Tools to Fight Back: Training Activists in Northern India

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Internet Shutdowns in India

With 658 million people online, India is only second to China in terms of the number of internet users. However, internet access in India is sharply divided, including by gender, caste, religion, geography, and socio-economic status. For instance, women are 33% less likely to have mobile internet access than men. Similarly, rural communities have only a 29% internet penetration rate, far below the 51% national average.

According to NGO Access Now, India has had the greatest number of shutdowns in the world per year since 2018, including some of the longest-lasting ones. They occur in diverse contexts, ranging from political protests to national competitive exams to prevent cheating. Their target is often mobile internet, the most common form of internet access in India. However, aside from shutting down mobile networks, the government has also disrupted internet access by throttling internet speeds and filtering sites users can access in various parts of the country.

Although some shutdowns have violated Indian laws, the country’s legal framework often authorizes the government to disrupt internet access. Yet India’s vibrant civil society has achieved several legal victories against shutdowns, documenting their impact on civil rights, the economy, and political participation for courts. For instance, in early 2022, the Kolkata High Court successfully reversed an internet shutdown order, while a constitutional challenge to the legal framework permitting internet shutdowns is pending in the Guwahati High Court.

Yet despite frequently experiencing them, many civil society organizations are unsure how internet shutdowns occur technically, what related laws apply, and how to document them. Digital activists and communities experiencing shutdowns are hesitant to use VPNs and other circumvention tools because they worry about government reprisals. While civil society pursues strategic litigation and research, many organizations note that collaborating with communities most affected by shutdowns remains a gap and a priority to both understand their digital needs and to help them prepare for shutdowns. The reluctance of the private sector, including ISPs and telcos, and the government to engage with civil society on the issue of shutdowns compounds these gaps.


The Bachchao Project’s Key Approach: Upskilling most-impacted, marginalized communities

The Bachchao Project is a techno-feminist collective working with Indian communities on using open-source technologies to advocate for equal rights for women and LGBTQIA+ persons and to mitigate gender-based violence. The organization also conducts research, including on the impact of internet shutdowns on women and on marginalized women’s experiences in online civic spaces. It offers workshops, including on LGBTQIA+ digital security practices, and engages in public advocacy, such as a podcast on cyberdemocracy in India. These activities advance the Bachchao Project’s mission to advocate for women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights by bridging the gap between the priorities of technologists and the needs of everyday, often marginalized technology users.

Given its expertise in working with vulnerable communities in India, the Bachchao Project’s anti-shutdown approach involved recruiting trainees from digital organizations in marginalized communities hit hardest by internet shutdowns and training them on how to prepare for and to prevent shutdowns.

“The concept of ‘prepare and prevent and resist’ is absolutely something that I believe in. There has to be a network which works together to prepare for shutdowns,” argues Chinmayi SK, the founder of the Bachchao Project.

To forge this network, the collective recruited activists and other community members for network measurement and shutdown awareness trainings in Northeast India, where shutdowns are most common. Approximately twenty recruits participated in the network measurement training.

As SK states, “We have been able to support the network testers in India to understand and learn the tools recommended globally for open-source network measurement. We were able to build a curriculum to include non-technical users to understand the specifics of network testing and were able to translate the material into Hindi.”

In early 2023, the organization selected five members to serve as Network Measurement Fellows to collect network data and test networks. The collective prepared a three-week asynchronous course in Hindi and hosted regular office hours and weekly discussions with the participants.

“Some fellows were also involved actively in a shutdown. We used this opportunity to test the tools for measurement and circumvention,” says SK, emphasizing the lived relevance of the workshop. At the end of the course, the collective evaluated the fellows’ knowledge and all of them felt comfortable using the network measurement tools to which they were exposed. “They were able to identify what tools can be used for website censorship, internet shutdowns, and throttling. They also expressed that their expectations around the knowledge were exceeded during the trainings,” says SK. She adds, “Some fellows also plan to teach others in their communities about the techniques and tools they learned in this fellowship.”

“Knowledge is important. The measurement is important and has to happen meticulously and continuously. It’s very important to build community knowledge about this. That’s happened,” states SK. However, to sustain the community, continued resources are important. SK argues that “the network measurement fellows need support as we move forward. They said in their feedback that they would like to have more advanced trainings.”

The Bachchao Project also developed and conducted a shutdown preparedness course for higher-risk but less technically savvy activists, and drafted quick access guides for them about VPNs, internet shutdowns, and circumvention practices. The collective also provided small grant support for six projects the trainees pitched, including to build localized shutdown preparedness resources and to provide technical training to members of historically marginalized communities in Northern India for anti-shutdown advocacy.

“Most of the shutdown work needs to be done with people who do not understand shutdowns,” says SK, and the grantees’ projects embraced this challenge. For example, one grantee, a media organization, developed a guide for journalists that doubles as its internal standard operating procedures for reporting and communicating during internet shutdowns. “It’s not been done so far,” she notes.

“One of the subgrants was around Muslim and Dalit women, and specifically how security is a question around internet shutdowns. I think the work the subgrantee has done is beautiful. So far, regarding internet shutdowns, we’ve been talking about access, we’ve been talking about economic opportunities, we’ve been a little bit about mental health, but nothing about security. We’re very excited about that. Also, it helped us build a stronger relationship with this community,” adds SK.

Two key best practices emerged from the project. “For communities, the most important part is somebody sits and listens to them. Having in-person meetings where you’re sitting and just listening to what they have to say definitely strengthens the bond. Second, build knowledge materials in a digestible format they can take back and understand. And use examples they can relate to,” points out SK.  

Reflecting on the Bachchao Project’s network measurement fellowships and the community-based trainings, SK stresses that “the impact is going to be in the long-term.” She believes that building out resources and sharing knowledge with communities are the building blocks of that. “The conversation-starting is absolutely important.”


The network measurement fellows continue to use the skills they acquired, and some have recently deployed them to document a targeted internet shutdown. Several fellows also plan to pass on the techniques and tools they learned during the fellowship by training their communities to help them better prepare for shutdowns.