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Manipur's Digital Darkness: Analysing Internet Shutdowns Amidst Conflict

Why is it that to quell the spread of fake news, the state resorts to an internet ban as the first and only option?

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On Saturday, 23 September, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh announced that a five-month-long internet ban would be lifted from the state.

To curb disinformation and quell violent ethnic clashes, Manipur's government enforced an internet shutdown on 3 May.

The following day, a group of men assaulted two tribal women, parading them naked before gang-raping one of them.

This disturbing incident only caught national attention on 20 July, through a viral video depicting this heinous act. It was only after this that the perpetrators were arrested - 77 days after committing the crime.

A debatable aspect came to light on this situation: Did the internet shutdown succeed in "preventing civil violence and maintaining law and order," as the government claims during such internal conflicts?
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According to a recent report by the US digital rights advocacy group Access Now for the #KeepItOn coalition, India accounted for approximately 58% For over 100 days now, Manipur was forced to bear the brunt of internet shutdowns reasoned under the guise of curbing fake news and preventing civil violence.

These justifications (or pretexts) for imposing a shutdown are largely vague.

When evaluated critically, this raises two important questions for discussion:

  • While internet bans, no wonder, stop the spread of rumours, does it really help in any way to curb violence?

  • Secondly, why is it that to quell the spread of fake news, the government resorts to an internet ban as if it is the first (and perhaps the only) option?

Is There Anything Called a 'Right to Internet’?

The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2016 passed a resolution calling for states to refrain from “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.”

It further proposed to expand access to the Internet, addressing an inclusive society with internet access. Unsurprisingly, India favoured an amendment to the Resolution for omitting the clause “a human rights-based approach” to the internet.

In India’s legal context, Right to Internet has been recognised in the fundamental rights under Article 19(1)(a), 19(1)(g), 21 and 21A of the Constitution.

However, as per natural law, the current legal framework grants ambiguous powers to the government to impose internet shutdowns with minimal oversight, laying the groundwork for unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on citizens’ rights.

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In Northeast India, the impact of internet shutdown was first sensed at a critical level during the 2019 anti-CAA protests. The abrupt internet shutdown coupled with a curfew angered the protestors leading to vandalism amidst demonstrations instead of restoring public order.

The Gauhati High Court questioned the shutdown’s legality and the Assam government couldn’t justify why the suspension was required to restore law and order. The government enforced another mobile internet suspension in 2022 to prevent cheating in the Assam Recruitment Exam.

A petition was submitted to the Gauhati HC, challenging that ‘cheating in exams doesn’t align with the threshold of widespread risk of injury to the public’ as declared by the Supreme Court in 2020.

Meghalaya has repetitively exemplified such non-compliance to Supreme Court directives. Since 2018, it has faced over 600 hours of internet suspensions, including a 72-hour shutdown in 2021 following a former militant’s killing in an encounter.

Post-suspension, it was found that there was no administrative order about the shutdown notice being released on government websites or information portals, openly disregarding the transparency principle forwarded by the Anuradha Bhasin judgment.

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Tonsing, a 7-years-old boy was shot in the head by a sniper while he was at a relief camp. Rushing to the nearest hospital 10 miles away from Imphal, their ambulance was ambushed and set ablaze by militants, burning them alive. This merciless act could send shivers down anyone’s spine but stories like these hardly made the news because of the shutdown.

The Manipur government continues to exercise internet shutdowns “to thwart the design and activities of anti-national and anti-social elements and to maintain peace and communal harmony… by stopping the spread of misinformation and false rumours through various social media platforms…” Though it lifted the ban on wired internet services on 25 July and on mobile internet on 23 September, only the privileged class of the people could access this as only 0.4 million out of Manipur’s 2.2 million internet users had wired subscriptions.

Before 25 July, to access broadband internet, essential service workers serving in healthcare, banking, or media, had to ask the Home Department for approval to provide internet services to them. Interestingly, some biases were observed in this approach. Applications from the valley were accepted while those from the hills were either denied or delayed as reported by an on-ground journalist.

Many journalists couldn’t effectively cover the situation as they met with unpredictable gunfires and entry restrictions. Internet shutdown further restricted them from cross-checking facts or google-ing anything - an instinctive move in their profession.

Businesspersons couldn’t file GST returns, students couldn’t apply for exams like CUET, others based outside Manipur couldn’t receive money from parents to pay their rent and bills and NGOs operating relief camps couldn’t reach out to donors beyond the state borders via social media, hampering their operations and resources to buy and provide essentials to the victims who lost their houses and family members.

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The Way Forward 

It can’t be denied that a shutdown stops the circulation of mis/disinformation and prevents violence. While there is no evidence to support this notion, it is a foreseeable possibility. Additionally, to curb verbal rumours from spreading, Section 144 of CrPC is imposed to prevent mass gatherings. This combined approach has often been unsuccessful as evidenced in the anti-CAA and farmers’ bill protests.

Since internet suspensions deprive victims of timely support, they must be exceptional, not routine. Shutdowns can be used as a crisis and conflict management measure in extraordinary situations especially to prevent rumours and disinformation from spreading like wildfire, which might cause communal clashes. The policies and laws to carry out such actions are way too unstructured and therefore, demanding a review mechanism is the need of the hour. Laws must balance safety and rights while curbing the misuse of information.

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A regularly updated database, published and maintained by State governments under relevant Union government ministries, should disclose internet shutdown orders to provide greater accountability, raise public awareness and facilitate better monitoring, analysis, and assessment of the impact of internet shutdowns.

A national study conducted by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and Ministry of Home Affairs, should evaluate whether shutdowns have achieved their intended goals specific to each case and publish it in a report.

The DoT should also issue a uniform set of SOPs and guidelines to be followed by all states/UTs while invoking the suspension of the internet. Rather than implementing a blanket shutdown over any region, formulating a policy that selectively restricts specific services while preserving overall internet access must be focused on.

Lastly, even though the judiciary has recognized Right to Internet, it hasn’t been protected explicitly in any regulation including the Draft Telecommunications Bill, 2022. Given how crucial the internet is in everyone’s life today, this right has to be aided in the executive’s practices to incorporate such principles in legal standards, and ensure a digitally inclusive society.

(The author is a sitting Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and a three-time Cabinet Minister from Assam. Atribh Deka is a research intern and a current undergraduate student at Kirori Mal College, Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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