Indian states blocked internet access ahead of guru’s conviction

Fifty million people in India lost access to the internet for five days as the conviction of a cult leader plunged the northern states of Punjab and Haryana into a state of emergency.

Local government cut off mobile internet and text messaging services on Thursday, Aug. 24, ahead of a verdict in the trial of cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh on rape charges, NDTV reported. Service was restored Tuesday morning.

Singh, who heads the Dera Sacha Sauda religious group, was found guilty on Friday of raping two women from his group in 2002. Violence quickly followed as Singh’s devotees protested the verdict, leaving 38 dead. The group claims to have more than 70 million followers globally.

The government took the measure of shutting off mobile internet service to “prevent any disturbance of peace and public order,” according to a statement from the Additional Chief Secretary of Haryana that was obtained by the Times of India. The order affected over 50 million people. Singh was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Monday.

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In addition to shutting down mobile internet, a lockdown was imposed in parts of Haryana and Punjab. Trains were cancelled and schools and businesses closed. Security forces were deployed to contain the situation, with the high court asking the government to use force if necessary.

India isn’t the only country to block internet access during times of political turmoil. China has systematically curtailed internet access and has moved to shut down talk that reflects badly on the Communist Party and its tight control over content on the internet. In addition to strengthening the so-called Great Firewall by launching a crackdown on VPNs, the country temporarily banned cartoon character Winnie the Pooh from the internet this summer because users compared the bear to China’s President Xi Jinping.