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Editorial of the Day: An Internet ban will not restore peace in Manipur (The Hindu)

Context: The article is discussing the situation in Manipur, where violence broke out on May 3, 2023. The rest of India seemed to be indifferent or not actively concerned about the situation until July 19, when a video clip depicting sexual violence by a mob surfaced and went viral on social media. During this period, the government imposed an Internet shutdown in Manipur, which means that the internet connectivity in the region was intentionally disrupted or restricted. The article questions the propriety (appropriateness) of the Internet shutdown and its role in the national apathy or lack of concern from the rest of India towards the violence in Manipur. The shutdown may have contributed to limited information flow and media coverage, potentially making it easier for the situation to go unnoticed or overlooked by the rest of the country. The article highlights that the absence of specific data or instances of violence being prevented due to the Internet shutdown raises concerns about its effectiveness and whether it is being used as a tool to suppress information and control the narrative surrounding the events in Manipur. Overall, the article is discussing the issues of violence in Manipur, the delayed response from the central government, the impact of an Internet shutdown on information dissemination, and the general lack of attention or concern from the rest of India towards the situation in the state.


What is Internet Shutdown?

  • Internet shutdown is defined as an intentional disruption of the internet services in a particular area.
  • It can be implemented in different ways, including blocking access to specific websites or platforms, throttling or slowing down internet speeds, or completely cutting off internet connectivity.
  • It can be temporary, lasting for a few hours or days, or they can be prolonged, lasting for weeks or even months.

The Rising Trend of Internet Shutdowns in India

  • According to a report by Access Now and the KeepItOn coalition, India enforced as many as 84 internet shutdowns in 2022 and was on top of the list for the fifth year in a row.
  • Jammu and Kashmir accounted for the highest number of internet shutdowns followed by Rajasthan and West Bengal.
  • According to the Access Now report, India witnessed 109 internet shutdowns in the year 2020 against the 155 lockdowns all over the world.
  • Instances of major internet shutdowns in India
    • Jammu and Kashmir witnessed the longest internet shutdown which started in 2019 with the abrogation of Article 370 was finally lifted after a long gap of 18 months in February 2021.
    • The Manipur government banned internet to maintain law and order after ethnic violence broke out in the state. It has been more than 40 days since the internet was shut down in the state.
Internet Shutdowns in India
Internet Shutdowns in India

Legality of Internet Shutdowns in India

  • Section 144 of CrPC: Till the year 2017, internet shutdowns were imposed largely under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
    • Section 144 of CrPC gave the police and the District Magistrate the powers in order to prevent unlawful gathering of people and also to direct any person to abstain from a certain activity.
  • However, in 2017, the Government promulgated the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules 2017.
    • 2017 Rules provide for a temporary shutdown of telecom services in a region on grounds of public emergency (up to 15 days at once).
    • Such directions can be issued by Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Home Affairs in the case of Government of India or by the Secretary to the State Government in-charge of the Home Department in the case of a State Government.

Reasons behind Internet Shutdowns

  • National security concerns: Governments may justify that shutting down the internet or specific communication channels is necessary to prevent the coordination of illegal activities, terrorist threats, or to maintain public safety during sensitive periods.
  • Political control and suppression: During periods of political unrest, or protests, authorities may restrict access to prevent the spread of information, curb organization efforts, or silence dissent.
  • Curbing the spread of misinformation: Governments may enforce internet shutdowns to control the flow of information and combat the dissemination of false or misleading content.
  • Preserving national unity or stability: Internet shutdowns may be employed in regions with secessionist movements or conflicts to maintain national unity or stability.
  • Preventing exam cheating: Some countries have implemented internet shutdowns during national examinations to prevent cheating and ensure the integrity of the testing process.

Impacts of Internet Shutdowns

  • Economic impact: Data from global tracker Top10VPN shows that India suffered a loss of $ 255.2 million due to internet shutdowns, while in 2022, the country suffered a loss of $ 184.3 million.
  • Disruption of communication: Internet shutdowns disrupt communication channels, making it difficult for individuals to connect with their loved ones, and access emergency services.
  • Limitations on education and research: Internet shutdowns hinder access to online educational resources, e-learning platforms, and research materials.
  • Impediment to healthcare services: The internet plays a crucial role in healthcare delivery, including telemedicine, remote consultations, and the access to medical information.
  • Impact on fundamental rights: The fundamental rights to speech, conduct business, access to healthcare, express dissent, and movement of people in a state, are compromised.
  • Impact on journalism: An internet shutdown can hamper the reach of the on-ground-reporting and cause underreporting of local issues.
  • Risk to privacy: For example, when people turn to untrustworthy VPNs in order to route around restrictions, their personal data is at risk.
  • Disrupts political transparency: Internet shutdowns undermine or eliminate access to digital tools that are critical for campaigning, promoting public discussion, and overseeing the electoral process.

Decoding the Editorial

The article highlights that the absence of specific data or instances of violence being prevented due to the Internet shutdown raises concerns about its effectiveness and whether it is being used as a tool to suppress information and control the narrative surrounding the events in Manipur.

  • Internet Shutdown in Manipur: The state of Manipur experienced a blanket internet shutdown that affected all web traffic and mediums of connectivity. This shutdown was first enforced on May 3 and has continued for a prolonged period, with fresh orders being passed regularly, potentially making it indefinite.
  • Vague Justification: The orders issued for the Internet shutdown use vague language, citing reasons such as thwarting the activities of anti-national and anti-social elements and stopping the spread of disinformation and false rumours on social media platforms. However, there is no specific data or evidence presented to show that this shutdown has prevented violence or other disruptions.
  • Compliance with Supreme Court Judgment: The article mentions the reported judgement of the Supreme Court of India in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, which failed to adjudicate on any specific Internet shutdown order. The Court’s decision only directed state/competent authorities to review all orders suspending internet services but did not lead to immediate restoration or implementation of transparency measures.
  • Limited Internet Shutdowns: The High Court of Manipur has been dealing with petitions challenging the Internet shutdown orders. It has attempted to assess the possibility of providing limited usage of internet service to the public, which some argue is constitutionally incongruent with a proper judicial review of the legality of the impugned orders.
  • Impact on the People of Manipur: Reports have emerged during the period of the Internet shutdown, documenting the negative effects on the people of Manipur. The news ranges from students facing financial difficulties while pursuing education in metropolitan cities to residents being unable to apply for evacuation to relief camps.
  • Flexibility for Limited Internet Shutdowns: The cases and the joint report by Human Rights Watch and the Internet Freedom Foundation suggest that the Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India case has carved out greater flexibility for “limited internet shutdowns.” In such cases, access may be restricted to government websites, localised e-banking facilities, hospitals services, and other essential services in regions where immediate restoration of internet services is not likely.

Judicial Response:

  • High Court’s Response:
    • The High Court of Manipur has taken action in line with judicial doctrine and practices by issuing an order that provides provisional access to certain categories of internet services, such as leased lines primarily used by public departments and corporate offices, and wired line services with specific restrictions and monitoring.
    • However, there are no clear definitions on terms like “social media,” and the ban on internet access through smartphones continues, effectively maintaining an internet ban in Manipur.
  • Supreme Court’s Response:
    • The response of the Supreme Court regarding the internet shutdown in Manipur has been one of judicial avoidance.
    • The Supreme Court had two opportunities to adjudicate the matter, but it did not do so.
    • It is peculiar as the Supreme Court is already examining a broader issue regarding violence in Dinganglung Gangmei vs Mutum Churamani Meetei, where internet shutdowns are an inherent element.
  • Internet Shutdown as a Security Measure:
    • The State government has cited the internet suspension as a security measure in its Status Report before the Supreme Court.
    • The Chief Minister, in a media interview on July 20, 2020, also mentioned that there are hundreds of similar cases justifying the internet shutdown in the state.
  • Lack of Clarity: There is a lack of clarity in terms of defining certain terms like “social media,” and the article suggests that the internet ban in Manipur still effectively continues despite the High Court’s partial restoration order.

Importance of Information Flow:

  • Internet Ban and Misinformation: The article emphasizes that during an internet ban, misinformation tends to spread rather than decrease. It points to a press report that highlights how disinformation served as a pretext for sexual violence against Kuki-Zo women in Manipur.
  • Vital Moment for National Awakening: The video clip depicting sexual violence in Manipur is seen as a crucial moment for the nation to awaken to the seriousness of the situation. However, the article stresses the importance of achieving this awakening without causing further reputational and social harm to survivors of sexual violence and without promoting communal hatred.
  • Importance of Information Flows: Information flows are essential for ensuring accountability of the State and central governments in addressing the issues in Manipur, including pursuing truth, justice, and reconciliation.
  • Need for Judicial Accountability: The excerpt suggests that accountability can only be achieved when the courts improve on the precedent set in the Anuradha Bhasin case and demand accountability from the State and central executive in handling the situation in Manipur.
  • Voices of Manipur: The excerpt emphasizes the importance of hearing and considering the voices of the people of Manipur to understand the propriety of the Internet shutdown and its role in the perceived national apathy towards the situation in the state.

Beyond the Editorial

Way Forward:

  • Parliamentary panel recommendations on internet shutdowns: The Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology report on “Suspension of Telecom Services and Internet and its impact” has recommended-
    • Asked the DoT to lay down a clear-cut principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting of shutdown in coordination with the home ministry.
    • Rejected the logic of the DoT and MHA for not maintaining the record of the shutdown, saying it cannot simply take the plea that police and public order are essentially state subjects.
    • A centralized database of all internet shutdowns can be maintained either by DoT or MHA.
    • DoT should expand the review committees under the Telecom Suspension Rules, 2017.
    • A study should be commissioned by the government to assess the impact of the internet shutdown on the economy.
  • Improving digital literacy: Efforts to enhance digital media literacy should be expanded, and international partners should invest in providing access to basic digital security skills.
  • Role of internet companies: Internet companies should collaborate with government and civil society to prevent disruptions caused by shutdowns.
  • Defining terms like ‘public emergency’: Clear definitions should be established for terms like ‘public emergency’ to prevent their misuse without valid justification.

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