Manipur’s Digital Blackout: Internet Shutdown is an Assault on Justice and Fundamental Rights
Published in Shutdown. Tags: india, Manipur.
On 19 July 2023, a video went viral on X (formerly Twitter) showing two women from Manipur’s Kangpokpi district being paraded naked by a mob of hundreds of men. The footage sparked outrage across political spectrums.
Netizens voiced their anguish and dismay regarding the treatment of the women as well as the fact that this was the first time people were seeing and hearing about these scenes even though the incident happened on 4 May, one day after the Manipur government ordered the Internet in the region to be shutdown.
The Internet has dramatically changed how we share and consume real-time information. From far-off events to news from our backyard, live updates are at our fingertips. But what happens when this source is abruptly cut off?
Manipur Offers a Harrowing Testament
On 3 May, the state government imposed the Internet shutdown, citing concerns over “anti-national” activities and spreading of misinformation. While the goal might have been to curtail rumors, the shutdown inadvertently snuffed out a critical communication lifeline, including news of the violence continuing unabated.
It’s well known that Indian authorities use Internet shutdowns as a tool to quell civil unrest. While it is their right to do so by law, the same law also states that they must publish an end date. Since 3 May, the Government of Manipur has not publicly disclosed on its social media channels or website the:
- Roughly 20 orders issued by the Commissioner (Home), Manipur, mandating the suspension of and extension of Internet services.
- Confirmation orders from the State Review Committee regarding the suspension orders put forth by the Commissioner (Home), Manipur.
Such omissions directly violate the Supreme Court’s verdict regarding Internet shutdowns, emphasizing that orders dictating the suspension of Internet services must be promptly and reliably available to the public to ensure citizens make necessary adjustments to mitigate the adverse effects on their daily lives and livelihoods.
Shutdowns Impact Everyday Life
Impuri Ngayawon was in Manipur when the conflict broke out in May. Stranded without the Internet, she could not communicate her whereabouts to her international humanitarian agency office in Delhi for three months.
“The government frequently imposes Internet shutdowns, and most times, those affected remain oblivious,” said Impuri. “It’s an eerie feeling – being silenced without even realizing.”
Sadam Hanjambam, a gender rights activist and founder of Ya_All in Manipur, is all too familiar with the Internet’s crucial role. He’s been instrumental in establishing a football team for LGBTIQ individuals and even organized a transgender football tournament during the pandemic times in India.
“As an organization centered on youth, we rely on social media for advocacy, awareness, and online support,” said Sadam, adding that during the COVID pandemic, Ya_All used online fundraising to assist over 10,000 people through social media crowdfunding”.
“Imagine being thrust into informational darkness while the rest of the country thrives in the digital age. Isn’t this a gross injustice?”
Babloo Loitongbam, the Director at Human Rights Alert in Manipur explains, “As we grapple with this digital isolation, there must be a call for introspection. If cutting off the Internet is seen as a solution, are we not silencing voices and exacerbating issues rather than addressing them?”
Shutdown Continues into Fifth Month
The now infamous video eventually went viral by circumventing Internet censorship, and reached every corner of the nation, forcing the administration to take action.
- On 19 July, local police arrested some of the perpetrators who had not previously been charged even though the families of the women had lodged a report with local authorities on the day.
- On 20 July, the X account, @B5001001101, that originally posted the video was suspended.
- On 25 July, marking the 83rd day of the shutdown, the government resumed Internet leased lines and broadband services. This decision came in response to a directive from Manipur’s High Court urging the restoration of Internet connections.
Concerning the last of these actions, it’s important to note that mobile data and VPN services remained suspended even though 96% of India’s Internet users rely on mobile data.
As the Manipur Internet shutdowns continue into their fifth month, work and life continue to be impacted and lost. People facing conflict and violence need a medium to reach out for help. Currently, those under the ban, cannot.
Saadia Azim is a policy expert from India. She delves deep into research on the Digital Divide and passionately champions Internet Rights. Her insights bridge the gap in understanding the digital realm. She also serves as the Vice President for Publicity at the Internet Society, Kolkata Chapter.