We Can’t Look Away From Internet Shutdowns in Manipur

Internet shutdowns take away our right to information and allow the government to continue to behave in authoritarian ways.

India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.

Manipur is going through internal disturbance and ethnic conflict over the last 2.5 months, and we as the people of India failed to demand accountability from our institutions to protect the fundamental rights of Manipuris. A large section of the Indian population is unaware of the scale of violence in Manipur because of the internet shutdowns and media censorship. After the video of Kuki women being paraded naked went viral 78 days after the incident, the government’s first course of action seems to be asking Twitter to censor the videos.

One of the reasons provided to shut down the internet is to stop the spread the fake news and incidents of violence that may further fuel the violence. It was indeed fake news that led towards violence towards women in the state. But internet shutdowns do not address that issue at all. The only way to solve the fake news problem is to allow real news without censorship to be promoted. Internet shutdowns stop this by censoring critical news and allow fake news to spread continuously.

Democracy needs information to function; a shocking video has made every government functionary suddenly wake up. Internet shutdowns kill democracy by limiting access to this vital information. This was the effect of one single video; imagine what happens when there is a flood of them. Shutting down the internet doesn’t stop this violence, it only stops us knowing about this violence. Internet shutdowns take away our right to information and allow the government to continue to behave in authoritarian ways.

The violence in Manipur needs to be controlled at large, but what is being controlled is the information about Manipur. The Government of India and Manipur are both equally responsible in the active censorship of media and internet in the state. This has only helped the executive to go unchecked. Even now, statements from the police in Manipur are not credible, given that police officials themselves have been charged with deserting their duties and looting weapons.

Internet shutdowns in conflict regions as a temporary solution for one or two days may stop spreading viral information, but long-term shutdowns simply make it hard for actual news to be reported. The government in Manipur is violating all forms of established democratic norms and is functioning as a wartime state. It probably has no interest in fixing the current situation and will not address this issue either.

Also read: Manipur Is Further Proof That Internet Shutdowns Do More Harm than Good

Internet shutdowns were declared a violation of the freedom of expression in Anuradha Basin Vs Union of India by the Supreme Court of India. Yet, the court has been silent on the continuous violation of its own judgements. There has already been a judgement by the High Court of Manipur to restore the internet in a limited fashion. The home ministry of Manipur disagreed with complete restoration of fibre internet and has requested time to do pilots of some kind. The court is expected to hear this matter on July 25 again.

Restoring the internet won’t be an easy task in the hills, where the Kuki tribes primarily live because of lack of infrastructure. A report from “The Bachchao Project” mentions lack of private telecom towers and an unmaintained BSNL tower in a Kuki village. The Government of India will have to actively start rebuilding infrastructure and that is probably going to take more time even after the violence is controlled.

Even when temporary internet access is restored, potentially to a few media houses with fibre connections, it will be restored in a phase-wise manner. As submitted by the expert technical committee to the High Court of Manipur, the following conditions are to be implemented:

“Safeguards for Broadband Connections: Internet service through broadband connections, including Internet Lease Line (ILL) and Fibre To The Home (FTTH), can be provided with certain safeguards in place. These safeguards include dedicated leased lines or FTTH lines with static IP, banning of Wi-Fi/hotspots, MAC binding at the system level or router, blocking of social media websites and VPNs, removal of existing VPN software, and prohibiting installation of new software without authorization. Physical monitoring by the concerned authorities is also enforced.”

This is not access to the internet, this is more censorship than access. The state wants to monitor computers and if they have any form of VPN or unauthorised software, to see what people are doing physically by visiting them.

Also read: Narendra Modi Talked About the Manipur Violence. But Did He Really?

This form of censorship is not helping stop the violence and is only helping the state control narratives of there being no problem in Manipur. Manipur needs a lot of sunlight, the world needs to watch what is happening in Manipur for any potential political solution to emerge. This can’t happen with the internet being shut down. I hope there will be pressure from opposition political parties on the Government of India to restore internet in Manipur.

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.