By Newley Purnell and Krishna Pokharel
NEW DELHI--As protests against a new citizenship law spread across India, authorities employed a harsh but familiar tactic: They pulled the plug on the internet--this time targeting parts of the capital for the first time.
Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Vodafone Idea Ltd., two of India's three largest carriers by subscribers, told customers Thursday on Twitter that they were complying with government instructions to suspend voice, text messaging and mobile internet services in some areas of New Delhi. The area is home to more than 20 million people.
Representatives of the carriers declined to comment. A spokeswoman for India's Ministry of Home Affairs couldn't be reached for comment.
Authorities banned large gatherings in cities across India on Thursday, including parts of the capital, ahead of planned nationwide protests by students and civil-society groups demanding the Citizenship Amendment Act be repealed.
Prime Minister Modi's government last week pushed through the bill, which created a simplified pathway to citizenship for immigrants of all the major religions of South Asia, except Islam. Protests in Muslim-dominated parts of New Delhi have broken out in recent days.
In India's technology hub of Bangalore, police detained civic leaders Thursday, including noted historian Ramachandra Guha, who participated in a banned demonstration against the law.
In the capital, a large crowd of protesters gathered around the city's iconic Red Fort area, despite a police ban on such assemblies. Several subway stations around the area were shut down to make it harder for the protesters to reach the site.
Authorities in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, also banned large gatherings.
The move is India's latest effort to stifle access to the web, which is used by about half of the country's 1.3 billion people. They depend on it for WhatsApp conversations with family and friends, use it to hail rides, shop online, book taxis, transfer money and more. But the government appears concerned the internet will be used for something else: fomenting dissent and organizing protests.
So far this year India has cut access to the internet 94 times, according to India's SFLC.in, a group that advocates for digital freedom. That accounts for 67% of the world's documented shutdowns, the organization says.
Thursday's shutdown marks the first time the capital has been targeted, said an SFLC.in spokesman. "It's a first for Delhi," he said.
Last year India saw 134 internet shutdowns--more than any other country, according to Access Now, another advocacy group. That was more than 10 times its neighbor Pakistan, which came in second with 12 shutdowns, and far more than Yemen and Iraq, with seven each.
Internet services have also been disrupted in recent days in the Northeastern state of Assam, which has seen protests related to the legislation. Parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir have had internet services suspended since early August, when the government removed the special autonomous status the only Muslim-majority state in India had enjoyed.
"Internet shutdowns curtail freedom of expression, cut access to information, and can inhibit people from assembling and associating peacefully, online and off," Access Now said in a report. Moreover, "many victims are unable to reach their families, get accurate information to stay safe, or reach emergency services," the group said.
Write to Newley Purnell at firstname.lastname@example.org and Krishna Pokharel at email@example.com