The Manipur incident raises questions about the Centre’s Internet shutdown rules, say internet activists. The video of the crime against the two women from the minority Kuki community emerged nearly 70 days after the incident because the internet services have been suspended for more than two months in the north eastern state.
On Wednesday night, a horrific video showing two Kuki tribal women being paraded naked by the majority Meitei mob went viral. While the incident took place on May 4, at the start of violence in the State, word of the incident has spread after a two month delay, renewing the nation’s attention to the ongoing ethnic clash in Manipur.
The shutdown’s failure to prevent ethnic violence as well as prevent afflicted individuals and communities from seeking any recourse, make civil society question the Centre’s constant reliance on suspension on internet to maintain law and order in conflict regions.
Highest number of shutdowns
According to the Surfshark Internet Tracker, data from the first half of this year shows that India has nearly caught up to the restrictions observed in all of 2022. India also has the second highestnumber of shutdowns after Iran according to the report.
While the Centre usually contends that internet shutdowns in areas of conflict prevent the spreading of misinformation and thus prevent violence, Radhika Roy, Associate Legal Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation countered, “If you read the internet shutdown orders, the purpose of the shutdown is to ensure tranquility and communal harmony in the State. This has clearly not been the case in Manipur. What has happened on the contrary is that the Centre has evaded accountability and the affected women were unable to seek any recourse. While the perpetrators are being caught now, and functionaries are speaking against the matter, this comes after two months of silence.”
It is only through investigations by certain media outlets and the perpetration of this video, that the women affected by this incident were able to speak up, and the first arrest has been made. However, the internet shutdown has likely prevented many more people in Manipur from seeking any justice through legal or media recourse. Activists that businessline spoke with also mentioned that lawyers in Manipur were having trouble gaining access to cause lists in the Manipur High Court, or seek help from counsel outside the state due to suspended internet services.
‘No efficient guardrails’
Mishi Choudhary a technology lawyer and online civil liberties activist working in the United States and India also added that blanket internet shutdowns by the Centre only exacerbate a conflict situation. Moreover, the Indian Courts have also not been efficient guardrails against the Centre’s proclivity to shut down the Internet. She explained, “After the Bhasin Judgment, the courts have not been as forceful as they should have been and deferred to the vague statements of the state about law and order. A blanket shutdown only exacerbates the situation and as it incentivises disorganised acts of violence and punishes the entire society.”
The Manipur High Court has asked for a phased rollout of FTTH and leased line internet services after almost two months of suspension of net connectivity in the State.
The shutdown of internet services in Manipur might also have suppressed the voices of the minority Kuki community in the State. Chinmayi, a Digital Rights Researcher explained to businessline, “During the first month of the internet shutdown, the State only shut down mobile internet services. For the Kuki community, which resides in the hills, mobile is the sole way to access the internet, as fixe line broadband services are few and far between. This means that during the first month of the violence, the prevailing narrative was largely coming from the Meitei side (which is the majority).”