Internet Shutdowns in Manipur: When Humanity Goes Offline in 'Digital India'

In the end, the disputes about internet shutdowns raise basic questions about the future of human life itself.

5 min read

The shame of India is just beginning. It took about 78 days for the news of sexual violence from Manipur to finally reach us. The Chief Minister of Manipur says that there are hundreds of videos documenting crimes such as the one we have seen recently.

Numerous pieces have now been written, social media posts have been posted, and WhatsApp messages have been forwarded. As the Central government was forced to react, even the troll armies have been activated to put a divisive spin on the inhumane violence that has plagued Manipur for the past 80 days.


Internet Shutdown as a Means To Cripple Information Channels

The rage and shame that have echoed across India have finally resonated at a humanitarian level. Thanks to the nature of our global Internet. At a dinner in Washington DC this week, I was asked several times about the time it took for such videos to surface.

It was only last month that this city was celebrating India's rightful position on the world stage by honouring our Prime Minister.

For all its shortcomings, social media platforms have ensured that no part of the world can hide what's happening in their backyard from other countries' scrutiny. News from one part finds an audience across countries just like Korean dramas or Indian matchmaking.

Even when the Iranian regime and Taliban aren't able to keep their suppression of protests and violence against women hidden, one wonders, how did India manage to do it? What was the State machinery doing? What were journalists and media organisations doing?

The reason that the news which shocked billions within hours was hidden from us for almost 80 days is that GoI, more often and more drastically than any other democracy, feels empowered to shut down the Internet as and when it likes.


Impressive Track Record in Persistent Blockades

India tops the world in the number of internet shutdowns imposed by our State and Central governments. In Manipur, the first shutdowns started on 28 April 2023 in the districts of Churachandpur and Pherzawl and since 3 May, every shutdown order that was imposed saw both broadband and mobile internet suspended. Every five days, a new order was passed extending the shutdown.

Last year, India shut down the Internet 77 times. In 2021, we did it 101 times, and at the height of the pandemic when the Internet was the lifeline for everyone, we managed to use this "Kill switch" 132 times.

India also has the distinct honour of having the longest Internet Shutdown in the world, that of 552 days imposed in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. This started on the evening of 4 August 2019 when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated by the Parliament of India.

The beginning of the communication blockade saw the restriction of landlines as well as mobile services. The ban on landlines was lifted but suspension of the mobile internet continued in the valley. The erstwhile state regained a 4G connection on 6 February 2021 after 552 days of no to low internet.


Digital India: A Fact or a Facade?

Different reasons are cited each time, some state in India does it but often police shuts down the Internet services the moment it hears about a peaceful protest. We are told that this is to maintain "law and order". No evidence about the effectiveness of such shutdowns is ever provided. But it sounds right.

"Social media is so full of misinformation and its ability to reach large swaths of people within seconds, so it must be true," we all think to ourselves. "If police is saying it, it must be right, after all, it's for our security," we add to the narrative. As long as it doesn't impact our way of life and is happening in some other part of the country, we are quick to dismiss it as an elitist issue.

The Internet is now simultaneously treated as the most essential of public spaces and a luxury product that can be denied to citizens through arbitrary decisions of the governments.

When all aspects of our lives are moving online to make a "Digital India", how can we allow the government to bring entire states to their knees shutting down businesses, and depriving access to banks, medical services, and transportation?

We expect despotic regimes from China to Iran, Syria to Russia to use their power over communications to spy on and control their populations. But when democratic societies operating under the rule of law, take up the habit of destroying citizens’ ability to communicate to achieve short-term objectives, a different and ultimately more disturbing truth is revealed.


Impact of Laws Around Internet Shutdown on Ground

The legal basis for challenging Internet shutdowns in India may be solid but does not result in relief for the citizens despite several rounds of litigation.

The Supreme Court erroneously decided in the Anuradha Bhasin judgment that in some circumstances, after fulfilling certain criteria, short-term suspension of the Internet may be justified. Despite the safeguards provided in the judgment, state governments continue to flout those rules and bring down entire states to their knees as and when it suits them.

In view of the fundamental nature of the rights at stake, the court has also emphasised the requirement of transparency, mandating that shutdown orders be published.

Nonetheless, most of the orders are not published nor is the public informed of any imminent shutdown. Several states in India now routinely shut the Internet down "to prevent cheating in examinations" an illegal practice.

But all that Internet shutdowns did for Manipur was prevent the rest of the country from seeing the inhumanity of the situation on the ground.

When the ruling party's own MLA feels that the government has misplaced priorities, it is not rocket science to understand what went wrong here.

The event that occurred on 4 May in the state has now been taken cognisance by the Supreme Court on 20 July highlighting how the reporting of events has been crippled by the shutdown, removing the possibility of any meaningful response from the other parts of the country.


Several Implications of Shutdowns

Internet shutdowns are not merely a cause of economic loss, as suggested by the Brookings report that they are costing the world economy roughly USD 2.5 billion a year but cause a loss of livelihood, jobs, and education. Several people aren't able to get access to banks, order medicines, or run their WhatsApp-dependent small businesses.

Students aren't able to study, journalists are forced to rely on SMS to file stories and overall the State cannot function. Losing internet access is more than just losing the ability to stream your favourite movie or playing a video game. It now means livelihood for small businessmen and women, online banking, women's safety, access to taxi services, food, education, and almost every other aspect of modern life.

In the end, the disputes about internet shutdowns raise basic questions about the future of human life itself.

Governments have this mistaken idea that the way to shut down the internet generation is to shut down the internet. But videos will keep coming and the end to India's shame lies in our actions and not in suppressing the news.

(Mishi Choudhary is Managing Partner at Mishi Choudhary & Associates LLP, and Legal Director at the Software Freedom Law Center. Eben Moglen is Professor of Law and Legal history at Columbia University, and Director-Counsel and Chairman at the Software Freedom Law Center.)

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