For how many more days will Manipur remain a victim of an internet shutdown?
Bitter outbreaks of violence have claimed 100 lives, destroyed through arson at least 57 villages in the hills and rendered thousands from both sides of the ethnic divide that has taken a sectarian and majoritarian turn, displaced. Amidst this misery and insecurity, people of Manipur have been victim of a complete internet shutdown.
Five years in a row India has become the single largest internet shutdowns offender. In 2019, India took its place as the “Internet shutdown capital of the world” with 67% of the total recorded worldwide in 2018 peaking during the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The longest shutdown was for 213 days in Kashmir when Article 370 of the Indian constitution was abrogated. In 2021, India saw a total of 21 internet shutdowns across the country. Early February 2021 marked yet another instance of the governments imposing complete shutdowns of internet access when there were blanket restrictions imposed on entire districts in the Near Capital Region. This was following the fallout of the powerful farmer’s protests.
Manipur, a state on the boil since May 3, 2023 when violence erupted and for the fifth week of a deliberately inept government’s failure to protect lives, dignity and property, the state’s residents have suffered from regular internet outages, which have seriously added to the physical disruption of everyday life in the state. As we go to press, the state remains in the throes of an inter-net ban in force till June 10, Saturday. On Friday, June 9, when the Supreme Court was approached on the issue through its vacation bench, it has chosen not to intervene. These arbitrary internet closures break the crucial connection between people and the digital world, having far-reaching detrimental effects on economies, education, information access, social cohesion, and the fundamental foundation of democratic societies. In order to protect the open and inclusive nature of the internet, which has evolved into a crucial cornerstone of contemporary lives, it is vital to acknowledge and address the devastating effects of internet shutdowns.
The shutdowns in India have been arbitrary and the result of a unilateral decision of the government adding to the list of shutdowns in the country in the name of curbing political unrest. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have deemed this necessary for the “maintenance of public safety and averting public emergency” – words employed that are overused bureaucratic generalisations that, in effect, impose restrictive measures which violate human rights on multiple fronts, the freedom of expression, the right to access information leaving citizens left to emergency health services, other online basic necessities and moreover, with little or no access to grievance redressal mechanisms.
Are authorities justified in exercising such control over the internet or are internet-shutdowns actually counterproductive? Do digital rights stand in equivalence with those in or of the real world? Are the internet bans of Manipur a part of a larger narrative that defines the attitude of the central government towards its citizens and freedom of expression?
We look at Manipur’s internet shutdowns or “net ban” and their implications for lives and freedoms.
The basic legislation governing telecommunications in India, the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, gives the government the authority to take actions to uphold public order and national security. In the interest of public safety, the government may issue orders under Section 5(2) of the Act ordering the interception or blockage of messages. Additionally, the government may order the blocking or prohibition of websites or information that it deems to be a danger to public order or national security under the Information Technology Act, 2000, which is the fundamental law controlling internet-based communication in India.
In order to impose an internet ban, certain basic procedure must be fulfilled, according to the Supreme Court of India. These recommendations are:
- A court must have the authority to evaluate any internet censorship.
- The government must give public justifications for blocking internet access.
- The government must follow the concept of least restrictive action and the internet ban cannot be enforced arbitrarily.
- To guarantee that citizens’ fundamental rights are not infringed in the name of security, the government must take into account how a ban on the internet would affect the populace.
In Manipur, there were multiple instances when internet shutdowns were placed and made public. Legal Support: Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) governs the use of the internet in Manipur. Local governments have the authority to impose orders under Section 144 that forbid gatherings of four or more individuals in one place and limit the mobility of people during emergencies.
The website internetshutdowns.in lists all 6 of them:
- Complete Internet shutdown (mobile and broadband, except for certain BSNL lines) starting September 2, 2015 after violence in Churachandpur district (Protests after the passage of the Protection of Manipur People Bill)
- Orders were issued by the District Magistrate to disconnect mobile Internet services in Imphal East and Imphal West from December 18, 2016 due to law and order turmoil over economic blockade by the United Naga Council (UNC).
- Following a protest demanding the ouster of Manipur University Vice Chancellor Adya Prasad Pandey, the Manipur Government ordered the suspension of all the telecom services except voice calls in Manipur on July 20, 2018 for five days as a precautionary measure to prevent from any disturbances of the peace and public order in the jurisdiction of Manipur.
- In the light of a massive protest by students following the arrest of eighty students and six professors of the Manipur University. Internet services have been suspended for the entire state of Manipur since Friday September 21, 2018 afternoon for next 5 days.
- Mobile internet services were suspended in Imphal from midnight on Tuesday, February 12, 2019, as a precautionary measure as protestors against Citizenship Amendment Bill decided to fight till the end.
- Manipur government has ordered shutdown of services in the state for three days from March 16, 2020 to prevent misuse of social media to spread hate video messages and images following clashes between two villages over a dispute.
- November 2020 – In response to a demonstration over an alleged death in custody, the Manipuri administration announced the suspension of mobile internet services in the Imphal West area.
- Following conflicts between police and farmers on strike, the Manipuri government announced the suspension of mobile internet services in a few Imphal neighbourhoods in February 2021.
- After militants attacked a police station in August 2021, the government of Manipur announced the suspension of mobile internet services in several areas of the Imphal East and Imphal West districts.
- October 2021, in response to demonstrations against the assassination of a police officer after an encounter with alleged terrorists, the government of Manipur ordered the suspension of mobile internet services in Imphal city and many other districts.
- In response to demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the Manipuri government announced the suspension of mobile internet services in a number of Imphal neighbourhoods in February 2022.
- Due to security concerns, the Manipuri government has now prolonged the internet blackout until June 10, 2023.
As can be observed from the data, since 2016, there have been sporadic internet shutdowns and limitations in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur. These shutdowns have been justified on grounds of law and order, public safety, and national security, among other things. The outages, which often lasted for days, weeks, or even months, have affected both mobile data and internet services. The internet prohibition in Manipur has had a substantial negative impact on a number of sectors of daily life, including social media, business, health, education, and business. Additionally, it has come under fire for allegedly violating access to information, freedom of speech, and other fundamental rights. Many people and groups in Manipur and beyond have spoken out against the ban and asked for it to be lifted. Others have also petitioned the courts. With little relief.
In March 2020, as the whole nation was preparing to face the unprecedented crisis of the Corona virus pandemic, the people of Manipur faced their sixth mobile internet shutdown. That is a shocking six shutdowns in less than 5 years. The imposition of lockdowns and curfews to contain the spread of the virus were in the happening stage. But the people of Manipur were going through a gagging of sorts, albeit digitally. The shutdown of all mobile internet telephony in the state was premised on the curbing of communal tensions when a clash between two villages in the hills brought to the fore old communal wounds between two major communities of Manipur- the Kukis and the Nagas. Although violent content and disinformation has seen an increasing rise in circulation since the proliferation of the internet in Manipur, the feud that ignited this time was decades old and tensions among the Nagas and the Kukis in general have existed from pre-independence period.
Then, in May 2023, yet again, a conflict between the ethnicities of Manipur-Meitei and Kuki clashed. Response from the powers that be? An internet ban. While ordinary people in Manipur may and do experience psychological and related anguish as a result of the unexpected lack of internet connectivity. Frustration, boredom, and a sense of powerlessness can emerge from not being able to communicate with people, obtain information, or participate in routine online activities. Particularly for people who significantly rely on the internet for social connection and support, this might have a negative impact on mental health. The internet has developed into a potent medium for sharing ideas, promoting social awareness, and taking part in political debates. A prohibition on the internet hinders individuals in Manipur from exercising their right to free expression and prevents them from participating in political debate, which reduces democratic participation. The internet is a huge informational resource that individuals may use to research a variety of topics, obtain instructional materials, and remain current on current events. When internet is prohibited, the people of Manipur have less access to news, research resources, and knowledge, which impairs their capacity to decide wisely and pursue intellectual activities.
An analysis of internet shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic
Internet shutdowns are imposed for a variety of reasons with varying degrees of disruption across the world. A resolution passed by the United Nations in 2016 identifies prevention of social media from “spreading messages that may incite anti-social sentiments in a sensitive situation” as the most commonly cited reason for internet shutdowns. The Manipur state government has enforced internet shutdowns for two primary reasons- either to contain the spread of sensitive content in communally tense situations or as “precautionary measures” during mass protests against the government.
Whether or not such bans work can be contested as there is no proper evidence that they do. Consider the example of the internet shutdown of 2020 in Manipur following the incident at Chassad village, a remote village in Kamjong district, where a communally charged mob lit houses on fire and caused severe property damage. There is a stark urban-rural digital divide that exists in Manipur where a majority of the internet service users as well as the infrastructure that enables these services are concentrated in the cities and towns. Imposing a blanket ban on the internet services does not really make sense as those who are likely to be fuelled by the hate messages or disinformation regarding the Chassad village incident, do not largely have access to social media and mobile internet in the first place. It is also safe to say that the communal tension arose not as a result of social media content.
Another point of note is that the imposing of internet shutdowns simply assumes that the people have no ability to filter of information and are gullible to any kind of information that is circulated on social media. It is not a well thought out decision of the government to assume that there will be state-wide riots if the social media content is not stopped from circulation in this context.
There is still another obvious angle from which the shut down in free flow of information and communication at times of social tension can be gauged. False information and rumours that have the potential to start riots and rumours never really required the internet to manifest. One can argue that the internet can only make the spread faster. But a counter argument would be that quelling of fake news and quicker debunking of rumours can also be similarly made faster and more efficiently through the internet. Hence the shutdown has the potential of both allowing rumours and false information unchecked among affected communities and localities. This does not mean to undermine the potential hazards of an ill purposed piece of information in times of heightened public tension but rather points to the bigger picture while analysing measures to maintain order.
Consider the internet shutdown that was imposed on the entire state following the widespread protests in Manipur University (July 2018) demanding resignation of Manipur University Vice Chancellor Adya Prasad Pandey- who was accused by both students and staff for inefficiency and attempts of saffronisation in education. Clearly the ruling party of the state, BJP, had a political stake in the fall out. Nonetheless it was a varsity issue confined to the state actors and the university. However, in response to this localised protest, an Internet shutdown was imposed on the entire state premised on prevention of “disturbances of peace and public order” leading to some districts even claiming that a localised issue was unfairly converted into a state issue. There was little chance of the law and order situation breaking down in the entire state considering that the people of Manipur have grown somewhat allergic to turmoil ever since the insurgency era. But the state government responded in an exaggerated way.
Arguably, such shutdowns attempt to limit the potential and reach of social media and new internet media as locations for public discussions and opinion formation. This can be interpreted as the response of a government in a state of moral panic, trying to divert or unnaturally diffuse issues behind citizens’ agitation. Besides, the internet has indeed created a more open and fluid political opportunity structure. For instance, there has been an emergence of a large number of viral content that has political opinions regarding Manipur and social media that have enabled formation of large public forums to discuss political issues openly without any old media mediating them. The electronic and print media even interprets and cites such content from the internet to disseminate information and news. This also allows for a more decentralised form of opinion sharing. This kind of dynamic that the internet enabled social media and new media brings is what causes uncertainty and moral panic among the elite politicians of Manipur, perhaps.
The 2023 internet ban
Manipur has seen 100 lives lost, close to 5 dozen villagers arsoned and thousands displaced in the current conflict. Some aspects of the ongoing conflict has a long-standing, centuries-old historical origin that include land conflicts, issues with culture, language, and identity. The ban justified on predictable grounds, has in fact served to inflame the dispute.
The state of Manipur’s internet censorship has had a significant impact on people’s everyday life, access to essential services, access to healthcare, communication, business, and education. It has made it significantly more difficult for people to access emergency services, online education, and medical treatment, which has had a detrimental impact on their health and generated financial losses. Additionally, it has violated people’s fundamental rights by restricting their freedom of speech, expression, and access to information.
Lives: People’s access to life-saving medical information and emergency services may be hampered by a lack of internet connectivity. For instance, the internet restriction has had a significant negative impact on Manipur residents’ ability to use telemedicine services, which are necessary for healthcare consultations.
Security: The internet has developed into a vital tool for law enforcement organisations to exchange vital information and plan emergency responses. Public security may suffer because of Manipur’s law enforcement authorities’ struggles to keep up with the rapidly evolving security environment as a result of the internet ban.
Jobs and employment: Since many businesses rely on digital platforms for their operations, a lack of internet connection may result in job losses. The region’s start-ups and the IT sector, both of which depend on internet connectivity for their operations, have been disproportionately affected by the economic effects of the internet ban.
Communication and education: The internet has grown in importance as a tool for communication nowadays, and Manipur’s prohibition on it has made it difficult for residents to connect with one another both locally and internationally. In the modern world, social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram are crucial for communication, and it is challenging for individuals in Manipur to remain in touch with their loved ones or obtain crucial information. Due of the Covid-19 epidemic, many schools and colleges in Manipur have been shuttered. The internet restriction has prevented students from using online learning tools including video lectures, notes, and study materials. It has had a significant influence on the region’s pupils’ access to a high-quality education.
Some well-sourced real-life examples of what happens with a lack of access to the internet in Manipur include:
- Health care: In Manipur, a patient passed away in September 2021 after an ambulance became delayed in traffic for hours because there was no way for law enforcement and medical personnel to connect because of the internet ban. The internet embargo has had a significant negative impact on emergency services including ambulances, hospitals, and governmental organisations. Emergency response coordination has grown challenging, sometimes resulting in delays
- Education: A story in The Wire claims that students in Manipur have been unable to attend online lessons as a result of the internet restriction, which has affected their capacity to finish their assignments and prepare for examinations. Due to the crisis, schools and institutions have been shuttered, thus students have been using online learning tools. However, because of the internet censorship, students are unable to access online courses, study materials, and notes, which has an effect on their education and chances for the future.
- Economy suffers, financial and business losses: According to a research by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, Manipur’s internet ban has cost the state’s economy around INR 1,100 crores and resulted in job losses and firm closures. Due to the internet restriction, several online firms in Manipur were forced to close their doors or temporarily halt operations, which resulted in a considerable loss of revenue and employment. Financial transactions have been challenging since the internet was banned, causing delays in day-to-day operations. Due to the absence of accessibility to online payment methods, many individuals and small and medium-sized enterprises who depend on a digital economy have been severely harmed.
Jurisprudence around internet shutdowns
The Indian Supreme Court’s rulings should heavily influence the internet restriction regulations. However, the failure of all governments, union and state, to implement Supreme Court rulings is legendary. Policy loopholes exist which allow for freedom of speech and ideas of liberty to be restricted without question. These were further brought out as burning issues of debate when the longest internet shutdown was imposed in Kashmir following the revoking of its status through Article 370. The policy mechanism for imposing such bans is the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rule under the Telegraph Act, 2017 which contains broadly worded phrases like “public emergency” and “in interest of public safety”. This allows the act to be extended to cover any ambit of communication including those enabled by the Internet.
In 2018, the Manipur government suspended the internet for five days amidst the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2018. This was an instance when the internet shutdown was used as a digital embodiment of the section 144 of the Indian constitution used to limit people’s movements and public assemblies. Media coverage was further limited by invoking the Cable Television Networks (Regulation Act), 1995 to effectively stop all TV news coverage of the protests.
The Supreme Court of India ruled in the landmark case of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (2020) that indefinite internet shutdowns are prohibited and that any restrictions on internet access must be justified by the concepts of necessity and proportionality. The court ruled that an internet blackout must only be a temporary solution and be up for legal review. According to Article 21A of the Indian Constitution, the ability to use the internet is a basic right that is a part of the right to education, according to the constitutional courts that followed the Kerala High Court (2017) ruling in Faheem Shirin R.K. v. State of Kerala. The court found that any limitations on the internet must follow the rules of proportionality and must not unnecessarily impede the right to education. The court acknowledged the significance of the internet as a vital instrument for obtaining information and education. The ruling offers essential advice on how to strike a balance between the state’s justifiable objectives and people’s constitutional rights to an education and internet access. The Court also emphasised on the need for transparency and has mandated that shutdown orders need to be published. This was as far as the judicial review went but it does not provide a long term solution to the government’s monolithic grasp over the Internet.
Hearing the petition, some months down the road (internet shutdown in J & K 2019), the Supreme Court of India however ordered the constitution of a Special Committee to review the restriction of internet mobile service to 2G in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The petitions were brought by the Foundation for Media Professionals, a lawyer, Soayib Qureshi and the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir, seeking the restoration of 4G internet in the region following the communication blackout imposed by the central government in August 2019. The Court recognised that the rights to freedom of speech and expression, health, education and business must be balanced against the prevailing national security concerns. Applying the minimum standards for internet restrictions set out in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, WP (C) No. 1031/2019, the Court held that the impugned order did not “provide any reasons” for the blanket enforcement of the shutdown across all districts.
However, the Court held back from declaring the ban to be a constitutional violation [para 19]. While the petition would “merit consideration” in “normal circumstances”, the particular “compelling circumstances of cross border terrorism” prevented the Court from finding a this to be a constitutional violation. [para. 19] Rather, the Court directed the constitution of a Special Committee, led by the Indian Home Secretary, to evaluate the necessity of the internet restriction in Jammu and Kashmir. The Court did however emphasise on the need for transparency and has mandated that shutdown orders need to be published. This was as far as the judicial review went but it does not provide a long term solution to the government’s monolithic grasp over the Internet.
The Internet Freedom Foundation v. Union of India case came before the Indian Supreme Court in 2019. The Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-profit organisation that concentrates on digital rights and freedoms, filed the lawsuit. In the case, the government’s practise of imposing lengthy and frequent internet shutdowns across India was contested, and the court was asked for rules to control and limit the use of arbitrary internet shutdowns by the government. The right to free speech and expression, the right to possess property, and the right to an education are among the fundamental rights that, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation, are violated when the internet is shut down. According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, protracted and frequent internet outages are illegal and infringe on residents’ basic rights. The court established a number of rules for the government to abide by when shutting down the internet in exceptional circumstances, including that any restrictions on internet access must be the last resort, must be the least restrictive way to accomplish the intended goal, must be time-bound, and must be subject to regular review and scrutiny. The government needs and must immediately post all orders relating to internet shutdowns, along with their justifications, according to another court decision. The ruling highlighted the significance of a free and open internet in promoting democracy and upholding fundamental rights, and it was viewed as an important win for internet freedom in India.
The court further ruled that the government must follow the principle of least restrictive action, which states that all alternative options must be explored before enacting an internet ban. The court additionally found that the government may only impose an internet restriction under special circumstances, and that such bans had to be justified and regularly reviewed by a competent body.
A petition asking for the restoration of internet services in Manipur, which had been without them for several months, came up before the Supreme Court of India in October 2020. The argument made in the petition was that the internet blackout was implemented arbitrarily and infringed on residents’ basic rights. But in January 2021, the Supreme Court decided against getting involved right away, saying there was no compelling need to do so. The state administration had previously established a review committee, the court noted, to determine whether the internet shutdown was necessary and how much it should be removed.
The review committee was instructed by the court to present its findings to the government within seven days, and the administration was also given a week to evaluate the report and decide whether to remove the internet closure. The government was also ordered by the court to publish all orders pertaining to the internet shutdown, along with the justifications for them. The Supreme Court emphasised the significance of examining the necessity and proportionality of internet shutdowns and established rules for the same even though it declined to immediately intervene in the case. The court ruled that any limitations on internet use must adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality, and that the government is required to make any orders pertaining to internet shutdowns and their justifications public.
On June 9 (2023), again, the Supreme Court of India’s Vacation Bench declined to make an immediate intervention in the case of the current internet blackout in Manipur. The Bench noted that there wasn’t a pressing need for the court to get involved right away. The state government had previously established a review committee to determine whether the internet restriction was still necessary, and the committee had filed a report with recommendations to relax the ban in some places, the court noted. The state government was ordered by the court to take into account the review committee’s report and act appropriately in light of it. The government was additionally ordered by the court to take into account the affected people’s worries while making any decisions about the internet restriction. The lack of “evidence that the situation had worsened since the ban was first imposed” appears to have contributed to the court’s lack of urgency in the case.
The internet ban in Manipur raises important questions about the balance between national security and individual rights. The government must ensure any restrictions on internet access are proportionate and narrowly tailored to achieve the desired objective. The internet has become an essential tool for communication, education, and commerce, and any restriction on internet access affects not only the right to freedom of speech and expression, but also the right to information and the right to conduct business. The government must weigh these competing interests carefully before imposing an internet ban.
- Violation of Fundamental Rights: International organisations and civil society organisations have criticised the internet censorship in Manipur for infringing on the citizens’ fundamental rights to information, speech, and expression.
- Information Access: Today, the internet is a crucial source of news and information. The Manipur internet ban has made people more susceptible to propaganda and false information since they are unable to obtain news about regional and international developments.
- Health, Job, Employment: emergency and everyday health services, government social security schemes, online employment and educational opportunities all seriously get affected with such a blanket ban.
India: what lies ahead?
The number of internet shutdowns in India has surpassed those that have occurred in some of the most autocratic states of the world. This begs the question- Is our country, under the current leadership, becoming increasingly autocratic? The recently notified IT Rules of India are a step towards cementing the monolithic grasp over the internet by government.
A larger narrative, then, that can be drawn from this is the tactics of the government that goes along Agamben’s theory of the state of exception which is when the state suspends ordinary rules of all citizens or some citizens to allow the state to undertake any course of action including a violation of rights. Places like Manipur, the North East region and Kashmir usually come under these states of exception where rights could be violated by the state for various “exceptional” reasons almost always justified in the interests of the “nation”.
Now, extending far beyond the “border” areas of Kashmir and the North-East, across the country, the reasoning behind most internet shutdowns reflects the same trend- political unrest, communal tension and anti-government protests.
Is the entire country now being put in a state of Agamben exception?
[This piece does not premise itself on the belief that the Internet should be a free and unregulated space for pursuits like the neoliberal agenda of the OTT players. Nor does it claim that social disturbances cannot be caused by the media messages or information disseminated through online mediums. The overarching argument is that there are policy gaps which call for better regulatory norms and a more transparent and accountable dissemination of the required understandings of internet as an entity in a democratic country like India.]
(This resource was put together under the guidance of the CJP Legal Research team by an intern Khaidem Nongpoknganba in 2020 with some recent inputs from Khyaati Thingnam)
1 The rules make it a compulsion for messaging platforms to allow identification of “first originator” of information that undermines “sovereignty of India, security of state and public order”. Of course this comes in direct conflict with people’s right to privacy. As per the rules, social media intermediaries are not only required to adhere to the set rules but also mandated to appoint chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and resident grievance officer- a step towards centralising the command and control of the digital space, a step that acknowledges the internet as an enabler of social interactions and an extension of the public sphere.