhi on February 14, 2024. (AFP)

Mobile access has also often been cut during elections and examinations and these shutdowns were often imposed for indefinite periods and without the publication of shutdown orders, in violation of a 2020 judgment by the nation’s top court.

The state of Haryana ranks fourth in the country for the highest number of Internet shutdowns, following Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Manipur, according to Delhi-based advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center.

The farmers’ protests have already sparked other restrictions.

Dozens of accounts on social media platform X have been suspended for backing the farmers, with rights groups and those affected calling the step a worrying sign in the world’s largest democracy where nearly a billion people will cast their votes in national elections due by May.

Although the farmers’ protest is confined to Punjab for now, their complaints of falling incomes resonate more widely, highlighting a perception in India’s huge rural hinterland that Modi has done too little to support the farming community and raise living standards.

Over 40 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people are dependent on agriculture and many say they have suffered economically under Modi. Hardeep Singh, for example, grows wheat and rice on his four-acre farm, but like many he said poor returns on investments, including pesticides and farm equipment, made it increasingly difficult to make ends meet without guaranteed prices for his produce.

While pollsters say Modi will almost certainly win a rare third term in office, the discontent of farmers will be a headache for years to come.

The federal agriculture ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the protesters’ demands for higher guaranteed prices for all crops.


Farmers hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against India's central government to demand minimum crop prices in Amritsar on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

Farmers said the blackout not only stopped them from spreading their message to the outside world, but also blocked them from receiving information and instructions.

“The Internet was our primary means of ensuring our protests receive adequate coverage and reach a wider audience, free from the interference of mainstream media that often portrays us in a negative light,” said Taranjeet Singh, a 34-year-old farmer. In Punjab, Singh is a common surname and middle name.

To overcome the challenge, many farmers have installed television sets in their tractor trailers to get the latest news.

The blackouts also make it harder to treat injured and sick people, and to contact emergency services such as ambulances.

“We are forced to walk several kilometers away from the protest site to access stable wireless network connections, which wastes our valuable time, and could prove fatal for those injured and requiring immediate medical care,” said Baba Sukhdev Singh, a 50-year-old volunteer with the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, one of the unions leading the march.

Many farmers also said signal jammers were being used in the area, preventing them from contacting people in their villages to ask for food supplies.

Taranjeet Singh said farmers were left walking around in desperation, asking one another about what the protest leaders might want them to do next.

“The communication blackout casts us into a state of darkness, exacerbating the chaos and confusion,” he said.

Frankly Speaking: Why ICC prosecution in Gaza was justified

Frankly Speaking: Why ICC prosecution in Gaza was justified
Updated 9 sec ago

Frankly Speaking: Why ICC prosecution in Gaza was justified

Frankly Speaking: Why ICC prosecution in Gaza was justified
  • Regional director for Near and Middle East of the International Committee of the Red Cross says the law of armed conflict makes sense if its violators are prosecuted
  • Fabrizio Carboni discusses ICC prosecutor’s application for arrest warrant against Israeli’s Netanyahu and Gallant, ICRC efforts to resolve other regional conflicts

DUBAI: On May 20, the International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan applied to the court for arrest warrants to be issued against senior Hamas commanders and for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, one of whose key functions is to call on all parties in a conflict to uphold international humanitarian law, is in favor of prosecutions in cases where individuals have violated the laws of armed conflict.

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s regional director for Near and Middle East, made the above point clear during an appearance on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs program.

Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for Near and Middle East, spoke to Frankly Speaking host Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

“Usually we don’t comment on judiciary matters, especially if they’re related to a conflict where we have a very strong presence and where our staff is present,” he said.

“As a matter of principle, as the ICRC, obviously we believe that the law of armed conflict makes sense if you prosecute the people who violate it.

“And so we obviously, beyond the conflict in Gaza, beyond any specific case, we support prosecution.”

He added: “We support national prosecution first, and then international one if the national prosecution doesn’t comply. Now in this case of the ICC, our position is not to comment. We observe.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Carboni expressed anger at the trauma being experienced by Palestinian ICRC staff in Gaza, and explained among other things the impact of the Gaza war on other regional conflicts and the ICRC’s ongoing role in resolving them.

No matter how big the imbalance of strength between Israel and Hamas, the international humanitarian law applies to both sides, Carboni he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

“There is no hierarchy in this. Parties to a conflict, state or non-state armed group, have obligations. And when we think about this humanitarian obligation, it’s basic. It’s the minimum.

“These are not very complex and sophisticated rules — just asking for the civilian population to be spared, just asking for civilians when they are displaced to receive basic assistance, to have access to essential services. It’s really basic humanity.”

Hamas broke international humanitarian law on Oct. 7 when its fighters kidnapped and killed civilians in southern Israel. Since then, Israel has been facing the bulk of the same accusation.

Despite the best efforts of the ICRC to compel Israel and Hamas to abide by the rules of war, it suspects both sides are still violating them. Carboni put this down to what he calls “survival narrative.”

“Something we don’t often mention is emotions and the fact that all parties in this conflict have a narrative of survival,” he said.

“I’m not commenting. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I’m just seeing this. And when I engage all parties to this conflict, there is a survival narrative.”

In November last year, Israel and Hamas agreed to a humanitarian pause in the fighting, which permitted an exchange of prisoners and hostages and allowed aid agencies to get urgently needed supplies into Gaza to help civilians.

Fighting soon resumed, however, and attempts by interlocutors since at securing a permanent ceasefire have failed.

If given the opportunity of another humanitarian pause, Carboni is confident the ICRC can make a significant difference to the lives of Palestinians trapped in Gaza and the hostages still held by Hamas.

“We could make a difference for the Palestinian people, because you might have assistance increase significantly during this pause,” he said. “We could have access to many areas safely and assist more Palestinian people.

“At the very same time, we could get hostages released. We could get detainees on the Palestinian side released by Israel. And this represents a form of hope.”

Part of the ICRC’s remit is to intercede in hostage negotiations. Carboni said the families of the hostages still held in Gaza are in a “permanent state of torture.” “Unfortunately, we know very little about the fate of the people who were taken hostage,” he said.

“It’s part of this political, military environment where you negotiate everything, even things which shouldn’t be negotiated, such as the release of hostages, because (the taking) of hostages is totally prohibited.

“You can only imagine the condition of the hostages. You imagine the fighting, you imagine the bombing, you see the situation in Gaza, and you can imagine what the hostages are going through.

“And also a word on the families. When you’re a member of a family of a hostage or just a person missing, you don’t know, is he alive, is she alive, dead or not? Is she in good health, not in good health? And this situation for the families is a permanent state of torture.

“And I really feel this pain with the families of the hostages. Any family, being Palestinian or Israeli, who doesn’t know where his or her loved one is. And that’s why, as ICRC, we try to push as much as we can to find an answer, to release the hostages now.”

Carboni revealed that a couple of weeks ago, there was hope during two or three days for a ceasefire and release of hostages. “We really thought, a lot of people thought, that we would get there,” he said.

“And then suddenly it all collapsed. And I can tell you that the psychological impact of this failure on the civilian population in Gaza, on the families of the hostages, is devastating.”

Meanwhile, according to him, humanitarians are running out of words to describe the misery that the Palestinian people are enduring in Gaza under Israel’s offensive. He underscored the urgency of de-escalation in Gaza, where Israel has been fighting the Palestinian militant group Hamas since Oct. 7 last year.

“There is an urgent need to de-escalate the level of violence,” he said. “What we see today in Gaza is unbearable.

“The civilian population, the Palestinian population, is going through a round of misery, which I have difficulty to even describe, because after seven months, eight months, I have the impression we used pretty much all the possible words to describe what they’re going through.

“I’m really concerned, because we don’t have words anymore. I’m afraid that at one stage, the situation of the Palestinian people in Gaza and including the hostages won’t be news anymore, because we are turning in circles, because we don’t see an improvement, because we see no end to this misery.”

Carboni added: “Every time I think about Gaza, I’m thinking about my Palestinian colleagues who are trapped in Gaza. “I’m thinking about their children, I’m thinking about their family, I’m thinking about the fact that they’ve been moved again.

“Most of them were coming from Gaza City. Then they moved to Khan Younis. Then they moved to Rafah. Now they are moving again. And I’m thinking about them.

“I’m thinking about, on the one hand, their courage, and on the other hand, this feeling of not being able to help them, not being able to alleviate their distress, their anxiety, their frustration.

“As a father, as a parent, I also connect with my colleagues who have children. It’s now, what, six, seven months that those children are living on a battlefield? Because Gaza is a very special situation. You’re permanently on the battlefield.

“You have children who, every day, are hearing bombs. Who’ve seen people being killed, wounded, children seeing their parents helpless.

“So, when I think about Gaza, I think about ICRC’s Palestinian staff, and it gives me the energy, humbles me, and at the same time makes me angry, because I don’t think my colleagues need to go through this.”

Palestinians inspect the destruction following overnight Israeli strikes on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 6, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)3

Asked whether he thought the worst is now over or if there was still potential for a wider regional conflagration emanating from Gaza, Carboni said the spillover has already occurred, raising fears of an unintended escalation.

“It’s not that we have to fear a regional conflict happening — it’s happening while we’re talking,” he said. “We have the fighting in Lebanon. We had this night where we had missiles and drones launched from Iran on Israel. The regional conflict is happening.”

Beyond its role as a humanitarian aid agency, Carboni said ICRC plays a critical role in conflict resolution, in the hope that “diplomacy will prevail, politics will prevail, and not the use of force.”

However, the violence in Gaza has had a detrimental effect on conflicts elsewhere in the region, including in Yemen, where the Iran-backed Houthi militia has been locked in battle with the UN-recognized Yemeni government since 2014.

Since the outbreak of fighting in Gaza, the Houthi militia has mounted attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, ostensibly in solidarity with Palestinians, prompting retaliatory strikes by the US and UK.

As a result, the ceasefire between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, which expired in October 2022 but has remained largely intact, has been cast into doubt. Carboni said a prisoner exchange deal could get the stalled process back on track.

“The crisis in Gaza shook all the conflicts in the region,” he said. “I see the authorities in Riyadh trying to nevertheless push for this permanent ceasefire and tomorrow a peace agreement. One of the measures which would facilitate, which would build confidence, is to continue the release of detainees.”


US, French diplomats commemorate Tunisia synagogue attack

US, French diplomats commemorate Tunisia synagogue attack
Updated 45 min 43 sec ago

US, French diplomats commemorate Tunisia synagogue attack

US, French diplomats commemorate Tunisia synagogue attack

DJERBA, Tunisia: Diplomats from the United States and France visited on Sunday the Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s Djerba island to commemorate a deadly attack there last year amid a Jewish pilgrimage hampered by security fears.

French Ambassador Anne Gueguen and Natasha Franceschi, the US deputy chief of mission in Tunisia, lit candles and placed flowers inside Africa’s oldest synagogue.

They both declined to be interviewed, and members of their teams said the event was too emotional for them to speak.

On May 9, 2023, a Tunisian policeman shot dead a colleague and took his ammunition before heading to the synagogue, where hundreds of people were taking part in the annual pilgrimage. 

The assailant killed two more officers as well as two worshippers there.

After rumors that this year’s pilgrimage would be canceled altogether due to security concerns and as tensions soar over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, organizers had said the three-day event “will be limited.”

As the diplomats visited Djerba, only about a dozen Jewish pilgrims attended the festival, which started on Friday.

“When I see it empty like this, it hurts,” pilgrim Hayim Haddad said in tears on the first day of the pilgrimage.

Cyclone hits Bangladesh as nearly a million flee inland for shelter

Cyclone hits Bangladesh as nearly a million flee inland for shelter
Updated 26 May 2024

Cyclone hits Bangladesh as nearly a million flee inland for shelter

Cyclone hits Bangladesh as nearly a million flee inland for shelter
  • Most of Bangladesh’s coastal areas are a meter or two above sea level and high storm surges can devastate villages
  • Forecasters predicted gusts of up to 130 kilometers per hour, with heavy rain and winds also lashing neighboring India

PATUAKHALI: An intense cyclone smashed into the low-lying coast of Bangladesh on Sunday, with nearly a million people fleeing inland for concrete storm shelters away from howling gales and crashing waves.
“The severe Cyclone Remal has started crossing the Bangladesh coast,” Bangladesh Meteorological Department Director Azizur Rahman told AFP, adding the raging storm could continue hammering the coast until at least the early hours of Monday morning.
“We have so far recorded maximum wind speeds of 90 kilometers (56 miles) per hour, but the wind speed may pick up more pace.”
Forecasters predicted gusts of up to 130 kilometers (81 miles) per hour, with heavy rain and winds also lashing neighboring India.
Authorities have raised the danger signal to its highest level.
Cyclones have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh in recent decades, but the number of superstorms hitting its densely populated coast has increased sharply, from one a year to as many as three, due to the impact of climate change.
“The cyclone could unleash a storm surge of up to 12 feet (four meters) above normal astronomical tide, which can be dangerous,” Bangladeshi senior weather official Muhammad Abul Kalam Mallik told AFP.
Most of Bangladesh’s coastal areas are a meter or two above sea level and high storm surges can devastate villages.
“We are terrified,” said 35-year-old fisherman Yusuf Fakir at Kuakata, a town on the very southern tip of Bangladesh in the predicted route of the storm, speaking just before its arrival.
While he had sent his wife and children to a relative’s home inland, he stayed put to guard their belongings.
At least 800,000 Bangladeshis fled their coastal villages, while more than 50,000 people in India also moved inland from the vast Sundarbans mangrove forest, where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers meet the sea, government ministers and disaster officials said.
“We want to ensure that a single life is not lost,” said Bankim Chandra Hazra, a senior minister in India’s West Bengal state.
As people fled, Bangladeshi police said that a heavily laden ferry carrying more than 50 passengers — double its capacity — was swamped and sank near Mongla, a port in the expected path of the storm.
“At least 13 people were injured and were taken to a hospital,” local police chief Mushfiqur Rahman Tushar told AFP, adding that other boats plucked the passengers to safety.
A young man drowned in rough seas at Kuakata on Sunday afternoon, district government administrator Nur Kutubul Alam told AFP.
Bangladesh’s disaster management secretary Kamrul Hasan said people had been ordered to move from “unsafe and vulnerable” homes.
“At least 800,000 people have been shifted to cyclone shelters,” Hasan said.
The authorities have mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers to alert people to the danger, but local officials said many people stayed home as they feared their property would be stolen if they left.
He said around 4,000 cyclone shelters have been readied along the country’s lengthy coast on the Bay of Bengal.
In addition to the villagers and fishermen, many of the multi-story centers have space to shelter cattle, buffaloes and goats, as well as pets.
On the low-lying island of Bhashan Char, home to 36,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, 57 cyclone centers were opened, deputy refugee commissioner Mohammad Rafiqul Haque told AFP.
The country’s three seaports and the airport in the second-largest city Chittagong were closed, officials said.
India’s Kolkata airport closed Sunday, while the Indian navy readied two ships with aid and medical supplies for “immediate deployment.”
While scientists say climate change is fueling more storms, better forecasting and more effective evacuation planning have dramatically reduced the death toll.
In the Great Bhola Cyclone in November 1970, an estimated half a million people died — mostly drowned by the storm surge.
In May last year, Cyclone Mocha became the most powerful storm to hit Bangladesh since Cyclone Sidr in November 2007.
Sidr killed more than 3,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Last October, at least two people were killed and nearly 300,000 fled their homes for storm shelters when Cyclone Hamoon hit the country’s southeastern coast.

Right-wing politician Nigel Farage accused of generalizing about UK Muslims for ‘not sharing British values’

Right-wing politician Nigel Farage accused of generalizing about UK Muslims for ‘not sharing British values’
Updated 26 May 2024

Right-wing politician Nigel Farage accused of generalizing about UK Muslims for ‘not sharing British values’

Right-wing politician Nigel Farage accused of generalizing about UK Muslims for ‘not sharing British values’
  • Honorary president of Reform UK party interviewed by Sky News’ presenter Trevor Phillips

LONDON: Controverisal right-wing figure Nigel Farage was accused on Sunday of generalizing about UK Muslims for “not sharing British values” during an interview on Sky News.

The honorary president of the Reform UK party was being interviewed by the channel’s presenter Trevor Phillips, whom he told there is “a growing number of young people” in the UK who were “on the streets of London every Saturday” and “loathe much of what we stand for.”

When pressed by Phillips on whether he was referring to British Muslims, Farage said: “We are. I am afraid I found some of the recent surveys saying 46 percent of British Muslims support Hamas, support a terrorist organisation that is proscribed in this country.”

He was quoting a Henry Jackson Society poll released in April that reported that only one in four British Muslims believed Hamas members committed murder and rape in Israel on Oct. 7 last year, in which around 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage in an attack on the south of the country.

Farage compared British Muslims to people of British-Caribbean origin, who he claimed had a shared herotage with the UK, and asked Phillips — whose parents moved to Britain as part of the Windrush generation from the West Indies — how many people in his community could not speak English.

Phillips replied: “We all speak English,” before adding that many British Muslims also spoke the language.

Farage rejected the claim and said that we had not been appearing on the program to “attack the religion of Islam,” adding that he had not done so. He blamed the issue on the two main British political parties and their immigration policies.

“I’m blaming elements of that community, I’m not blaming them. I’m stating a fact, no one else dares tell the truth about this,” he said.

“On the broader question, the biggest single problem this country faces is the population explosion. And it will not be debated in this election.

“Why? Because Labour started it and the (Conservatives) accelerated it. That has led to a problem on a scale unimaginable. Nobody in history has allowed more people in who are potentially really going to fight against British values than (Prime Minister Rishi) Sunak.”

Twelve injured as Qatar Airways Dublin flight hits turbulence, airport says

Twelve people traveling on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Ireland were injured during a bout of turbulence.
Twelve people traveling on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Ireland were injured during a bout of turbulence.
Updated 26 May 2024

Twelve injured as Qatar Airways Dublin flight hits turbulence, airport says

Twelve people traveling on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Ireland were injured during a bout of turbulence.
  • Irish broadcaster RTE said the incident lasted less than 20 seconds and occurred during food and drinks service
  • Aircraft experienced turbulence while airborne over Turkiye, Dublin Airport said in a statement

DUBLIN: Twelve people traveling on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Ireland were injured during a bout of turbulence, Dublin Airport said on Sunday, adding that the plane landed safely and as scheduled.
Flight QR017, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, landed shortly before 1 p.m. Dublin time (1200 GMT), the airport said.
“Upon landing, the aircraft was met by emergency services, including Airport Police and our Fire and Rescue department, due to 6 passengers and 6 crew [12 total] on board reporting injuries after the aircraft experienced turbulence while airborne over Turkiye,” Dublin Airport said in a statement.
Irish broadcaster RTE, citing passengers arriving at Dublin Airport, said the incident lasted less than 20 seconds and occurred during food and drinks service.

Qatar Airways told Sky News that the injuries sustained by passengers and crew were “minor.”

It said: “[They] are now receiving medical attention... The safety and security of our passengers and crew are our top priority.”

An internal investigation regarding the incident has now been launched, the airline said. 
The incident took place five days after a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore was forced to land in Bangkok due to severe turbulence, which killed a 73-year-old British man and left 20 others in intensive care.
Turbulence-related airline accidents are the most common type, according to a 2021 study by the US National Transportation Safety Board.
From 2009 through 2018, the US agency found that turbulence accounted for more than a third of reported airline accidents and most resulted in one or more serious injuries, but no aircraft damage.